This is a serialisation of a guide to meditation for programmers that I first posted over at CodingMindfully.com. If you can't wait for the full series to be published, head on over and download your free PDF copy!
Applying the Standard Meditation Algorithm
Let’s revisit the Standard Meditation Algorithm that we defined in part 2. Pay particular attention to steps 2 and three as we’ll get into them in depth here.
Set aside some time in your day to intentionally practice meditation - typically 10-25 minutes is about right;
- Deliberately relax the body;
- Direct your attention at something - typically we use the breath, or the sensations coming from the body, but there are many other options - we’ll go into this in depth below;
- Watch how the mind quite naturally resists staying focused (it's crazy in there some days) - it WILL wander, this is 100% expected and you will notice it happening;
- Restore your attention as the mind wanders - maybe ten times, maybe a hundred, maybe a thousand! The number really doesn’t matter - as long as you remember to redirect your attention back to your meditation from time to time you are meditating 100% correctly;
- When you emerge from your session, check in with yourself and notice what’s emerged as a result.
We’ll discuss instruction 2 - relaxation - in the next section. We’ve already given attention to instructions 4 and 5 (what to do about thoughts and distraction) above.
Instructions 3 tells us to direct our attention at something. We need to consider what that something should be. Let’s call this something the “anchor” point for the meditation - the place where you’re going to rest your attention for the duration of the meditation itself.
The ideal anchor point should have the following characteristics:
- It should be easy to bring into awareness;
- It should always be a part of your present moment experience;
Here’s a list of things that, to my mind, meet the criteria. You can choose any one or even a combination of each to be the anchor point for a given meditation session.
- The feeling of the breath;
- The physical sensations in the body;
- The senses - sight, sound, touch, hearing, smell;
- The emotional tone - how you are feeling;
- The state of the mind - what and how you are thinking
It’s easy to verify that each of these meet the criteria above. Simply take a moment, close your eyes and tune in - notice your breath, notice your body, savour what’s on offer from your senses, observe how you are feeling and check the state of your mind - you’ll very quickly be able to connect with each, if only for a moment.
The first and second of these are extremely common anchor points for attention. Pretty much every meditation tradition that has ever existed has included a variation of each of these. For that reason, we’ll concentrate on these for the rest of this guide, and leave the others for a later time.
Relaxing the body
A good meditation session starts by bringing some relaxation to the physical body. As we go about our day, our stress response is continuously activated, which can if left unchecked lead to a body that carries too much tension.
This often shows up as physical aches and pains (think tense shoulders). Chronic stress leads to muscle fatigue or high blood pressure.
Here are a couple of great ways to relax the body.
- Taking several deeper than normal breaths – the video in the introduction section gives very clear instructions on how to do this (the link is here if you need it), or follow along below;
- Deliberately relax any stuck spots.
One of the signs of a calm, relaxed nervous system is slow, deep breathing.
One of the quickest ways to create a calm nervous system is to practice slow, deep breathing. It’s a wonderful hack that I often use to reset myself when I notice my stress levels have spiked.
It’s pretty easy to do. Place a hand on your belly and another on your chest.
When stressed, our breath is often (1) shallow (2) fast.
Notice how your breath is right now - if it’s shallow, you’ll feel the hand on your chest moving noticeably.
- To calm the breath, start to breathe so that you notice the hand on your belly moving more than the hand on your chest. Direct the breath into the belly (it might take a few goes to get the hang of it).
- Start to slow the breath down, and even it out so the inhale is about the same length as the exhale. You can do this by mentally counting to four as you inhale, then again as you exhale. Maintain the breath in the belly as you do this.
About ten rounds of this type of breathing is often enough to noticeably relax the body. If you take one practice away from reading this guide, let this be it. Practice it a few times a day for a week and see the difference in your overall stress levels, and your focus!
The body doesn’t necessarily want or need to be tense. Tension and stress are meant to be short term states, from which the body and mind are meant to return.
The body has in-built mechanisms for returning to its equilibrium point. Many people find that simply taking moment to feel into the body to observe where the most obvious tension is located, and mentally inviting those points to relax, can be a great way to shed tension.
Sometimes it helps to direct a breath into that space while holding the attention there.
In cases of more significant stress or tension, it can help to deliberately tense and release each area of the body. For example, tightly shrugging the shoulders, or clenching and releasing the fists, can be a great way of relaxing tension.
Meditating with the breath
Breathing is the most automatic thing we do. It’s the most fundamental action of our body that keeps us alive. Yet we often give it little more than passing thought during our day-to-day lives. Developing an awareness of the breath is a wonderfully simple way to help build awareness; to learn to let go of an overactive mind.
The simplest observation you can make about the breath is that it is always happening.
While we live, we breathe. When we cease to breathe, we cease to live.
So please keep breathing!
This makes the breath an excellent anchor to the present moment. We’ve previously discussed how anchoring to the present moment is a natural antidote to the past/future orientation of the wandering mind. To recap:
- Your mind loves to live in the past and the future, dwelling and predicting;
- We can get very caught up in this type of thinking, which often contributes to stress and anxiety, as well as preventing us from enjoying the richness of the present moment;
- When we practice focusing our attention on an anchor, we can begin to let go of the activity of our minds and regain a sense of what’s going on right now.
The breath has a number of distinct advantages as an anchor:
- It is happening right now, which means it is entirely about the present moment
- It is always there, meaning we can always return our attention to it;
- It happens in the body, allowing us to begin to develop awareness of our body (see next section on meditating with the body
The beautiful thing about breathing meditation is that you can use it at any time, or anywhere. It is a simple practice that you can bring into your daily life, for use in any situation where you might feel stressed, anxious or out of control.
Breathing is an extremely physical activity, involving the expansion of your entire torso to receive the fresh air that nourishes us and keeps us alive. When you stop to consider your breath, the depth and variety it contains can surprise you.
Take a few deep breaths right now with the following in mind:
- The air as it hits the back of your nostrils. Is it cooler on the way in? Warmer on the way out? What speed is it moving at?
- The movement of air through the throat;
- The expansion of the chest cavity in preparation to receive the air;
- Movement in your belly associated with the expansion of your chest;
- A moment of stillness at the end of each in-breath and each out-breath, where the body lies poised, ready to inhale or exhale.
You might also like to examine other qualities of the breath, such as speed, depth, tension/relaxation and so on. Do you feel the energy in your body change at the end of each breath?
I’m sure that when you slow things down, and start to savour the breath in this manner, you’ll find that there is a richness to your breathing that you may not have noticed before. Every breath is both vital and different.
How “should” my breathing be?
People often have a preconceived idea that their breath “should” be a certain way while meditating. Whenever you find yourself using the word “should” when thinking about meditation, it is a warning sign.
Meditation effectively is mostly about building awareness of the world as it is now, rather than struggling to shape it into some state that you think it “should” be.
In mindfulness meditation, the same principle applies to the breath – it “should” be however it is right now. Fast, slow, deep, shallow, tense, relaxed – whatever it is right now. Chances are, how your breath is right now is not how it will be in five minutes time!
The breath quite often slows and deepens as we become more practiced at meditation and you may notice that this happens even within one meditation session. But be curious about its variety and how it changes. Apply the same principle of curiosity to your breathing meditation as you did to your body meditation.
How naturally in touch with your breathing are you? Is it something you notice every day? Or do you forget about it easily?
Meditating with the body
There are two great reasons to develop body awareness practices.
- Focusing on the body is a way to let go of the mind;
- The body is full of information that we can use to improve the quality of our lives.
Living in our society makes it very easy to become wrapped up in the activities of your mind.
Many of us work in mentally demanding jobs.
Thinking, analysing, communicating - all of these activities force us to engage our rational brain. The demands of modern living make this true even if we are engaged in physical activity throughout our working day, or have a regular exercise practice.
As I’ve repeatedly stressed, the mind in general is a very effective machine that allows us to do all sorts of useful things. But it is our bodies that allow us to actually interact with the world around us, so it’s really important not to lose touch with them.
Getting to know the body
Our bodies are the realms of senses and emotions.
Our senses allow us to gather information about the world around us. We use sight, sound, touch, taste and smell - separately and in combination - to develop a moment by moment picture of the world we are inhabiting.
The senses are firmly embedded in the body. Our sensory receptors are physical - think cones in the retina, receptors in the nostrils and on the tongue, all kinds of receptors in the skin….
Our feelings, or emotions, are often associated with our initial reaction to new information gathered through the senses. Many people think of feelings as mental constructs, and indeed, emotions often have a flood of thoughts associated with them.
But most emotional responses can be felt in the body. They often mean that the body is preparing you to take some action in response to the new information.
Let’s take the example of fear, which is the primary emotion associated with stress and anxiety in particular.
Imagine you are walking through a forest. Suddenly you see (with your sense of sight) a bear on the path up ahead. Unless you are very comfortable around bears (well done if you are!), you’ll probably notice a number of physical sensations - possibly including increased heart and breathing rates, tense muscles, sweating, goose-bumps and so on.
The physical response that you experience provides you with information about your surroundings, and suggests to you that action must be taken in response (e.g. run away from the bear!).
Our emotional responses contain some very useful information at times (I’m sure you’ll agree that fear of bears is pretty sensible!). There are a number of problems with how they operate in our modern world though, for a couple of reasons:
- Because we are so heavily wrapped up in the activities of our mind, we are often unaware that we are in the middle of a heavy emotional reaction (stress, worry, frustration), which means we can’t moderate our actions appropriately. Emotions sometimes run the show when we’d prefer them not to;
- Many of our emotional responses ask us to take physical action, such as running, which are not always possible in a modern environment such as an office. The emotions get “stored up” in our body. If we’re not aware of this happening to us, we can’t take action to counteract it.
The good news is that becoming more aware of our body is the first step towards becoming more in tune with our emotions and learning how to work with them more effectively.
The Body Scan
The Body Scan is designed to help you get in touch with your body. In this meditation, you’ll be invited to bring your awareness to each part of your body in turn, with an attitude of curiosity. So, what exactly does this mean, and how should you respond to this invitation?
What does it mean to “bring your awareness” to a body part?
Take a second out of your day and pinch the back of your hand. You’ll find that your awareness is drawn there quite quickly!
To “bring your awareness” is to deliberately feel for the sensation in a body part without having to pinch it or otherwise manipulate it.
In a body scan meditation, we practice bringing the awareness to the points of contact of your body with the surfaces that support it. If you check in now, I’m sure you can bring your awareness to the parts of your body that are on the chair or floor beneath you. The sensation may not be particularly strong, but if you concentrate I’m sure you will soon notice it.
In general it’s easier to feel stronger physical sensations. It may be the case that you feel quite neutral in parts of your body. Or you may feel pleasure, or relaxation. Anything you feel is OK!
Approach the body scan exercise with an attitude of curiosity. This simply means observing rather than trying to change things.
You will often find that just observing something physically eventually leads to some relief. For example, just becoming aware of the tension in your shoulders is often enough to get them to soften, even just a little.
What about uncomfortable feelings? Shouldn’t we try to get rid of them?
Well, much as we may wish it were otherwise, uncomfortable situations are a part of being alive. Learning how to sit with something unpleasant, or even neutral or “boring”, in meditation is good practice for remaining centred during those parts of day-to-day life that are less than perfect. With practice, you will learn how to maintain a sense of balance in the face of difficult situations.
Learning how to listen to your body accurately is a great way of gaining information about whether or not you need to respond to something in your environment. Many of us have a tendency to suppress uncomfortable feelings. This is quite understandable - bad feelings don’t feel good! But suppressing feelings can mean losing information about what’s going on. If you’re uncomfortable, it may mean that you need to take action to change something in your life.
The body is a wonderful organism. As well as protective mechanisms such as the stress response, the body has a quality called homeostasis - a physiological tendency towards an equilibrium point.
To say that the body is relaxed is to say that the optimum amount of tension exists in the body for the task at hand - any more and we say the body is stressed.
Meditating with the body gives the homeostatic mechanisms something to work with. Simply bringing awareness to a tense body part can trigger the automatic relaxation responses that ease tension.
Learning to meditate
We’re close to the end and I hope you know a bit more about meditation and its benefits than when you started reading. Thanks for reading so far!
I wanted to share some hot tips for learning how to meditate that I’ve picked up over the years of teaching hundreds of people. Following this advice will help you get to grips with your meditation practice!
The components of meditation practice
I tell every student I have that learning to meditate has three parts. They are:
Wisdom refers to the body of knowledge surrounding meditation. It includes meditation techniques, supporting information (such as information about stress and the nervous system) and common pitfalls and issues that nearly everyone encounters on the meditation path. Wisdom is fascinating in its own right, but you won’t get anywhere without… practice.
Practice refers to the meditation practice itself - it should be obvious why this is important! It’s where you really get to grips with studying yourself, and it’s the place from where all the benefits arise. You’ll get plenty from practicing by itself, but it’s supported by wisdom, and it’s greatly enhanced by… reflection.
Reflection means considering the effect practicing meditation has on you. It means sharing experiences of meditation (with yourself, through journaling, or in a group, through conversation). Reflection is a crucial part of learning to meditate well. I spent years meditating by myself with recordings and apps, but when I found teachers and other humans to share my experiences within and around meditation that things really took off.
Little and often beats big chunks
I encounter a lot of people who might take a meditation class every week, but don’t practice at all in between.
Doing five minutes of mindful breathing five times a week is a better way to get your meditation practice going than doing one big session. Regularly entering the space of meditation means you get a sense of what it has to offer more frequently. And it helps to make meditation habitual.
Stack your habits
The best way to build a habit is to stack it on top of something you already do regularly. The existing habit becomes a trigger to do the new one.
I have several triggers that tell me to meditate. After my morning stretch - it’s my main meditation session of the day. And immediately after any physcial activity (yoga and strength training). I hang my meditation practice off these fixed points in my day - points that always arrive.
You might need to experiment, but if you’re already engaged in a virtuous habit (perhaps not after a cigarette break!) you might consider a few moments to meditate.
Further reading and resources
You can read plenty more on this very website..
Here are three amazing books about meditation that I highly recommend:
- Waking Up, by Sam Harris. A secular guide to the depths of meditation practice.
- The Foundations of Mindfulness, by Eric Harrison – a wonderful, in-depth guide to meditation for any audience
- Meditation – An in-depth guide – by Paul Bedson and Ian Galwer.