I am seated comfortably in my sunroom, feet flat on the floor, spine straight but not stiff, gaze lowered. Nobody is home, it's quiet, and I am ready.
A soft voice—male, British, smooth—fills the room with gentle instruction, a laptop Hal of soothing reassurance. He's telling me to take in "any and all sensations, moment by moment" that I feel in my feet. I register the nubby texture of the rug, a slight numbness in my left toes. This is easy. I can do this. My eyes rest on a dark smear by the window, where the pane meets the sill. Could be mold. Is moisture getting in? How old are these windows?—Twenty years at least. Yeah, Karl was learning to walk…. Crap. Meditation is hard.
A Thinking Person's Guide to Not Thinking
From flirting strategies to irregular moles to nagging deadlines and tuition bills and squeaky brakes and, now, window mold, my mind has been busy-busy-busy for decades. That busyness has kept me awake when I wanted to sleep, distracted when I wanted to focus, off somewhere else when I just wanted to be where I was—with my family, at my job, with my friends. Yes, I'd love to free myself from that 24-7 onslaught of thought.
Quieting minds is Mark Williams's specialty. Williams, a clinical psychologist at the University of Oxford, wrote the script for the audio file I'm listening to, a Web supplement to his book Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World, written with Danny Penman. His prescription—for a better mood, a quieter mind, and a more productive life—is "mindfulness meditation."
At least since the Beatles returned from India, meditation has been a serious field of research, one that has yielded measurable results. A study from the University of North Carolina found that after a nine-week course, people had an increased sense of purpose and fewer feelings of isolation (yeah, yeah) but also fewer headaches and less congestion. In another study, University of Wisconsin scientists found that people who'd meditated produced more antibodies in reaction to a flu vaccine than a control group did. "The flu vaccine was working better in folks who'd done eight weeks of mindfulness meditation," Williams says.
Richard Davidson, Ph.D., and his colleagues at the University of Wisconsin looked at people's brains, too, using EEGs. When we're angry or anxious, our right prefrontal cortex lights up with electrical activity more than the left side. The left side turns on its party lights when we're happy and energetic. So Davidson could look at your EEG, check the right-to-left ratio, and call your mood.
When Davidson and Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., of the University of Massachusetts medical school, put some biotech workers on an eight-week course in meditation, the workers' prefrontal cortex ratios shifted to the upbeat left. Even when the researchers tried to make them sad with depressing music or photos, brain scans indicated that the workers "approached" the sadness, dealt with it, and moved on instead of dwelling on it. The workers claimed they were happier and less anxious, and the EEGs bore this out.
"Even relatively short amounts of practice— two months—are sufficient to produce a measurable change in brain function," Davidson says. "Those changes in brain function are associated with changes in behavior that are beneficial, such as decreased anxiety and increased well-being, and with changes in certain peripheral biological measures—that is, biology below the neck that may be helpful for health."
But the true promise of the program is the ability to silence the noise inside your head so you can focus on and enjoy your life. In Mindfulness, Williams offers a simple, practical path of small steps, starting with sitting and breathing and mild stretching. Other tentative steps, like sitting in a different chair for breakfast, induce a tug of awakening. This "habit release" is a gentle way of making you look at things in a new way, literally and figuratively.
Training the Brain to Think Better
The idea is that paying attention to your body and your immediate surroundings—instead of to all the crap swirling around your brain—has restorative power. Williams's explanation that thoughts aren't reality triggered my inner eye roll. Wow, man.
But damn if it didn't start to make sense. For example, my nighttime thoughts about a work deadline or broken dishwasher were just that—thoughts. But my breathing, this bedsheet, that toe, were real. Focus on those real sensations, he says, and the abstract thoughts about things that have happened and things that might happen can't find purchase. And the mind rests.
"A lot of people have the idea that meditation is about clearing the mind," Williams says. It's not; it's about seeing things more clearly. "If we gradually begin to recognize the old pattern of mind—those distractions coming up—we begin to see the old habits of mind. And we begin to take these things less seriously." It's okay if the mold under the windowsill works its way into my thinking; the point is not to empty my mind "but to acknowledge the thoughts, let them come and go like clouds in the sky, and allow the physical sensations—breath, touch, awareness of the body"—to return.
I tell Williams that passages in his book reminded me of being a little kid, lying in the backyard, staring at a blade of grass, mind essentially empty of thought. There were those times growing up when you could see images in the clouds without them reminding you of something you had to accomplish.
"I think you've discovered it," Williams says. "When we meditate, we're not learning something new; we're actually getting out of our own way to recapture something we have within us."
1. Sit erect in a straight-backed chair.
Your feet can be flat on the floor. Close your eyes or lower your gaze.
2. Focus your attention on your breath.
Try to stay in touch with the different sensations of each in-breath and out-breath. Observe the breath without looking for anything special to happen. There is no need to alter your breathing in any way.
3. After a while your mind may wander.
When you notice this, gently bring your attention back to your breath, without giving yourself a hard time; the act of realizing that your mind has wandered and bringing your attention back without criticizing yourself is central to the practice of mindfulness meditation.
4. Your mind may soon become calm.
Even if you do get a sense of absolute stillness, it may only be fleeting. If you feel angry or exasperated, notice that this may be fleeting too. Whatever happens, just allow it to be as it is.
5. After a minute, let your eyes open…
…and take in the room again.