It’s widely accepted that America’s first contact with “mindfulness” came in the form of a speech given by Indian guru Swami Vivekananda to the World Conference on Religions held in Chicago in 1893. Vivekananda was on a mission to bring the spiritual practices of his homeland to America—and he succeeded. His speech sparked an interest in Eastern spirituality in the minds of Americans, and between the 1920s and the late 1950s, dozens of books and pamphlets were published on the lives and feats of Indian yogis and gurus. Some touched on the practice of meditation, some on the practice of asana (yoga postures), but it wasn’t until Richard Hittleman’s books in the late 1960s and his groundbreaking 1970 television show “Yoga for Health” that yoga and mindfulness practices caught fire and swept across the U.S.
The positive effect of yoga and meditation on the lives of millions of Americans was impossible to ignore. In the 1970s, Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a researcher at the University of Massachusetts, began a scientific study of these techniques, which he later integrated into a system he called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). Now, MBSR—or mindfulness practice, as it’s also known—is in use by addiction treatment centers, addiction therapists and addiction experts across the world.
This article presents a simple introductory to seated meditation exercise. It’s perfect for beginners, and requires no previous knowledge of yoga or meditation. This exercise takes 10 to 15 minutes, and can be used in a variety of contexts:
- In the morning, to start your day
- At midday, to center yourself
- In the evening, to calm your mind before bed
- To clear the mind before journaling for step work, if you’re in a 12-step program
Seated Meditation: Clearing the Mind
How to do it:
- Great news! You don’t have to sit cross-legged on the floor. You can if you want to, but what matters most is that you are totally, 100 percent at ease, with no physical discomfort.
- Find a chair that allows you to sit easily upright, with your spine as straight as you can get it. Not stiff, just upright. Your knees should be at about the same height as your hips, or better yet, a little lower. You should be sitting on your sit-bones, not leaning back on your buttocks.
- Roll your shoulders; loosen up your neck; do an easy stretch—whatever feels right. When you’re ready, place your palms, facing down, on your knees or thighs.
- Close your eyes, and begin to pay attention to your breathing. Take a few big, deep breaths. Breathe in through your nose, expanding your chest as fully as you can, and exhale through your mouth. Each time you inhale, you’ll gain length in your spine—as you exhale, try to keep this length, while staying relaxed. Take four or five breaths like this: big inhalations through your nose, expanding your chest, big exhalations through your mouth.
- Now, change your breath. As you inhale, allow your lower abdomen to expand, and as you exhale, allow it to contract. Breathe like this until you get the hang of it—it shouldn’t take more than five or six breaths—it will quickly feel natural. This is called belly breathing, and it’s the style of breathing most commonly found in meditation.
- Once you get used to breathing like this, start to count as you inhale and exhale. Inhale on a slow four-count, and exhale on a slow four-count. Do this until you are comfortable controlling your inhalations and exhalations. You may inhale and exhale on counts greater than four, but not less. Start with four; if that’s difficult, make it your goal.
- Now that you’re used to sitting still and controlling your breath, it’s time to really start the exercise, which is called “The 10-Breath Practice.” The goal is to keep your mind focused fully on your breathing for 10 breaths, and the way it’s accomplished is by giving the mind something to focus on while you breathe. If your mind wanders, it does not matter—all that matters is that you bring it back to the exercise. It does not matter how many times it wanders. Every time, just call it back, gently and peacefully. Ready? Here we go.
- As you inhale and exhale evenly on a four-count—four slow counts in, four slow counts out—imagine the number “1” as a picture in your mind. Personalize your picture: it can be a simple number on a blackboard, like in grade school, it can be a bright, colorful, flashing, neon sign, it can be a cartoon, it can be drawn with a Sharpie on a piece of poster board, it can be crayon on construction paper, or it can be an elaborate painting hanging on a wall in a museum. The sky is the limit, and it’s all up to you. All that matters is that you see the number “1” in your mind, some way, somehow.
- Repeat this process for the numbers “2” through “10.” Remember: If your mind wanders, it does not matter—all that matters is that you bring it back to the exercise. It does not matter how many times it wanders. Every time, just call it back, gently and peacefully, to the number where you left off.
- When you finish your exhalation after the number “10,” take a moment to sit still. Slowly, at your own pace, open your eyes, and let your breathing return to whatever feels natural. Do a quick mental inventory: how does your mind feel? Do a quick physical inventory: how does your body feel? Do an easy stretch, like you did at the beginning of the exercise.
Benefits of Mindfulness
Congratulations! You’ve just finished a practice that has been scientifically proven as an effective strategy in the treatment of the effects of stress, anxiety and depression. If it was challenging for you, don’t worry—the important thing is that you did it. Here’s a secret: almost no one can actually focus only on his or her breathing for 10 breaths. In fact, there’s an old saying:
“One who can breathe 10 times without the mind wandering has achieved enlightenment.”
So, if your mind went away for a little while, don’t sweat it. Use this exercise in your recovery, whenever you want to clear your mind, calm your emotions and center yourself. And remember: sometimes recovery is not just one day at a time, or even one step at a time—sometimes it’s as simple as taking one breath at a time.