Meditation, Mindfulness, and Letting Go: What Do They Mean?

Meditation, Mindfulness, and Letting Go: What Do They Mean?

Charles Day

Meditation and mindfulness have become buzz words in mainstream culture as profound practices that accelerate psychological and spiritual growth. But what exactly do they mean and how do they accomplish this? Following are my thoughts as a retired psychologist who has been meditating for over 45 years in the US, India, and Thailand.*

What is mindfulness? It is intentionally giving full attention to present moment experience, to experiencing the continuously changing now moment-by-moment. While this may sound simple, it is quite difficult to remain mindful of only one intended object or subject for very long, simply because the mind so readily reacts to and is distracted by the multitude of ever-changing external and internal stimuli: sights, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile touch and temperature, and the mental thoughts, feelings, and images triggered by previous experiences.

What is meditation?  While there are many types of meditation, what I call basic meditation - one that minimizes rather than utilizes cognitive processes - is a fundamental practice that cultivates the skill and trains the mind to be more relaxed and mindful and, perhaps most importantly, to recognize and let go of the distractions and conditioned response patterns that impede the ability to sustain mindfulness and remain calm and relaxed. To repeat: Meditation trains the mind to sustain mindfulness and equanimity by learning to recognize and let go of distractions.

The ability of recognize and let go of unwanted, negative, and harmful thoughts and feelings before reacting to them enables the individual in daily life to intentionally and spontaneously think, speak, and act in wiser, more comfortable, efficient, effective, peaceful, and compassionate ways.

Practicing mindfulness several times daily by returning the attention to the now facilitates learning to stay present, but it is the disciplined and regular practice of basic meditation that leads to an individual's increased ability to experience clarity of thinking, lovingkindness, compassion for oneself and others, happiness in the success and good fortune of others, equanimity, and a generalized enjoyment of life. And many meditators report having spiritual experiences and realizations of what is called unity consciousness, enlightenment, or union with God.

Meditation practice for laypersons is not so much about learning to "concentrate" or to attain the rarified states of higher consciousness that were historically sought by monks who led lives of quiet simplicity in secluded monastic settings. The daily lives of ordinary folks are filled with multiple activities and responsibilities, epitomized by the contemporary phrase "multi-tasking."

As a result, while laypersons may experience periods of concentration and bliss, meditation for most is a practice that trains the everyday active mind to simply stay more relaxed, mindful, and compassionate and to let go of the distractions that interfere with attending to an intended object or subject. Many individuals experience these positive benefits even more profoundly in their relationships and daily lives than in the meditation sessions themselves.

How are these benefits accomplished?  How to meditate: More than 60 years of scientific research shows that the basic meditation practices which produce these results share two common instructions: First, the meditator is told to focus for as long as possible on the breath or other simple object, such as experiencing body sensations, mentally repeating a mantra (a word or phrase), listening to a repetitive sound, or visualizing an internal or external object.

Second, the meditator is told to return the attention to the breath or chosen object every time one becomes aware/mindful it has wandered to or been distracted by a sound, other sensation, daydreaming, drowsiness, and by thoughts, feelings, and images that arise in consciousness. It is in returning the attention to the breath that the mind is being trained/retrained to recognize and let go of thoughts and feelings rather than automatically and habitually reacting to them as a result of previous learning and conditioning.

In sitting meditation, it is also recommended that one sit in a comfortable and stable position to minimize physical stress and movement, and close the eyes or look at a spot on the floor or other neutral object to minimize visual distractions. Observing the breath can also be done while walking, standing in line, or waiting for an appointment. Lying down while meditating is generally discouraged because it is associated with falling asleep.

Scientific studies counter the common complaint that "I can't meditate because I can't concentrate on the breath for more than a few seconds." It is the learning to let go of distractions that enhances the ability to sustain focusing, attending, concentrating, and mindfulness, and having to return often to the breath reinforces this ability. Countering another frequent objection to meditating - namely, "I'm too busy, don't have time, and have too many other priorities" - is the research showing that meditators perform tasks more efficiently and effectively with time left over to do even more when compared with non-meditators with similar responsibilities, jobs, parenting, and other activities.

Studies also show that when meditators subjectively report that they are unable to relax or experience any benefit, physiological measures of their brain patterns, heart rates, and skin temperatures indicate they are, in fact, relaxing. And other studies show that the various benefits of meditation are cumulative and correlated with the length and regularity of practice.

Meditation sessions are experienced differently. Some are experienced with calmness, joy, and little or no thinking, and others are filled with restlessness, drowsiness, and agitated thinking. Because of this subjective variation within and between sessions and the objective research demonstrating positive results regardless of specific experiences, meditators are encouraged to avoid having any expectations or making judgments about what they experience.  

All meditations are equally beneficial so long as one intentionally follows the instructions to focus and refocus on the breath or other chosen object each and every time the mind wanders, no matter how often it strays or how long it stays away before noticing it is not on the breath. This noticing is a moment of mindful awareness that the mind has wandered and is no long engaged in the intended task of following the breath. Worth repeating: Having to return frequently to the breath reinforces the skill of learning to let go of distractions and is thus a benefit, not an impediment, to meditation and the ability to sustain mindfulness.

It is recommended that beginners meditate for as many minutes as they choose or have time to meditate - 10 to 20 minutes or even just one or two minutes daily, or whenever they feel like meditating.  And, if desired, work up to 30 or more minutes once or twice daily as a regular practice.

Decide before each session how long it will be and commit to meditating that long in order to avoid reacting to distracting thoughts that temp one to end a session before the allotted time or doubt the value of a specific meditation or meditation in general. And continue with one technique rather than switching to another to avoid reacting to the mind's incessant quest for immediate gratification. Try another method only if you would otherwise quit meditating altogether. Remember, meditation is about learning to control the mind rather than being controlled by it.

Some individuals enjoy meditating with groups and studying with experienced and trusted teachers, but everyone is capable of learning and practicing mindfulness and meditation alone. So, alone or with others and regularly or irregularly, while it may sometimes seem counter intuitive, don't just do something, sit there.
For more information, email, call (515-255-8398), check out, and attend a 7:30 pm Tuesday meditation at the Friends Meeting House at 4211 Grand Ave. in Des Moines.
*Charlie began meditating in California in the mid-60s with Hindu, Buddhist, and Sufi spiritual teachers who came from the East to introduce meditation to the West. He has also studied with Western teachers, many of whom returned here after studying in Asian ashrams, monasteries, and retreat centers. And while working as a psychologist in India and Thailand in the late-80s, he participated in several intensive 10-day retreats with Buddhist masters.