Mindfulness meditation, a holistic mind-body treatment based in Buddhist psychology, is a powerful tool clinically proven to treat anxiety. This technique works by stopping the cycle of negative thoughts and helping you manage your feelings. The process of mindfulness meditation can be boiled down using these six essential steps:
- Stop yourself from obsessive thinking. Obsessing can make it difficult to let go of negative thoughts. Escaping this mental cycle is the goal of mindfulness meditation.
- Use an anchor to still the mind. Focusing on a single point can trigger physical relaxation, which will help you through the meditation process.
- Calm the body using the breath. A simple breathing exercise described below will help you relax and get in touch with your emotions.
- Focus on the sensations in the body. Every emotion has a sensation signal in the body. Find one sensation signal in the present moment and focus on it.
- Explore the qualities of the sensation signal you chose.
- Build up your ability to meditate for longer periods of time. Like any ability, meditation is a skill that takes practice. The longer you are able to meditate, the more benefit you will get from this exercise in mental control and emotional tolerance.
Read on to learn more about the process of mindfulness meditation – by fully understanding and utilizing these six steps, you can be on your way to practicing mindfulness meditation, and achieving all the mental health benefits that accompany it.
Mindfulness meditation has become nearly as recognizable and popular in mainstream Western culture as yoga. From ancient origins in the contemplative science of India and Tibet1, to the research laboratories of Ivy League medical schools, and from the conference rooms of elite corporations like Google2 to the VA hospitals of the US military3, there seems to be no discipline or sphere of life that isn’t taking an interest in mindfulness.
The healthcare community agrees that research outcomes support its efficacy – so how can you begin to utilize mindfulness meditation in your own life? You still need clear instructions and competent mentors to guide your experience. What follows are some easy steps to get a basic mindfulness practice started, with specific attention given to managing difficult or overwhelming emotions such as anxiety. While mindfulness meditation is very safe, please consult your therapist when starting any new regime and do not try the following instructions when you are having a panic attack.
1. Get out of the spin cycle of your thinking mind
You may already be aware that the intensity and duration of negative emotions is driven or exacerbated by excessive rumination. That is – you can’t seem to let go of negative thoughts and instead , to your own detriment, obsess over and indulge worst-case scenarios that only compound shame, sadness, fear or anger. Quick hint, trying to suppress negative thoughts does not solve ruminations. When you’re caught in the grips of a spin cycle, use the following mindfulness technique.
2. Use an anchor to stabilize the turbulent mind
The mind needs an anchor, or a single point of focus, to direct it away from ruminations and elicit the body’s natural relaxation response. Dr. Herbert Benson, a Harvard Medical School cardiologist who specializes in mind-body medicine, coined the term “the relaxation response” to describe the physical state of deep rest that changes the body’s response to stress.
Many objects or anchors of attention are useful in stabilizing the mind and achieving this relaxation response. These anchors could include attending to sounds in the present moment, focusing on your breath passing in and out of the nostrils, repeating a prayer or affirmation, or any of the four foundations used in traditional Buddhist training.1
For those who struggle with anxiety, I often recommend using the second foundation, mindfulness of sensations, as the primary focus. The second foundation not only provides a solid, real-time anchor for attention, but also serves as an exposure or desensitization exercise that short-circuits habituated stimulus-response patterns.
After finding an anchor, the next mindfulness step is physically based – the following breathing exercise will help you attain the body’s natural relaxation response.
3. Come into your body where your emotions reside
Find a comfortable and relaxed position, whether seated or lying down. Try to keep your spine straight and stay physically relaxed as much as you can. Begin by taking ten natural, gentle breaths, focusing your mental attention on your nostrils as you inhale, pause, and then exhale. At the tail end of your exhale, count a number aloud or to yourself, designating the completion of a cycle. Then, repeat that number during the next inhalation until you’ve completed ten full breath cycles.
If you get distracted by external sounds, passing thoughts, or physical discomfort, that’s totally normal. Don’t give up, get frustrated, or treat the breathing exercise like a race. Simply recognize your distraction as part of the exercise and calmly choose to return your focus to the breath, beginning again at the number one. After ten continuous breaths, expand your awareness to include your entire body.
Drop down into the body and feel the sensations arising, fully devoting your attention in the same manner that you were attending to the breath passing in and out of your nostrils. Yes, this body is where you always live, and yet, perhaps, you hardly notice it. If your entire body is too broad or vast a terrain to attend to, break it up into parts or regions in your mind, and go through a complete body scan, segment by segment, from the crown of your head to the tips of your toes and back again.
Do not judge what you notice about your body, desire something different, secretly hope for something to change, or expect a continuous, pleasant ride. Meet every physical sensation with utter acceptance. The goal of this practice is to ground yourself in the present moment of lived experience, here and now, rather than dwelling on the mental abstractions of past and future. This practice also helps you reconnect with the body, close to where the emotions truly reside, rather than occupying yourself with the stories or perceptions of emotions. Once you’ve completed a body scan, continue on the next step…
4. Befriend one emotion to undercut the reactivity circuit
Imagining your body is a terrain and your awareness like a radar scanner, tracking the most intense or pervasive signal. Gravitate towards that signal, wherever it is, and make it the new object or anchor of attention. Every emotion has two parts: the sensation signal in the body, and the story fabricated in the mind.
You are only interested in the first. Perhaps your sadness is like a hollow sensation in the gut. Your anxiety might be a constriction in the chest. Your anger may present as a burning sensation in the jaw. As you experience pain, tension, tightness, gripping, bluntness or dullness in any particular region, let those physical sensations become your signal and resist the urge to push them away.
Explore the signal like a child exploring a new territory, or a scientist using a microscope. You are observing energy patterns at play in the present moment. Meanwhile, avoid indulging the story line about what the signal seems to mean – allow those thoughts to pass on their own in the background of your awareness.
If, at the time of your practice, your signal is pleasant, relaxing, and enjoyable, follow the same instructions of attending moment by moment with acceptance and without attaching to the story. If there is no pervasive sensation or signal, keep your attention openly scanning the body from head to toe and back, resist the urge to become disinterested, and stay attuned until something prominent emerges. Once you’re locked into a pervasive emotional signal, continue to the next phase of the exercise.
5. Go deeper by inquiring into the qualities of the sensation
During this phase of the meditation practice, I often encourage my clients to inquire about the specific nuances of their signal by prompting them with the following questions: Where is the signal located in the body? What is its shape? What is its texture? Does it have a color? Is it dense or dispersed? Static or moving? This inquiry helps bring one’s attention closer to the signal, thereby deconditioning the habituated stimulus-avoidance-response circuit.
When focusing on the sensation without the story line, my clients are often amazed to find that they are able to sit with and accept their distressing emotions for longer periods of time. However, one session of mindfulness meditation is not enough to escape the cycle of negative thoughts and emotional reactivity. You’ll need to continue to practice accordingly as follows.
6. Work your edge, systematically staying present for longer periods of time
Just like physical strength, endurance and flexibility, emotional tolerance and resilience are skills that can by systematically developed. Treat meditation like a mental workout – you wouldn’t expect physical results in one session, but you would expect slight to moderate discomfort as you stretch and tone new muscles. Befriending distressing emotions through mindfulness requires a systematic increase in the intensity and duration of exposure to the signal.
When you lift weights, run on the treadmill or do yoga postures, you are often asked to “work your edge” in a safe, responsible and consistent manner. You go right up to the threshold of your perceived capacity, breathe, and stay a little longer than you think you can. If you back off and avoid the edge of your comfort zone, you won’t grow new neural pathways and your emotional flexibility atrophies.
Conversely, if you go through the process of exposure in meditation too deeply, too quickly, or too recklessly, you risk getting overwhelmed or experiencing re-traumatization, the mental equivalent of physical injury, and can actually strengthen the negative avoidance response. Finding the right balance is key, and I often use a rating scale to help orient clients to the optimal ranges for new learning: the numbers 1-4 mean you’re not in the ball game, while 8-10 mean you’re risking injury. A number within the range of 5-7 is considered the sweet spot for change.
By mindfully attending to emotions with care, patience, and diligence, and by following these instructions over time, you’ll find that it is possible to turn an enemy into an ally, befriend anxiety, and reclaim your life. Though it can be very beneficial to find a mentor, therapist, or group that can help you understand and practice mindfulness meditation, by following these steps you can begin to experience the benefits of mindfulness through day-to-day efforts.
1. Miles Neale, Psy.D. (2015, June 12). Cure Your Anxiety With Mindfulness Meditation. Retrieved from https://www.anxiety.org/mindfulness-meditation-guide
2. Confino, Jo. (2014, May 14). Google’s head of mindfulness: ‘goodness is good for business.” The Guardian UK. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/google-meditation-mindfulness-technology.
3. Mindfulness and the military. Retrieved from Mindful.org. http://www.mindful.org/By%20Profession/veterans-an….
Miles Neale, Psy.D., is a NYC-based Buddhist psychotherapist, Assistant Director at Nalanda Institute, and Clinical Instructor at Weill Cornell Medical College. Integrating Western clinical approaches with Indo-Tibetan Buddhism, he empowers clients through insight-oriented talk therapy and meditative skills. Teaching mindfulness and compassion practices, he conducts meditation research at Weill Cornell and shares expertise on the BBC World Service. Neale's mission is to foster well-being, altruism, and creativity, offering healing techniques based on neuroscience and health psychology.