What’s on your mind?

Alexander Curtis, M.D.

In Saturday’s Part 1, the author showed how breathing during meditation makes us keenly aware of our surroundings. In this final part, you’ll see the benefits of meditation in coping with our often chaotic lives.

“Are you able to identify where the exhalation begins?” I ask. Sometimes participants share their discoveries with me following the Sit. It thrills me to learn that the answers to that question reflect both the richness of possibility as well as the bravery required to pursue such a query – “right here in my neck,” one participant told me. “Between these two ribs,” another said. “Deep in my belly, behind my stomach,” I was once told. “In my right knee, where it never stops aching,” someone said. “It comes from all over,” a participant revealed to me along with his own genuine sense of surprise. I don’t pose any of the questions with an expectation of learning the answer. In truth, there isn’t any expectation that any of the participants will be able to answer them either. The questions are invitations. My intention is to encourage the meditators to explore their breath and what their body is experiencing in the present moment. I fear that so many of us have fallen out of practice of tuning in to our body, our mind and our emotions. As infants, we were all about such connections. Many children remain committed to sharing their self-awareness with anyone and everyone. Then what happens? Who decided that anyone other than me should determine what my body identifies as a meal’s proper portion size? Or that it’s safe to put anything other than food into my body? Who decided that I should wear a particular style of clothing or any item of clothing in too small a size if I wanted to feel accepted? How connected were you to who you want to be when you made any recent, important decision? What grounded that connection?

Your life might often seem chaotic. It doesn’t need to do so. Meditation is the practice of awareness. Reducing your life’s mayhem doesn’t necessarily require you to do less. I wonder how much time, among your day’s many tasks, you dedicate to checking in with what your mind and body are experiencing. How often do you investigate to what extent your behavior accurately reflects your sincere desires? I sympathize with the tendency to react to situations in which we find ourselves using behaviors that fail to reflect our true intention. One of the most valuable gifts that I have received through my meditation practice is the recognition of how much better I feel about who I am and what I do when thoughtful “response” behavior outnumbers hasty “reaction” behavior. Investing the time to be present with what my mind and body are experiencing has helped to connect me with the ability to make decisions that more accurately reflect my true intentions. I believe it has made a significant improvement in my life, and I know that if I can initiate such changes, so can you.

The longest single component of each Sit involves participants enjoying a respite from hearing any instruction from me. Just before the “long stretch” of focusing awareness on what the body is experiencing, I suggest counting breaths – up to a count of 10. “One with the inhalation and the sensation of the chest rising. Two with the exhalation as the muscles of the body relax.” I add, “If you lose track of counting at any point, then simply start over wherever you left off.” This activity – done in this manner – is important for at least two specific reasons. It offers an excellent way to establish a personalized approach for meditators to become aware of what their body is experiencing. Together, a group of meditators – its physical stillness in a quiet space with only the room’s air and the body’s unending mysteries to nourish our practice – reminds me of a sacred forest.

As odd as it might seem, the idea of “now” routinely poses a considerable challenge for many who meditate. The thing is, “now” is mercilessly elusive. This, despite the fact that it is ever-present. If it weren’t for our thoughts (including our thoughts of memories), we would only experience whatever is happening now. However, I wonder for how many of us experiencing what is happening right now occurs more often than experiencing something from sometime other than now. Remember deadlines and those people who you have to meet with later on, and paying taxes on time and how you didn’t do that thing you wanted to do yesterday, and how that one person who was really important to you did something that hurt you, whenever that was? How could you forget them, right? I wonder how often any of us ever experiences the unadulterated version of what is happening right now. Even knowing that we do not have control over what thoughts and emotions derail us from living entirely in the now, wouldn’t it be nice to temper the pace of cluttering influences – or at least to have a strategy for responding thoughtfully when an undesired stimulus cascades into our mental space?

Meditation is the practice of awareness. Being more aware of what your mind and body are experiencing right now is helpful in a lot of ways. Learning how to become more present for what is happening now has helped me appreciate how much influence I have over how I experience the thoughts, emotions and circumstances I encounter from day to day. It is tremendously rewarding. However, meditation isn’t magical and certainly doesn’t require taking a sabbatical to the Himalayas. Becoming better aware of what your mind and body are experiencing right now is something that most people who meditate learn how to do in the comfort of their own home over the course of a few months. It is a practice you can cultivate and enjoy throughout a lifetime. You can establish an intimate practice – as so many others have done – meditating only on your own. Alternatively, you can attempt to encourage other folks in your community (however you define it) to meditate by planning Sits of your own. Despite all of the books, seminars, mantras and online videos pertaining to meditation, the single most important ingredient to begin your regular practice is the discipline to stay committed. Like developing any new skillset, learning how to meditate requires an investment of time and energy – an investment whose returns are far-reaching.

Eventually, I ask Sit participants to abandon their focus on their breath and to “Allow your mind to be completely free.” Soon thereafter, I suggest they “Notice the weight of your body pressing down into the chair and the contact your feet make with the floor.” Participants are invited to open their eyes in their own time. Each Sit involves a voluntary (and strictly confidential) discussion period following the meditation. This is always my favorite portion of the hour. I wonder if anyone will be willing to share anything about the meditation they just experienced or offer an insight from their home practice or pose a question for group discussion. Talking with people about their shared meditation is transformative. Doing so has only strengthened my personal practice and has encouraged me to think much more optimistically about people, the world we share and in my ability to successfully navigate the seemingly innumerable obstacles that inhabit my life.

I want to share these thoughts with you and emphasize the point that, although I wouldn’t say that meditation is necessarily easy, it can be immensely gratifying as well as enormously beneficial. Why not give it a try? You can start right now with your next breath.


Alexander Curtis, M.D.