Mindfulness is forging a wide road into the treatment of mental health in the United States today. It stems from the Buddhist practice of meditation where one non-judgmentally focuses on the present moment, paying conscious attention to the breath. Forms of meditation are found in most of the world’s religions, often termed “prayer.”
The physical practice of mindfulness can take many shapes. Most often it involves sitting cross-legged on the floor with a straight posture. This can be alone or with a group of people silently or vocally guided, with eyes downward cast or closed, hands resting on knees. One takes slow inhalations and exhalations, emptying the consciousness of all other things for the purpose of attaining mental balance, gratitude and an open heart. Other common ways to employ mindfulness are through attention to the process of walking, or doing the dishes, or some other solitary task. Some seemingly mundane chores can be transformed into exercises towards enlightenment when one pays attention to each movement of the leg, foot, arm, hand.
It is extremely human and inevitable that the mind will wander onto thoughts of other things, perhaps even be flooded with memories, worries, or emotions. The goal is to simply return to an awareness of the breathing and its orbit into and out of the lungs. The result is that one can feel less anxiety, less suffering, and often there is a feeling of joy, peace, happiness, and a greater calm. The aim is to ease the tide of our thoughts, leaving room for a clearer, more generous reality.
The applications of mindfulness for the psychiatric survivor community are revolutionary. It has brilliant, positive effects. Many people use medication and meditation in tandem to work their recovery. I have found this to be very useful. I do not endorse replacing medication with meditation, as this could be very harmful. However, developing a mindfulness practice has far-reaching proven effectiveness on the reduction of symptoms for many things including anxiety, panic, depression, bi-polar and even schizophrenia.
When I practice, I refer to it as “emptying silence.” I often begin my sit with a “loud” internal ecosystem, like perhaps a windstorm or a tsunami is happening within my mind and I sometimes feel physically agitated. I may be hearing loud thoughts or feeling uncomfortable out in the world. I may be feeling frustrated with the daily battle of fighting my symptoms, always in search of alleviation. Maybe I don’t even think I have the energy to meditate or engage in mindfulness. Some days, I can’t do it. I am too overwhelmed with data, symptoms, poverty of spirit. But on the days that I can, most likely these are the days when I have a good balance of alone time and time spent with others, I come to realize that sitting for those ten – 45 minutes is the brightest thing I could do for my health and wellbeing. If a day or two goes by and I have not formally practiced mindfulness I miss it. When I do return to it it feels like embracing an old friend.
What I do is slowly put myself into the correct posture of sitting and begin with a straightened back. I personally have to put sandbags under my cross-legged knees or else my legs will fall asleep (this is the case when I sit for more than 20 minutes or so.) When I get a loud thought or an interruption in my quest for internal quiet, I bring my attention to the breath, often finding that I am breathing in a shallow manner. I correct this with a deep and slow inhalation and exhalation. I find refuge in the knowledge that when I sit I am not to enter into the tangle of thought, rather, I am free to “empty the silence” and create a disarming, unobtrusive internal environment. The result is that I feel calmer and happier. Especially when I practice with a group I often feel a loving kind of joy. It always feels like an emotional and spiritual accomplishment of great measure.
The Buddha said, “Our sorrows and wounds are healed only when we touch them with compassion.” People with lived experience of extreme states can use meditation to tend to the places that hurt us inside. Our outlooks can become broader and less destructive and painful. With practice, healing waits to be embraced like the butterfly embraces the breeze.
*Some recommended reading: How to Practice; The Way to a Meaningful Life, By the Dalai Lama; The Miracle of Mindfulness, by Thich Nhat Hahn; Be Here Now, by Ram Daas; Wherever You Go, There You Are, by Jon Kabat-Zinn.