Learning to stay out of the water: why I practice mindfulness meditation (+ how you can too)

In his book ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’, Viktor Frankl says ‘between stimulus and response is a space.  In that space is our power to choose our response.’  Take a moment to read that again and consider it fully:

‘between stimulus and response is a space.  In that space is our power to choose our response.’

For me, the practice of mindfulness meditation – in the Buddhist tradition known as Shamatha – creates and then enlarges that space, so that I can experience that power to choose my response to what is happening around me.

As each of us go through our days, we all encounter different stimuli which trigger us, and as a result we experience different thoughts and feelings.

I sometimes like to picture these thoughts and feelings like a river – constantly moving, ever changing; sometimes a calm stream, other times a choppy torrent of water.

Before I started practicing mindfulness meditation, my experience was one of being in the water, wet through, with no space between stimulus and response.  In this place we are at the mercy of the river, constantly buffeted by the flow of uncontrollable stimuli we each encounter every day, taken down stream; perhaps at times even taken under by the current when particularly difficult life events result in the water being especially treacherous.

With my practice, I have found I am able to step out of the river and observe things from the riverbank.

With this space between me and the flow of water, I can watch whatever is coming up for me, without getting wet, or being taken down stream or being at the mercy of the river.

From this vantage point, I have that space to choose how to respond to what comes up, rather than react.  It allows me to be an observer – one that can see that everything passes.  The river is ever changing.

With continued practice of meditation – regular and over time – the water gets calmer – giving us greater clarity to see what might be underneath some of our thoughts and feelings.  Increasingly, we build the strength to get out of the water and the stability to stay on the bank.

Clarity, strength and stability – said to be the key benefits of this practice.  And also the power to choose our responses as we move through the world.  To make choices that will nourish us and in turn others.  And it all starts with the awareness that the space between stimulus and response exists at all.

Inspired to practice?

Take a comfortable seated position where you can keep the spine erect without being in conversation with the body.  This may be cross legged – hips higher than knees – or kneeling, or seated – feet in connection with the ground, back a little way away from the chair.

Inhaling, feeling yourself lengthen through the spine; exhaling, feeling your sitting bones anchoring you down.  Crown of the head lifted, eyes open, gaze down and soft, towards a space somewhere a metre or so in front of you.

Take your hands palms downwards, to sit somewhere comfortably on your legs.  In this tradition, this is known as the mudra – hand gesture – of calm abiding.

Now place your awareness on your natural breath, wherever it is most apparent to you.  This may be the natural movement of the navel moving forwards and backwards with the breath.  Or it may be the sense of the whole body breathing.  Or perhaps you hook your awareness to the cool air being inhaled through the nostrils, and the warm air being exhaled out through the nostrils.

Having placed your awareness on your breath, notice any time it leaves the breath.  Once you do, replace your awareness back onto your breath.  Those are the three parts to the practice – placement, noticing, replacement.  It is both that simple and that difficult.

I invite you to make a commitment to this practice for just two minutes a day at first.  The great thing about two minutes is that it is always possible – whether motivation is high or low (and waves of motivation like this are totally normal for all of us).  Tack it onto another behaviour you already consistently do, rain or shine, each and every day.  E.g. you could make this promise to yourself: ‘after I have made my morning cup of tea, I will sit and practice for two minutes.’

And most of all, really celebrate when you do practice – smile as you notice how it feels to keep this daily promise to yourself.

© Catherine Rolfe Hatha Yoga Teacher 2021

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Have questions about your meditation practice?  Please ask and I’ll be happy to help – use my contact form here.