A Meditation Exercise For People Who Simply Cannot 'Quiet' Their Minds

Photo: Rob & Julia Campbell

In a warp-speed world, it can be difficult to entertain even the thought of slowing down for a meditation. The following mindfulness exercise, excerpted from The Art of Breathing: The Secret to Living Mindfully by Danny Penman, Ph.D., is an “insight meditation” that helps particularly distractible folks settle into themselves.

For thousands of years, people have used a simple breathing meditation to enhance spirituality and understand our place in the universe. This insight meditation also enhances creativity and clarity of thought while promoting a sense of peace and well-being. It encourages a sense of wonder, of awe, of curiosity—the foundations of a happier and more meaningful life—without a feeling of constriction, frustration, or shame that too often comes alongside trying meditation for the first time (or the thousandth).

The insight technique works because it soothes the inner critic and allows your true self to bubble through to the surface. It gives you the courage to accept yourself with all of your faults and failings, to treat yourself with the kindness, empathy, and compassion you truly need so you can eventually look outward and embrace the world. Here's how:

1. Pay attention to the sounds around you.

Sit. Close your eyes and tune into the world around you, becoming aware of the space around you. You might hear some noise. Whatever is there, pay attention to the sounds for a few moments. Instead of blocking them, hear them and then let them go.

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2. Do a mental body scan.

Build a picture of how your body feels, beginning with your feet. Pay attention to both feet simultaneously for a few moments. Tune into the sensations, then move your attention to the ankles, the lower legs, knees, upper legs, hips, and pelvis.

Take your time. There’s no rush. Move your attention to both hands, arms, shoulders, neck, head, face, nose, and lips. Soak everything up, in turn, over a minute or so.

3. Follow your own breath.

Pay attention to the movement of your breath in your body—follow it all the way in and all the way out. Don’t try to change anything; just feel its natural, flowing rhythm.

4. Don't block intruding thoughts—see them, acknowledge them, and move on.

When you realize that your mind has wandered, watch the thoughts themselves. It doesn’t matter whether they’re in the form of words or pictures, simply pay attention for a few moments and then return to the breath.

After a couple of minutes, shift your awareness to any thoughts or emotions passing through your mind. These thoughts and emotions—and the gaps in between them—will now become the focus of the meditation.

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5. Allow the mind to roam free, but stay aware of your thoughts.

Don’t force any thoughts to appear in your mind; simply wait patiently for them to arrive. Let the mind be completely free—free from any control or expectation. Try to become aware of the moment that thoughts first appear, then watch them for a few moments. Notice how they rise and fall, how one thought triggers the next and the next.

6. Turn on your noticing brain.

Notice how thoughts tend to melt away when you stop reacting to them, when you stop judging or criticizing them. Notice what happens when your thoughts momentarily stop; try to gain a sense of what it feels like; try to gain a sense of what the absence of thoughts feels like.

It might feel like a place of pure tranquillity, or it might feel like an emptiness or perhaps of something vast just beyond your grasp. Whatever it seems like, simply wait as if you’re sitting on the edge of a vast pool. Waiting. Patiently...

7. Keep shifting your attention back to the breath when your mind wanders.

After a while you’ll realize that your mind has wandered away with itself again. When you do so, gently shift your attention back to the breath, and after a few breaths, begin waiting patiently for another thought or emotion to appear.

You may run through this cycle of mind wandering and refocusing countless times. It doesn’t matter. What matters is paying attention to your mind with all of its to-ings and fro-ings.

After 10 minutes or so, gradually begin to shift your attention to the world around you, becoming aware of the space around you. Open your eyes. Begin to move. See if you can maintain the essence of this clearsighted awareness as you move through your day.

The insight meditation works best if you practice regularly. Ten or 20 minutes a day, four or five days a week is sufficient.

Adapted and reprinted with permission from Conari Press, an imprint of Red Wheel/Weiser, The Art of Breathing by Danny Penman, Ph.D., is available wherever books and e-books are sold.

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