The Psychology of Mindfulness Meditation

A Glimpse Into How Mindfulness Meditation Works

by Joan Kaplan, MA, LMT

Published in Natural Awakenings: Healthy Living, Sarasota, Florida

Why meditate? What will it do for me? These are questions often asked by people who are thinking about starting a meditation practice. Even for those of us who have practiced for a long time, it is always helpful to be reminded of why we practice. Why is it even called, “practice”?

In contemplative psychology we are taught that everything is dependent upon the condition of the mind; that we create and re-create our world and our personal happiness or unhappiness because of the condition of our minds. It (the mind) has been likened to an AM radio that is constantly churning out noise. There is never quiet; never a space. And most often, it is playing the same story over and over. Think about it. Can you identify a certain theme that is played over and over, ad infinitum in your mind? These themes are so close to us that we cannot separate ourselves enough to even notice them. The tapes play unconsciously – which is the nature of habit, which is the nature of mind. This activity is of course different from the clear, directed activity of the intellect or the inspiration of the creative process. We can learn to discipline ourselves to use our minds effectively, instead of being driven by the energy and speed of an untamed mind.

Mindfulness meditation practice creates a space; a space in the mind.; a possibility for something fresh, clean, new. A possibility for something that is not habit. It is taught that we all have certain habitual patterns of the mind, or psychological tendencies. They are the result of many complex factors including experiences from childhood, karmic tendencies, etc. It is difficult to become aware of and understand these habitual patterns of thought, since we are constantly so absorbed in them. The energy of the mind moves with speed. The only way to step out of its habitual nature is to quiet it; make it still. This is what meditation practice does. The more we “practice”, the more spacious our minds become and the more able we become to naturally be aware in the present moment. If fear arises, we see it, identify it, and return to the breath. As long as we are alive we can return to the breath. It is our anchor.

The analogy is often used in the Eastern traditions of a muddy glass of water. When the water is stirred the whole glass is filled with muddy water. The clarity of the water is obscured. If we set the glass down and let it sit still for awhile the mud settles to the bottom. When this happens the purity and clarity of the water can be seen. The nature of our minds is described in the same way. It is constantly stirring up habitual thought patterns and this clouds our experience. Instead of meeting new situations with a mind that is clear and open, we relate to our world through our own projections. When we sit quietly, and practice creating space between thoughts, as in meditation, we gradually learn how to let the mind settle. It is then that we can begin to see and experience with clarity the world around us, and to see clearly the habitual tendencies of our own minds. It is only by doing this that we have the opportunity to relate to our worlds and ourselves from a fresh, clear space.

In this model, rather than replacing “bad” thoughts with “good” thoughts, we are simply noticing thoughts. There is a depth, and a brilliance and a power that lies in-between your thoughts. It is in this space of being mindful that you can glimpse your authentic being.

Having a clear technique to work with in meditation is extremely important. The mind will not stop churning out thoughts, but we can learn to not attach ourselves to the thoughts and make them real. It is said that it is the nature of the mind to have thought, just as it is the nature of the sea to have waves. Waves arise and disappear back into the sea. So it should be with your thoughts. Meditation is a wonderful tool for developing a clear mind, a relaxed body, and a steady psychological foundation from which to work and live.

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