Body Scan Meditation

Body scan meditation is a quick and easy way to access your relaxation response, an effective counter to stress and your automatic fight or flight response. Body scan meditation has the advantage of being flexible – you can use it anywhere at any time. You don’t have to undertake an extended body scan to realise its benefits.

Different purposes for the body scan

Olivier Devroede, author of the Mindfulness Based Happiness blog, explains that body scan in the yoga tradition is used for relaxation, whereas in some mindfulness traditions, the purpose is the development of acceptance. Jon Kabat-Zinn also provides a “bodyscape meditation“, incorporating a body scan, that is designed to enable you to become more aware of your body and its sensations and, through this meditation practice, become grounded in the present more readily.

Diana Winston, Director of Education at the Mindful Awareness Research Centre (MARC) offers a brief, 3-minute body scan that can enable you to quickly wind back your disabling response to a stressful situation. It can serve as a regular practice, too, that can progressively build automatic awareness of body sensations and emotional responses. Diana also offers a 13-minute body scan meditation for sleep when you are going to bed. At other times, you might actually be trying to avoid sleeping during meditation.

The basics of a body scan

Body scan is something that can be short or extended, incorporated into other forms of meditation and used flexibly for different purposes. While the intention of body scan meditations may vary, they have several basic elements in common. These relate to being grounded bodily and mentally, noticing your breathing and paying attention to your body and its sensations.

  1. Being grounded bodily – often this is achieved by paying attention to your posture, ensuring you are comfortable and relaxed, and upright if seated in a chair. There may be many times when you are unaware of your posture which can be a form of slouch, whether you are sitting or standing. Focusing on becoming grounded bodily, can help rectify this tendency to slouch throughout the day.
  2. Being grounded mentally – this basically involves bringing your full attention to the process of a body scan and your specific intention in undertaking it.
  3. Noticing your breathing – this can be a simple act of being aware of your breath and its characteristics (such as slow or fast, deep or shallow), without any effort to control your breathing. It can also be a more conscious approach where you take a couple of deep breaths to aid the process of relaxation and being grounded in the present. A deeper breathing approach is lower-belly breathing which can be incorporated into your body scan.
  4. Paying attention to the pressure on your body – this initial approach to increasing bodily awareness, involves noticing the pressure from the floor or your chair on your body at different points, e.g. on your back, feet, buttocks, shoulders. This is a form of conscious grounding – noticing the impact of your immediate physical environment on your body.
  5. Paying attention to your bodily sensations – this is the core activity in a body scan, the other activities serves as a warm-up or preparatory exercise. Here you are exploring your body, looking for any points of tightness, tension, pain or contraction. The aim is to progressively release or soften these points to free your body from its stress response. Developing your awareness about these points of tension, can help you to more quickly become aware of a negative emotional reaction to a stressful situation.
  6. Paying attention to your feelings – becoming aware of your bodily sensations can give you insight into how you are feeling about a situation or interaction. Often, we hide negative emotions, which further exacerbates the tension in our bodies. If you can get in touch with your negative feelings through a body scan, you can name these feelings and, over time, successfully control them. This last step represents the deepest approach to body scan meditation and the most time consuming method, as you need to undertake the precursor activities to get in touch with your bodily sensations and be in an open frame of mind to name those feelings.

As we grow in mindfulness through the different forms of body scan meditation, we increase our capacity to focus, enhance our self-awarenesss, develop our relaxation response, improve our self-regulation and increase our capacity to be in the moment.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

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Overcoming Aversion as a Barrier to Meditation

One of the weekly MARC meditation podcasts addresses the issue of overcoming aversion as a barrier to meditation.  Aversion is the last of five obstacles to meditation covered by Diana Winston in a series of meditations aimed to remove the barriers that stop us meditating or divert our attention during meditation.  In a previous post, for example, we discussed ‘desire‘ as one of these obstacles.

Diana points out that aversion may arise through boredom with the practice of meditation, resentment of the time that needs to be set aside to maintain daily meditation practice, or residual negative feelings from something in our lives.  These feelings may be anger over a job loss, frustration about not making progress with a project or residual feelings from conflict with someone at work or at home.   These negative feelings can result in our feeling reluctant to even start our meditation.

Diana suggests that the feeling itself – whether boredom, anger, resentment or frustration – is the starting point.  Just noticing what we are feeling, acknowledging it and understanding how it has arisen, can be the focus of our meditation.  We do not need to focus elsewhere or be tied to a routine or prescribed topic.  It’s enough to deal with ‘what is’ – what we are thinking and feeling in the moment.

What is important though is to treat ourselves with loving kindness – not beating up on ourselves for a lack of interest at the time or the presence of negative residual feelings.  A way to negate this negative self-evaluation is to engage in a further meditation focused on loving kindness towards our self.

Loving kindness meditation in the event of aversion to meditation practice

Loving kindness meditation can focus on our self and/or others – these can also be combined.  When using the loving kindness approach, it is recommended to start with loving kindness towards others and to use the resultant experience of ‘warmth’ to turn the focus onto yourself.

Having first become grounded, the meditation begins with a focus on someone you admire or love.   After imagining the person of your choice, the meditation begins with wishing them wellness, e.g. “May you experience strength, health and happiness.”

This then flows onto loving kindness meditation towards yourself.  Here, you extend to yourself similar wellness wishes and avoid any judgmental thoughts that could diminish your self-esteem.  The reality is that even experienced meditators encounter obstacles to their meditation practice, including aversion.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, we can learn to handle whatever comes our way, including obstacles such as aversion.  Loving kindness meditation extended to others and to our self, can free us from negative self-evaluation in the event of experiencing a meditation obstacle.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

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Nurturing the Seeds of Happiness

In the sixth week of the online, Power of Awareness Course, Tara Brach talked about nourishing the seeds of happiness.  This followed a video session on the standing meditation which an article in the Huffington Post describes as an established Buddhist approach.

Nurturing the moment requires being in the present, aware of what is happening within and outside ourselves.  As Tara points out, there are so many times during the day where we can experience some form of positive feeling – whether it be happiness, calm, appreciation, serenity, blessed, full of wonder, amazed, free, thankful, delighted or joyous.

Yet, because of the negativity bias of our brains – an evolutionary bias – we let these positive feelings wane or slip by and focus instead on the negative emotions such as fear, anxiety, dread, suspiciousness, nervousness, alarmed or scared.  We often dwell on the negative emotions and do not reinforce the positivity in our lives by savoring the moments of positive feelings.

Tara suggests that this focus on the negative is endemic in our society today:

Our attention fixates on what might go wrong and we are really imprinted – imprinted by experiences that bring up fear or pain and we are inclined to look for them.

Tara argues that we have a “happiness setpoint” that is biologically and biochemically conditioned, and that acts as a happiness thermostat to keep the lid on our happiness level.  To offset this bias towards the negative in our lives, we need to learn to savor the positive moments.

Savoring the moments of happiness

The best way to build a positive outlook on life is to savor the moments when we experience positive feelings.  I have written previously about specific things in your life that you can savour – your child’s development, friendship, your achievements and rewards, the space of being alone or the freedom of boredom.

In this current post, we are not focusing on a particular situation or person in our lives, but on the experience of happiness, in whatever form it takes.  However, it takes practice to overcome the entrenched habit of fixation on the negative and, in turn, establish “a new setpoint for our wellbeing”.

Tara suggests that one way to do this is through “conscious savoring” of the many pleasant feelings that we experience throughout our day.  In her words, “it is a commitment to pause when you are experiencing goodness or happiness or wonder or appreciation or joy or peace”.  The stimulus could be a sunrise over the mirror-like water, a pleasant recollection, the cool breeze on your face or the song of a newly arrived bird in the backyard.

You can savor the moment of happiness by pausing, stopping what you are doing momentarily, and breathing in the pleasure of the moment by taking a couple of deep, conscious breaths.  You can dwell with care and gratitude on the positive feelings you are experiencing, rather than rushing into another activity that may lead to anxiousness. This is very much a process of reflection-in-action.

As we grow in mindfulness through savoring the many different moments of happiness that occur in our lives, we become more aware of the richness of these feelings and the peace that resides within, and we learn to enrich our wellbeing through nurturing the seeds of happiness.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

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Beyond R.A.I.N. – Remembering Self-Compasssion

In an earlier post, I discussed the R.A.I.N. meditation process – recognise, accept, investigate, nurture – as a way to address situations, including interactions with another, that generate strong negative feelings.  What happens, though, when your ineffective behaviour and negative feelings continue to recur after using the R.A.I.N. process?

We can be the captive of addiction, trapped in habituated responses to adverse stimuli, or stressed to the point that we have little control over our response when we are aggravated by an event or another person.  We may have lost our response ability through a lack of consciousness of our words and actions and their injurious impact on others, often unintended.

Tara Brach likens our daily life and its challenges to the waves of the ocean – we can’t stop the waves, but we can learn how to surf them so that we do not get “dumped” by them.  If we persist in blaming ourselves for falling off the surfboard of life occasionally, we can become paralysed by fear of failure.  This, in turn, can be compounded by our endless self-judging.

Self-judging imprisons us

We all have some form of negative self-evaluation – it may be stimulated by an event, adverse experience or over-reaction to a person we find annoying or critical of our behaviour.  We regularly blame ourselves or undervalue who we are or what we have contributed.  We might think that we do not “measure up” to our own standards, values or expectations or those of our family or significant other.

Our assessment of our response to a situation may be accurate in terms of inappropriateness, but the continual self-judging and self-denigrating disempowers us and detracts from our happiness and joy in life.  We become reluctant to engage effectively with our work colleagues, withdrawn in our conversations with our life partner or reticent to raise issues that affect us in other situations.   The way to regain our freedom and joy is through self-compassion.

Self-compassion frees us from the imprisonment of self-judging

Self-compassion enables us to break the trap of self-judging and be open to new responses to adverse situations.  It requires a radical self-acceptance and acknowledgement of what is human – our depth of suffering from previous experiences that manifests itself in our daily response to what is experienced as adverse events.  The perception of the impact of these events on us and our self-esteem is coloured by our recollections and interpretations of prior experiences.

As we grow in mindfulness through self-compassion meditation, we can break out of the cycle of self-judging and become open to different responses and to the freedom realised when we can break free of negative self-evaluations.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

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Remember the R.A.I.N.

R.A.I.N. is a meditation process designed to help you when you have a situation where you experience strong negative feelings towards another person.  The process was recently introduced by Tara Brach as part of the Power of Awareness Course.

The acronym stands for Recognise, Accept, Investigate and Nurture.  Each of these steps can be undertaken during a meditation following an interaction with another person – partner, colleague, child, boss- that disturbs your equilibrium or, if you have the presence of mind at the time, during the disturbing interaction itself.  Let’s have a look at what these steps involve.

Recognise your emotions

After adopting an introductory grounding meditation practice, you need to reflect on the upsetting interaction and try to recognise your feelings at the time.  As we mentioned previously, identifying and naming your feelings, enables you to tame them.  Sometimes, this can be a complicated mix of feelings and other times involve feelings reflecting two different orientations –  feelings about the other person and feelings about yourself. For example, you might feel frustration and anger towards the other person (especially, if their behaviour that has an adverse effect on you is repeated often).  You might also be anxious that the resulting conflict, and your own inappropriate response at the time, puts your relationship in jeopardy.

Accept the interaction and the contributing factors

Life is not simple – nor is it free from stress and conflict – we are all unique and have different ideas, values, preferences, behaviours and idiosyncrasies.  Accepting the reality of the adverse interaction is an important part of moving on.  You can wallow in your hurt feelings and maintain your resentment, but this will be detrimental to yourself and the other person.  Your anger will pervade your thoughts and distort your perception of the other person and also manifest itself in your behaviour towards them and others.  The way ahead is to process your residual feelings, accept what has happened and move onto the investigation step.

Investigate your feelings that occurred during the interaction

This is not a conceptual exercise, where you stay just with your thoughts and objective analysis.  It entails being fully embodied – noting where in your body the pain and hurt associated with the feelings resides.  What do the feelings do to your body?  Are the negative thoughts and feelings expressed as tension in your forehead, tightness in your shoulders, an ache in your back or  other physical manifestation?  Focusing on the areas of pain and aching, enables you to release the physical unease and the associated thoughts and feelings.

Nurture yourself through the process

It is important to treat yourself with kindness, not scorn or derision.  The latter approach leads to low self-esteem and the belief that you are unable to do anything about the relationship because you “lost it” or were inept in the interaction.  Caring for yourself is critical, otherwise distress about the other person’s words and actions can lead to distress about what you said and did.   This only exacerbates an unsettling experience.

As you emerge from the R.A.I.N. meditation, you will have a strong sense of freedom and the basis for a new relationship with the other person.  As you grow in mindfulness, you will be better able to undertake these steps during the interaction itself, rather than afterwards.  So the R.A.I.N. meditation can also help you with future interactions with the same person.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

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What If I Fall Asleep During Meditation?

I have been discussing feelings and emotions – recognising your feelings and naming those feelings.  But what If I fall asleep during meditating on my feelings?  That happened to me the other day when I was doing a mindful breathing meditation for five minutes.

The natural tendency is to “beat up” on yourself.  It was only five minutes, why couldn’t I stay awake for that short time?  I must be doing it wrong.  How can I ever sustain the effort for 20 or 40 minutes?  I’ll never be able to master this meditation process!

Being non-judgmental about sleepiness during meditation

Jack Kornfield suggests that it is important to be non-judgmental – doing so, is not only counter-productive but may feed your natural tendency to judge yourself negatively.  He suggests that you can get in touch with the feeling of sleepiness and treat yourself with kindness.

Sometimes, we feel sleepy because of the strain of dealing with negative feelings – of allowing them to come to the surface.  The body may feel overwhelmed by the strength of the emotion and decide it is too difficult to handle. Alternatively, your body may take this opportunity to catch some rest if you have been living a very fast-paced life.

Meditation involves relaxation – relaxing into our breath and freeing our body from points of tension.  So, it is only natural that this will open us up to the challenge of falling asleep during meditation.  However, if it happens in the early stages or only occasionally, it is nothing to worry about.

If falling asleep does occur in the early stages of your learning to meditate, accept that this is part of the learning process.  Your body and mind have to adjust to the new pace and focus (the present)- and this takes time.  It will help you to build your patience to persist without judging yourself – a patience that will increase your capacity for self-management.

If sleepiness during meditation persists for months, you may need to take a serious look at your lifestyle – it may indicate that you are constantly consuming your emergency energy supply (drawing on a second breath all the time or persisting through sheer will power).

Some helpful hints for overcoming sleepiness during meditation

Mindspace.com has some very good suggestions to manage your sleepiness if it occurs frequently during meditation.  These suggestions relate mainly to considering your environment, your timing and your posture during meditation.

It is important that your environment is conducive to meditation.  Having a flow of fresh air by opening a window may help – this is similar to the recommendation to open the windows of a car if you are feeling drowsy as the fresh air may help to keep you awake as it blows on you.  Location is important too – so avoid meditating on or in your bed.  Besides inducing sleep because this is where you go to sleep each day, it potentially develops the habit of wakefulness when in bed – which is the last thing you want!

Timing for your meditation is important.  I have suggested having a set time each day to meditate to build the habit of meditating.  However, if this timing coincides with when your are typically very tired, then you will have great difficulty overcoming sleepiness during meditation.  If you are a “morning person” (who wakes up early and declines in energy as the day progresses) perhaps a morning meditation session is best; if you are “night person” (slow to wake up and gains energy as the day progresses) then maybe a night meditation session is best.  You need to find what best suits your own body clock.

Your posture can affect your meditation and your capacity to stay awake.  It is suggested that you sit upright rather than lying down during meditation.  Some even suggest placing a pillow behind your back to maintain this upright position.  If you are a yoga practitioner, then a sitting yoga position may be conducive to effective meditation.

Other hints to avoid sleepiness during meditation relate to food and drink.  Meditating immediately after a meal can induce sleep because your body tends to be drowsy as it digests the food.  Coffee, on the other hand, can act as a stimulant and can create dependence as well as reinforcement of the linkage between the stimulant and the act of meditating.  Meditation is a natural process and involves becoming attuned to your body, so using stimulants, such as coffee, can work against the goals of meditation – hence it is good to leave the coffee to after meditation.

I will leave the final word to Andy Puddicombe who has some summary advice in his video on Why do I keep falling asleep?

As you grow in mindfulness, you will progressively overcome sleepiness during meditation because your body and mind will gradually adjust to the unfamiliar activity.  You will not overcome sleepiness during meditation entirely – there will still be times when you are very tired and fall asleep while meditating.  However, if you treat yourself non-judgmentally and gently, you will overcome these minor setbacks to your progress in mindfulness.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of JessicaJohnson on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.