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The Body Scan: Developing Emotional Awareness

For many years, meditators have known that emotion and physical sensations are intimately linked. More recently, researchers, psychologists and neuroscientists from all over the world have actually proven and even mapped out this phenomenon. For example, in a study of 700 participants, Dr. Lauri Nummenmaa systematically mapped out the different places in the body where we experience emotions, as well as the physical sensations that correlate to each of those emotions.

Use your body to explore your emotions

Use your body to explore your emotions

To be more aware of your emotions – and thus to understand and be able to harness them better – it’s essential to develop mindfulness around your body. This will give you a more nuanced perception of the physical sensations that arise when you’re experiencing an emotion. You’ll also be able to spot emotions faster, and choose how you want to respond to those emotions consciously rather than reactively.

So, how do you develop mindfulness around your body and your emotions?

The Body Scan

The body scan is a meditation where you examine your body and its physical sensations in a systematic way, part by part. This meditation takes about 10 minutes. You can, of course, meditate for longer as well.

Getting Started

To get started, find a comfortable place to sit where you won’t be interrupted. Close your eyes. Do 1 to 2 minutes of meditation using whatever method you’re most used to. This will help calm your mind and get you ready to begin the body scan.

The Head

Put your attention on the very top of your head. Feel any sensation that might be there, no matter how minute. Slowly move your attention from the very tip of your head, down your scalp, until you’re just above your eyebrows. Do this very slowly and observe any and all physical sensations as you’re scanning. Spend about 1 minute here.

The Face

Next, bring your attention to the face. Start from the top down. What sensations do you feel around your eyes? Your nose? Your lips? Your chin? Spend about 1 minute feeling sensations on your face.

The Neck and Shoulders

Now move your attention to the back of your head. Start from the bottom of your scalp, move down your next, all the way to your shoulders. Look for any sensations, tensions, feelings of hotness or coldness, or just anything that moves into your awareness. Spend 1 minute on this area.

The Body

Scan the front of your body and the back of your body separately. Start from your shoulders and move all the way down your torso in about 1 minute. Then start again from your back and move all the way from your shoulders to your pelvis, again taking about 1 minute.

The Whole Body At Once

Finally, let your attention drape over your entire body. Notice any physical sensations or emotions that arise. Spend about 1 minute here.

If you’re extending the meditation, you can start from the bottom and go back up, or you can start over again from the top.

Break Down Emotions into Sensations

As you’re doing the body scan, try to focus on sensations, rather than emotions. For instance, instead of “I am angry,” you might notice the sensation of heat in your chest, tightness in your face and shallower breathing.

Focusing on the physical sensations of an emotion, rather than the idea of it, will allow you to spot that emotion faster in real life. The next time you notice those physical cues, you’ll notice it – faster than if you were trying to notice when you’re angry, for instance. Focusing on physical sensations also tends to give you more nuanced information, which can lead to deeper insights.

Go ahead and give the body scan meditation a try. Then, come back and let us know what you discovered!

Set the Tone for Your Meditations with an Intention

Beginning a meditation is a bit different than beginning any other daily habit. For instance, if you were to go for a jog, all you need to do is put on your jogging clothes and head out the door. Meditation on the other hand is a little different. Meditation is not a static process that you rinse and repeat. Instead, it’s something new to explore every day. The way you set your intention for your meditation, before you get started, can completely change your experience.

Set an intention before you meditate.

Set an intention before you meditate.

Different Experiences, Same Technique

Depending on your intention, you can have a completely different meditation experience, even if you’re using the same meditation technique. For instance, take the basic meditation of just focusing on your breath.

If your intention is to develop attention, then you’d gently block everything else out. Any time you find your mind wandering, you’d kindly bring yourself back to the breath. Over time, your brain learns to automatically bring your mind back to focus, even when you’re not meditating.

Now, let’s say your intention is to learn about how your mind works. Perhaps there’s one thing you want to focus on – for example, you’ve been feeling stressed, and want to see exactly how that manifests in your mind. So, you sit down. You use the same technique of focusing on your breath. Whenever you notice thoughts arise, you gently bring it back to your breath.

However, when you notice stressful thoughts arise, you might spend a little more time observing those thoughts. What patterns do you notice? How does the stress arise? How does a thought turn into the emotion of stress? How does that manifest in your body?

Then, whenever you’re ready, bring your attention back to the breath.

As you can see, your intention for the sit can completely change your experience – even within the same type of meditation.

Setting Your Intention

As you sit down to meditate, focus your mind on what your intention is for your sit. If you’re not sure where to put your attention, consider:

  • What are you curious about, within your mind?
  • How do you want to grow as a person?
  • What’s challenging in your life?
  • What would you like to explore?
  • What would you like to create?

Once you’ve chosen your intention, hold it briefly in your mind. Then, begin your meditation.

This process of reminding yourself why you’re meditating, then briefly focusing your mind, will help guide your meditation session. Setting an intention doesn’t need to take more than 10 seconds, but it can make a profound difference on your experience.

Harnessing Both Open and Focused Attention

A big part of meditation is training your attention. Though we often talk about attention as if it’s one thing, there are actually many different types of attention. Two of the most important ones are open attention and focused attention.

Open attention is your ability to maintain your presence of mind while allowing different stimuli to pass through your awareness. Focused attention is your ability to keep your awareness on just one stimulus, while filtering everything else out. Both types of awareness are highly beneficial to cultivate.

Cultivate two different types of attention!

Cultivate two different types of attention!

Why Cultivate Open Awareness?

Cultivating open awareness means improving your ability to stay present and observe, while letting your actual experience change. For example, in one moment you might be aware of a thought, in the next moment a physical sensation, then an emotion, followed by an insight. Instead of “attaching” or being swept away by any of these experiences, you simply stay in being the observer.

When you cultivate open awareness, you open the doors to tremendous insight. Because you’re observing your experience through the lens of awareness, you’ll be able to spot patterns in your thinking or way of being that you wouldn’t normally see. In everyday life these might just play out in autopilot, but as these patterns flow through your awareness, you’ll be able to become aware of them.

Cultivating open awareness can also help you handle stress and chaos better in real life. Your mind becomes more accustomed to staying detached yet present, even when a lot is going on. With focused attention, you train your mind to be less distracted, to reduce mental chaos. With open awareness, you train your mind not to resist chaos, to instead just observe it. This can be very valuable in the real world.

Why Cultivate Focused Attention?

Focused attention involves selecting one focal point, then training your mind to come back to repeatedly come back that focal point. For example, let’s say the focal point is the breath. In a focused attention meditation, you would simply keep bringing your attention back to your breath.

This is the most commonly taught form of meditation, and for good reason. Cultivating focused attention helps you train your ability to direct your attention. You practice noticing when your mind loses focus, then gently bringing it back to center again. This is the type of meditation that strengthens the prefrontal cortex and boosts productivity.

It’s important to note that these mental benefits stay with you after the meditation session. At first it might seem like your mind snaps back to how it was before, immediately after you finish meditating. Yet, with a consistent practice, you’ll quickly find that the benefits of meditation will start staying with you longer and longer throughout the day.

How to Practice Open and Focused Attention

A good way to get a sense for these two different types of attention is to meditate while alternating between the two. Set your timer for three minutes. For the first three minutes, practice being present with whatever comes into your awareness. Observe, let the experience stay as long as it needs to, then let it pass. Don’t try to push any experience or thought away, and don’t latch on. Just observe.

Then, when the three minutes are up, change to a focused meditation. Pick one focal point (the breath is a good one,) and just focus on that one thing. If your attention wanders, gently bring it back to the focal point. Practice keeping your attention in one place.

Alternating between the two will give you a good feel for each of them. Which one is more beneficial for you? Share in the comments!

Improve Your Communication with Mindful Listening

One area where we tend to have unconscious tendencies is in our communication. Even among regular meditators, it’s uncommon for us to meditate with another human being. Instead, we isolate ourselves and look inward.

Like a scientist observing a phenomenon in a lab, we learn about our minds in a pristine environment. Yet just like science, it’s essential to take the theory out of the lab and test it out in practice. Likewise, if we want to improve our communication, it’s essential for us to take mindfulness out of solo practice and bring it into conversation.

Can this meditation improve your communication?

Can meditation improve your communication?

Mindful Listening: A Meditation on Communication

The Mindful Listening practice is a meditation that’ll help you become more aware of your mind and your mental habits during conversation. As you become more aware of your mental habits in your day to day conversations, you’ll also have more power to change it. Here’s how this meditation works.

To do this exercise, you’ll need a friend, family member or co-worker. You’ll switch off with one another, each person taking turns to speak. You’ll each speak for 3 minutes, uninterrupted.

When you’re in the speaker role, all you need to do is talk for 3 minutes. The topic doesn’t matter, but do try experimenting with different topics. You don’t have to fill the entire 3 minutes. If you run out of things to say, just stop speaking and sit in silence until you feel like talking again. Your turn is over when 3 minutes is up. You’ll want to switch between speaker and listener roles at least a couple times.

In this meditation, the more active role is actually the listener’s. When you’re listening, your role is to be mindful. Put your attention on what the speaker is saying – as well as on your mind’s inner dialogue. The most you’re allowed to say when listening is “I see” or “I understand.”

Take these 3 minutes to really notice how your mind works when you’re in communication. For example:

  • Do you feel the urge to share your own, possibly impressive story?
  • Do you feel the urge to offer advice?
  • What emotions are you experiencing?
  • Are you “trying” to do anything? Are you trying to get them to like you or trying to do the exercise right?
  • Are you making any assumptions?
  • What are the unspoken qualities in the interaction?

Whatever mental tendencies you notice during this meditation, there’s a good chance they’re mental tendencies you experience on a regular basis. In everyday life, when everything’s moving at a fast pace, it’s difficult to be mindful and spot these tendencies. By spotting them in an interpersonal meditation like this, you open up the possibility of noticing them in real-time in the real world. Then you can start to change these habits, if you choose to do so.

How Often, and When, Should You Meditate?

Some people spend 12 hours a day meditating. Others meditate no more than a minute a day. Which is the “right” answer? When are the best times to meditate? Which option is the best for you and your lifestyle?

As with most things in life, there isn’t one “right” answer to these questions. In fact, your personal practice will likely change over time. Instead, here are some guidelines and tips to live by as you’re creating your meditation practice.

When and how often should you meditate?

When and how often should you meditate?

Wade In, Don’t Jump In

Sustaining a meditation practice is about consistency. It’s about picking a pace that works for you over the long run, rather than creating a fast burst of intense meditation. That’s why the “wade, don’t jump” mentality is important.

If you’re just starting to meditate, don’t try to jump in with an hour a day. Don’t even try 30 minutes a day. Instead, try just 5 or 10 minutes a day. If that seems daunting, go for 2 minutes.

The goal is to start with a practice that seems just slightly too easy. Maintain that schedule for a month, then slowly add to it. Starting slow helps ensure that your new meditation practice really sticks.

Pair Your Practice With Other Daily Rituals

Make your meditation a part of a daily ritual. Throughout your day, you probably already have a number of different rituals. A ritual is anything you do every day, at the same time of day. These include making your morning coffee, brushing your teeth, working out, getting home from work, showering, having a glass of wine at night, etc.

Try to pair or include your meditation practice into a part of your existing daily rituals. For example, you can add a 10 minute meditation in front of your daily exercise. Since you’ve already got one habit down, it can be a “trigger” or a “lead” for another new habit. Pairing your meditation practice to an existing habit or ritual helps cement its place in your day as a regular activity.

Spontaneous Meditation

A daily meditation practice is one of the most powerful habits you could develop for creating mental, emotional and even professional transformation. But your meditation doesn’t have to be limited to just your daily meditation.

Spontaneous meditations throughout your day can also be immensely beneficial. For example, let’s say you’re about to have a potentially stressful meeting with your boss. Taking a couple minutes to meditate beforehand can be a great way to clear your mind and get yourself to a place of emotional stability beforehand. Or meditating as you drive home from work can be a great way to unwind.

Have a daily practice. But, don’t be afraid to throw in a few minutes of meditation throughout your day, whenever it calls for it.

When Should You Meditate?

Remember: the only “goal” when structuring your meditation practice is just to make it sustainable. Start easy. Wade, don’t jump. Pair it with other habits to make it easy to remember. Create something you can stick with – then slowly add to it over time. And remember that you can always meditate more, spontaneously, whenever you want.

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