Meditation and Mindfulness for Stress Management
The NDSU Counseling Center's weekly Meditation for Stress Management group offers an opportunity to get together with other NDSU students, faculty, and staff to learn and practice mindfulness meditation for increased awareness, presence, and well-being, in an informal, friendly environment. All levels are welcome, from absolute beginners to experienced practitioners. If what you read below about meditation and mindfulness interests you, please consider joining us!
Basic Definitions of Mindfulness
"Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally."--Jon Kabat-Zinn
"Mindfulness is the aware, balanced acceptance of the present experience. It isn't more complicated than that. It is opening to or receiving the present moment, pleasant or unpleasant, just as it is, without either clinging to it or rejecting it."--Sylvia Boorstein
A Way of Being
Mindfulness is a way of being which involves bringing awareness to the unfolding of present experience, moment-to-moment, with curiosity, openness and acceptance. It is not a set of techniques to be learned to escape unpleasant feelings, a “relaxation exercise,” or a concrete a goal to be reached, but rather an approach to life that can help you respond more skillfully even when challenging experiences do occur. It involves a process of becoming more aware and accepting towards all your experiences—including the unpleasant ones. This takes ongoing practice and commitment. It may seem counterintuitive at first, because it involves the idea of allowing and turning towards unpleasant experience, rather than trying to get rid of it control it. This approach is best understood through direct experience, beginning your own practice and trying it for yourself.
"Formal" and "Informal" Mindfulness Practice
Mindfulness is usually cultivated via formal, concentrated meditation practice periods each day, with the idea that we can then carry this mindful awareness with us into in all our daily activities. Mindfulness is most helpful when it becomes a way of being, rather than an isolated experience during meditation or a set of techniques to be learned. The focus in mindfulness is on being, rather than doing.
Mindfulness Meditation ("Formal" Practice)
The approach during mindfulness meditation (also referred to as vipassana, choiceless awareness, or open monitoring) involves fostering a spacious awareness and observing whatever comes up in the mind without judging it or getting caught up in it, welcoming and allowing experience with equanimity and “bare attention.” Mindfulness involves pure moment-to-moment awareness: non-judgmental inner listening, silent observation, letting experiences unfold from moment to moment and accepting them as they are. In the ancient Pali language, this type of mindful investigation is called vipassana, or “seeing things as they really are” (literally, “special seeing”). Mindfulness is like a mirror, reflecting the reality of what is there without judgment.
During meditation, it is common for the mind to become either restless and distracted, or dull and sleepy, either of which can temporarily remove us from the present moment. As you notice either agitation or sleepiness of the mind, or your reactions to outside distractions, do your best to just observe and note these processes as they occur, without judgment. With practice, we begin to notice more and more quickly when our attention has wandered; we can then note what took our attention away, and gently bring our awareness back to the breath. There may be a tendency to become frustrated or impatient when we notice that our attention has wandered, but the more frustrated we get about it, the more distracting it becomes. Instead of fighting whatever might occur during meditation, attempt to accept that this is how things are right now. As best you can, have patience with yourself (however, if you do find yourself getting impatient, you can simply observe that reaction with equanimity).
Vipassana meditation is a chance to observe the ways in which all phenomena—thoughts, feelings, and sensations—arise and pass away into the stream of consciousness. Meditation offers an opportunity to observe many of the things that are going on in our minds all the time without our awareness, so just starting to become aware of them is important in itself. When we can observe and experience thoughts, feelings, and sensations with equanimity, we realize we are not these; we become less identified with them, and can rest in a calm, spacious awareness. As we do this, the mental activity tends to settle down more and more, like going under the surface of the ocean, beneath the activity of the waves to a deeper, more still place; or like the sky, whose basic nature does not change as the clouds and weather patterns pass through it.
Basic Meditation Instructions
(Adapted from Full Catastrophe Living, by Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D. New York: Dell Publishing, 1990)
- Bring attention to the breath
- Give full attention to the feeling of the breath as it goes in and out.
- Dwell in the present, moment by moment, breath by breath.
- Observe your mind with moment-to-moment awareness.When attention wanders, note it and then gently bring awareness back to the breath.
- Continue to watch the breath, accepting each moment as it is.
Deepening Meditation Practice
Once a measure of stability of attention is attained, you may begin to expand into "choiceless awareness" during meditation, in which rather than guiding the attention back to the breath, whatever object is prominent in your field of awareness at any given moment becomes the primary object of attention. This involves expanding your awareness to observe with mindfulness (present-moment, investigative, nonjudgmental awareness) the arising and falling of each event in your field of awareness as it occurs, allowing the awareness to rest on whatever is most salient in your experience in the present moment, then shifting as that recedes and something new appears. Whenever the attention wanders or feels “lost,” you may gently bring it back to the breath as your anchor into the present moment
With longer-term practice observing your mind during meditation, you may begin to develop insights regarding the impermanence of all phenomena, the dissatisfaction caused by clinging to some aspects of reality and resisting others, and the lack of a solid, stable, unchanging self that is separate from other phenomena. These insights are not verbal or conceptual, but rather involve direct perception of the nature of reality through our immediate experience during meditation.
Cultivating Daily Mindfulness ("Informal" Practice)
- Mindfulness during routine activities (mindful eating, walking, brushing teeth, doing dishes, etc).
- One minute of mindfulness (15 mindful breaths) each hour of the day.
- 5 mindful breaths upon waking and before going to sleep.
- Alertness to “bells of mindfulness” throughout the day (e.g. stop lights, phone ringing, birds singing, waiting in line, etc.)
- Noting how the mind and body feel throughout the day in various circumstances; noticing the body posture, sensations, and areas of tension.
- Awareness of the movement of the breath, particularly noticing if breathing has become shallow or irregular.
- Deeply listening to others, giving full attention, without multi-tasking or thinking about what you are going to say next.
- Speaking mindfully: pausing before speaking, asking yourself “is it necessary? Is it harmful? Is it true?”
- Noticing automatic judgments as they occur (“positive”, “negative”, or “neutral”), and the habitual reactions connected to them: do you contract from the unpleasant, cling to the pleasant, and become bored with the neutral? Begin to develop awareness of the effects that these automatic reactions may be having on you.
- Notice when you are “multi-tasking’, and note the contrast in feeling when you bring yourself to fully attend to one thing at a time.
- 5-minute mindful breathing exercise (free audio file below).
Potential Benefits of Mindfulness and Meditation
- Viewing thoughts, feelings and sensations as passing events in our field of awareness, rather than over-identifying with them or becoming attached, repelled, or overwhelmed by them.
- Learning to experience thoughts, feelings and sensations as phenomena moving through our awareness, rather than experiencing them as “me,” or the whole of my reality.
- Knowledge of impermanence allows greater tolerance for unpleasant internal states (e.g., letting feelings come and go like waves).
- Recognizing mental events as passing phenomena contained in our awareness (e.g., “just thoughts”)
- Helpful metaphors: sky-like awareness, ocean (stillness beneath the waves), hub of a wheel.
- Brings us out of “automatic pilot” mode, allows us to make aware and conscious decisions about responding.
- Turning towards present reality gives us more choices, “degrees of freedom.”
- Brings us into our immediate experience can help ground us, helps with rumination and panic.
- Reminds us of our aliveness, our vitality.
- Being centered in the present moment, we become more connected and engaged in our lives, and we may begin experiencing our daily activities and interactions as less mundane and more meaningful.
- Focusing on one thing at a time, rather than multi-tasking, reduces stress and can even improve our relationships.
- Becoming aware and grounded in the present moment allows us to fully engage in the richness of moment-to-moment experience.
- Each moment, each breath, is a chance to begin anew.
- We learn to handle things “one moment at a time.” Being present with “just this breath” can be grounding and calming.
- Focuses attention on moment-to-moment experience, and away from ruminative cycles of thoughts that tend to bog us down in negative mood states and can contribute to anxiety and/or depression.
Turning Towards Experience
- Bearing with our experience, rather than trying to get rid of it.
- Different way of responding to inevitable unpleasant experiences in life.
- Through direct exposure, we learn that our emotions, thoughts, and bodily sensations are not so overwhelming and frightening, and that they will eventually pass.
- Allows us to explore and tolerate a broad range of thoughts, emotions and sensations.
- Allows us to be present with our experience rather than avoiding or escaping, contracting or pushing away.
Expanded, Clear Perspective
- Learning to see clearly depends on the ability to dis-identify from automatic patterns and beliefs.
- Affords a different place from which to view the present moment.
- Fosters greater cognitive and behavioral flexibility and less automaticity.
- May help us observe values and choices and reflect on them with greater objectivity.
- Open, intentional awareness can help us choose behaviors that are congruent with our needs, interests and values.
- Helps us to develop acceptance and act with wisdom, intention and perspective rather than in a reactive or knee-jerk fashion.
- Trains the mind to be less reactive and more stable, helps develop patience and acceptance, and builds and deepens the mind’s strength and concentration.
- Practicing “bare attention” and maintaining equanimity helps us gain balance and perspective regarding what is going on around and inside us. Slowing down and becoming aware, we see things more clearly.
Acceptance, Making Space
- Softening, allowing, opening
- Acceptance, not fighting against
- “Pain X Resistance = Suffering,” “
- The “two arrows”
- “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional”
- It is not as much the pain itself, but our own reaction to it that causes our suffering
- “What we resist, persists”
- Cannot always change or control our external circumstances, but mindfulness can help us relate differently to life’s “ups and downs.”
- Different than approval or resignation; rather, involves acknowledging our present experience, because it is already here.
- We see that all “problems” come down to the same basic issue: wanting things to be different than they are. Mindfulness helps us to develop the awareness to be able to accept the things we cannot change and to take skillful action to change the things we can.
“Getting to Know Your Own Mind”
- Learning the workings of your mind
- Getting to know the mind’s habits and the way it may be causing our suffering
- Recognizing “tapes in the mind”
- Provides a chance to look dispassionately at the reactions and habits of your own mind, at its fears and desires.
- Helps us see through our likes, dislikes, and opinions to experience things as they actually are.
- Helps cultivate compassion, because we recognize that we all have the same basic nature, and that the suffering we experience is, at its core, the same as that experienced by all beings, regardless of superficial differences.
- Time to sit quietly and “just be,” rather than actively “doing,” increases our sense of peacefulness and well-being.
- Gives us time to dwell in a state of deep relaxation
- “Being mode” is accepting and non-conceptual, in contrast to “thinking mode” and “doing mode.”
- Trains the mind to be less reactive and more stable, helps develop patience and acceptance, and builds and deepens the mind’s strength and concentration.
- Some problems cannot be “solved” through conceptual or analytical thought.
Effects On Brain Function and Structure
- Neuroplasticity research on effects of regular meditation on brain function and structure, including working memory and contentment.
Online Audio Meditations
NDSU Counseling Center Meditations:
Mindfulness Meditation With Guided Body Relaxation (44 Minutes)
Brief mindful breathing exercise (5 minutes)
Calm Abiding Meditation With Guided Body Relaxation (42 minutes)
External Site Meditations:
Recommended Smartphone Apps
Breathe (Stop, Breathe, and Think)
Mindfulness in Plain English, updated and expanded addition, by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana (Wisdom Publications, 2002) or read earlier addition online at http://www.budsas.org/ebud/mfneng/mind0.htm
Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D. (Hyperion Books, 1994) or other books by Jon Kabat-Zinn
Full Catastrophe Living, by Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D. (Dell Publishing, 1990)
A Path With Heart , by Jack Kornfield (Bantam, 1993)
The Mindfulness Solution by Ronald D. Siegel, Psy.D. (Guilford Press, 2010)
Beginning MIndfulness, by Andrew Weiss (New World Library, 2004)
Calming Your Anxious Mind, by Jeffrey Brantley, MD ( 2nd Edition, ew Harbinger Publications, 2007).
Breath By Breath, by Larry Rosenberg (Shambala Classics, 1998)
The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh (Beacon Press, 1975) or Peace in Every Step (Bantam, 1991) or other books by Thich Nhat Hanh
Emotional Alchemy, by Tara Bennett-Goleman (Three Rivers Press, 2001)
The Mindful Way Through Depression: Freeing Yourself From Chronic Unhappiness, by Mark Williams, John Teasdale, Zindel Segal, and Jon Kabat-Zinn (Guilford Press, 2007)
The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion, by Chrisotpher Germer, Ph.D. (Guildford Press, 2009)
A Path and a Practice, by William Martin (Marlowe & Company, 2005)
Vipassana Instructions (PDF File) from New Hope Sangha at http://www.newhopesangha.org/vipassana_instructions.pd
The above resources and external links, as well as others found throughout our site, may provide useful information about topics related to counseling and mental health.. Their listing here, however, does not indicate endorsement by the Counseling Center or NDSU. Additionally, although information and self-help resources can be a helpful adjunct to work you are doing in counseling or in a support group, we do not necessarily recommend self-help as a sole course of treatment. If you are interested in speaking with a counselor, please refer to the other pages in this site for more information about our services.