Breathing in, I know I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know that I am breathing out.” — Thich Nhat Hanh
In the past two decades, the practice of mindfulness and meditation has gone from being a spiritual practice done at ashrams in India, where it originated thousands of years ago, to the mainstream as the celebrities who tout its benefits. Headlines boast about mindfulness’ effectiveness at reducing stress, improving sleep and even helping with weight loss. Meditation retreats in beautiful, exotic locations promise a chance to reset and “dive deep” while phone applications make it easy to zen out on the go.
But what is meditation really? What happens when the mind is quiet, and instead of chatter, it focuses on the simple yet profound act of breathing? In and out.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines mindfulness as “the practice of maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis.”
Simply put, it is being aware of the present moment and accepting it for what it is.
“Informal mindfulness walking entails noticing what is happening as you move from one place to another,” said Rebecca MacAulay, assistant professor of psychology at University of Maine in Orono.
Walking from the car to the grocery store, you may become aware of the sky and notice — is it gray? Is it blue?
“Then perhaps you notice the sensation of your legs, your torso, your muscles moving as you’re moving forward,” MacAulay said. “You’re noticing the temperature on your skin, and you’re noticing the temptation to perhaps judge [that temperature].”
It’s quieting that judgment, that’s key.
“Our brains are constantly categorizing things, mindfulness stops the categorizing and helps us accept the moment for what it is,” MacAulay said. “You’re not trying to change it, and you’re not trying to influence how you feel, you’re simply aware.”
Not to mention, with the invention and ever-increasing popularity of social media platforms, many people of all ages are focused on capturing the perfect photo of an activity rather than experiencing it.
“I think about Snapchat or the selfies, we are missing the important moments in our lives because we’re thinking about taking a picture or telling someone about it later,” MacAulay said. “But then, you’re no longer there. You’ve left the room, and you’re thinking about the future.”
Focus or concentration meditation — where the user thinks more about deep breathing than perhaps a mantra or statement — is believed to activate the frontal-lobe circuitry, the area of the brain focused on attention and cognitive control.
“It is improving our ability to not give in, by creating freedom from distraction, you are reinforcing the neurocircuitry that makes us better able to focus,” MacAulay said.
That means practicing meditation on a regular basis, even briefly, can make you less likely to curse at the driver who cuts you off or respond negatively to an unplanned change.
“It’s removing reactivity,” MacAulay said. “In clinical psychology, we work on pressing pause if someone is feeling strong emotions. With mindfulness [practices], they’re all encouraging you to be aware and in the moment.”
Finding your focus
Focused meditation is just one of many types of mindfulness, and each carries different benefits. Just as important, though far less researched, MacAulay said, is knowing that mindfulness doesn’t work for everyone.
“One of the things that’s probably less talked about and less understood is who doesn’t mindfulness work for,” she said. “It is becoming a panacea of sorts, and soon mindfulness is going to become the cure-all for everything.”
In their book “Altered Traits,” authors Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson argue that while there are lasting results to meditation, it is not just about hours spent sitting on a pillow. To receive the long-term benefits, practitioners need to make sure they are seeking master teachers and those well-trained in giving feedback and encouraging non-attachment.
Still, MacAulay says benefits are undeniable.
Other types of meditation include loving-kindness meditation, which aims to help the practitioner cultivate a sense of love and kindness toward everything.
Body scanning meditation, on the other hand, encourages people to scan their bodies — one area at a time — looking for tension. Once noticed, meditators then try to release those areas and let go of the pressure they initially felt.
Still, other meditation such as mindful walking and many styles of yoga, including Vinyasa and Kundalini, combines physical activity with deep breathing.
“With walking meditations, often you will start walking very slowly, you may even start off by standing, noticing that moment then taking very slow steps,” MacAulay said. “Usually it’s done in some form of a circle or back and forth and involves you noticing what it’s like to make each movement [required to move forward]. What it’s like to lift your foot, what you feel as the thigh muscles engage.”
Increasing access to meditation
While meditation classes and retreats in Maine abound, MacAulay said in the coming year she and her Ph.D. students will focus their research on making sure marginalized communities in the state have access to the skills needed to bring about more mindfulness.
Older adults, she argues, or those in rural communities or in low socio-economic areas, may not have the resources to attend workshops or training sessions about mindfulness. But it’s those communities, she said, that could benefit greatly.
“I recently returned from a mindfulness-based stress reduction training … [but] being able to [do] that is a luxury,” MacAulay said. “I think what researchers need to look at is how we can get these things out in more rural areas, to older adults, more economically disadvantaged adults, it is extremely needed in stress management.”
In the coming months, she and her students will begin working on that very idea.
“If you think about meditation, it can be a bit esoteric, for example, the brain naturally starts wondering ‘am I doing this right.’ It can be really hard to pick up on your own,” MacAulay said. “We want to make it more accessible and look at can we teach these skills in workshops where we will boil down some of the components and make them more accessible.”
No. 1 tip on her list? “Just try it.”
And then, let go of any pretense that it will be easy.
“When you first try meditation, you may notice your mind straying, and that’s normal,” MacAulay said. “We spend our lives thinking, our minds want to carry us away because that’s how the brain works. With meditation, you’re starting to quiet those networks, the self-referential component of the brain that causes us to ruminate, mindfulness can help quiet that. But it takes time, and it takes practice, so don’t get discouraged.”
Meditation in Maine
Interested in learning more or trying out meditation for yourself? Check out one of these Maine-based classes or practice virtually from anywhere.
The Blue Heron Wellness Center offers drop-in meditation classes as well as other energy/mind-focuses workshops. theblueheronwellnesscenter.com
Om Land Yoga offers many different styles of yoga as well as “Mindfulness of Yoga: Overcoming barriers to joy” class. omlandyoga.com
Unitarian Universalist Society of Bangor offers a mindfulness meditation group that meets regularly during the month. uubangor.org
The Midcoast Center for Community Health and Wellness offers several mindfulness programs, including Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. midcoasthealth.com/wellness/mindfulness
The Dancing Elephant in Rockland offers Buddhist and mindfulness teachings as well as a mindfulness eating group and a meditation and knitting group. rocklandyoga.com
The Haven in Camden offers meditation retreats and courses, including Hemi-Sync, a binaural technology developed by Robert Monroe, who founded the nonprofit Monroe Institute. gohaven.org
Northern Light Zen Center in Topsham offers meditation practice, training workshops and Zen retreats led by Zen Masters and Master Dharma Teachers of the Kwan Um School of Zen. nlzc.info
Araya Wellness offers public, semi-private and private meditation classes in Presque Isle and Mars Hill. arayawellness.com
The Portland Zen Meditation Center offers regular Zen meditation classes, as well as community meetings to discuss group issues and individual practice. portlandzencenter.com
Nagaloka Buddhist Center teaches two types of meditation — mindfulness of breathing and metta bhavana. http://www.nagalokabuddhistcenter.org
The Mindfulness Center of Maine in Saco offers workshops, courses and consultations about mindfulness, meditation and personal growth. mindfulnesscenter.org
Vajra Vidya Portland is a Tibetan Buddhist meditation center offering retreats, classes and weekly study groups for those just starting with meditation, as well as continuing practitioners. portlandmainebuddhism.org
Open Heart Sangha in the Portland area is a sitting and walking meditation group that follows the teaching of Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. openheartsangha.org
Several free and paid apps are available for those interested in practicing meditation anytime, anywhere, including Calm, Headspace, buddhify, Simple Habit, Insight Timer and 10 percent Happier. Many apps geared toward meditation skeptics, those on the go, or anyone looking to start or continue a mindfulness practice.