What’s on your mind?

Alexander Curtis, M.D.

As soon as you finish reading this sentence, I’d like you to close your eyes, take three deep breaths – inhaling through your nose, exhaling slowly through your mouth – and focus your attention on what your body is experiencing right now.

What did you notice? When your eyes were closed, what sounds did you hear? Someone familiar to you busying around inside your home, the sounds generated by people unknown to you, or perhaps a train whistle in the distance? What aromas did your nose detect? The distinct smell of the newspaper? Perhaps the faint odor of the chemicals used to clean the floor? Could you feel the newspaper’s fibrous pages between your fingertips? The weight of your body pressing down into the seat beneath you? Were you aware of the contact your feet make with the ground? Would you like to try again?

This time, after the third exhalation, keep your eyes closed and begin counting your breaths – breathing in and out through your nose at your own pace – up to a count of 10. Try it twice and then open your eyes. Did you notice anything different between your first and second experiences? It’s okay if you didn’t. Learning how to become better acquainted with what our body experiences in any given moment takes practice – and offers a skillset with immeasurable benefits.

Meditation is the practice of awareness. I have had the honor of serving as a group meditation facilitator in Portsmouth for the last few months. It has been tremendously rewarding for me to connect with folks through meditation. Each week, I have participated in hour-long group meditation sessions – referred to as Sits – around town. The Sits involved anywhere from 3 to 40 people, who ranged in age from 10 to almost 80 years. Very few of the participants had any previous experience with a regular meditation practice.

Each session began with me reciting the same two ground rules – “in order to help create a safe space for everyone, please commit to staying the entire hour and place your mobile phone in the room next door.” Although an hour can feel like a long time to sit in a windowless room without music or a television – or talking – I never noticed anyone’s overt necessity to evacuate the room prematurely. To everyone’s credit, nobody protested detaching from their mobile phone at the start of each Sit. It has been my experience that creating a physical barrier between yourself and your mobile phone is an important component of a successful meditation space. For one reason or another, some people seem to demonstrate an inclination (perhaps subconsciously) to glace at their mobile device if it is anywhere in sight. However, one of the primary purposes of engaging in meditation – arguably one of the greatest joys of doing so – is to focus one’s attention on oneself. Exclusively. Creating a few minutes a day (at minimum) to focus your awareness on what your body is experiencing at that particular moment is no more of a selfish act than is creating time to sleep, because meditation does not exude an enervating effect on the folks with whom you interact. Rather, it is a gift that (if done properly) can help you to become a fuller version of the person who you want to be.

After establishing the ground rules, I invited participants to start taking deep breaths – inhaling through the nose and exhaling slowly through the mouth. We did this together for a few breath cycles. Only then, did I instruct participants to close their eyes and begin focusing their awareness on what their non-visual senses could detect – the sounds generated by the room’s ventilation system or by a ticking wall clock. “Notice the weight of your body pressing down into the chair. Notice the contact your feet make with the floor,” I instructed. At this point, I would join the participants in meditation by focusing my attention on my breaths – using my breath cycles as a timepiece. Shortly thereafter, I’d break the silence – “Imagine a small spot just above the top of your head and another spot just below the bottom of your feet. Begin scanning down – through the body ­ slowly, methodically, continuously, building up a picture of what your body is experiencing right now.” Known as the body scan, this component of the meditation is often reported to be the most enjoyable for some meditators, and the most dreaded for others. The body scan helps to develop concentration and mental flexibility – continual awareness without fixation. The trick is two-fold – not avoiding your awareness of any particularly troublesome spot while simultaneously not remaining fixated on it. The way I think of it is as if you’re at a family gathering along with a family member who you happen to find especially obnoxious. You have to talk to this relative for a little while, and you can’t spend the rest of the time talking about him with other relatives. What do you do? The body scan exercise and meditation, in general, offer proven techniques to help with what could otherwise be irreconcilable situations. Although the skillsets developed by people who meditate regularly can help to fend off exhibiting equally obnoxious counter-behaviors at family gatherings, they have also helped lots of folks confront food cravings, chronic pain, drug addiction, depression, anxiety and low self-esteem. The ability to acknowledge troublesome thoughts and their related feelings without allowing them to undermine our desired behavior is a skill worthy of life-long development.

Meditation is the practice of awareness. So, after everyone has had a chance to scan down through their body, I instruct participants to focus their attention on their breathing. This is where the fun truly begins. “Are your breaths long or short, deep or shallow?” I ask. “Does your breath make a sound at your nostrils when you breathe in or when you breathe out? “What do you notice about how your body changes as you inhale and exhale?” Breathing is one of those topics that folks who meditate seem to be able to discuss endlessly. Our breaths (each one of them) are immensely important. Meditation focuses on “breath work” because the breath serves as an anchor – whatever you encounter (regardless of how unpleasant) while meditating – you can always re-focus your awareness on your breath. Breath is an ever-changing constant – like an endless river that never runs dry. An entity as fluid and reliable as we may every know. Our body (every single teeny-tiny part of it) assists with our breath – every time, every day, our entire life, necessarily. And, no two breaths are exactly alike. One breath can differ in easily recognizable ways from the previous breath and from the one that follows. What a gift.

“For an awareness assist, simply place the palm of your hand on your belly,” I offer. “As you inhale, do you notice your hand moving closer to the ceiling or does it move out toward the center of the room?” Just as all participants’ breaths are unique onto themselves, each participant’s breathing is unlike anyone else’s. The aspect of meditation that I identify as one of its most valuable is its individuality. I am endlessly amazed by how everyday folks can so routinely come together in the same dimly-lit room, breath quietly in unison, and come away with entirely different experiences.

Your life might often seem chaotic. It doesn’t need to do so. Meditation may help reduce mayhem in your life. Look for Part 2 in Tuesday’s Daily Times.


Alexander Curtis, M.D.