An overview of mindfulness-based stillness meditation
from Ian Gawler and Paul Bedson, authors of Meditation: An in-depth guide
From our collective experience as students, practitioners and
teachers we have formulated a gradual approach to meditation utilising
attention. We have called this meditation path Mindfulness-Based
Stillness Meditation (MBSM). We wholeheartedly recommend that MBSM
becomes your main meditation practice. In itself, MBSM is a complete
practice with many benefits. It is also a very beneficial foundation
for practising the other styles of meditation using intention and
As mentioned in the Introduction, MBSM has four steps:
preparation, relaxation, mindfulness and stillness. We will examine
each of these in turn.
Step 1: Preparation
Preparation involves establishing comfort and ease. We create a
conducive external and internal environment for meditation by preparing
the location, our posture and our attitude (see Chapter 2).
Step 2: Relaxation
A tight or tense body often accompanies a busy and restless mind.
We use relaxation techniques to create more spaciousness in the body,
which helps in calming the mind and bringing our attention into the
present moment (see chapters 3 and 4).
Step 3: Mindfulness
Mindfulness is paying attention to what is happening around and
inside of us each moment, without judging or attempting to change
anything. We notice whatever sounds come to our attention. We notice
the sensations in the body, the feeling of the breath moving in and
out. We notice any emotions and thoughts. We surrender our attention to
the present moment.
In later chapters we explain how mindfulness can be practised
byusing a narrow focus of attention such as Mindfulness of Breath
(chapters 5 and 6). Then a more open and inclusive practice can be
developed through Mindfulness of Body (chapters 7 and 8), Mindfulness
of Emotions (chapters 9 and 10) and Mindfulness of Thoughts (Chapter
Step 4: Stillness
Gradually, by just paying attention without reacting, we become
aware of a stillness. Sounds, sensations, even emotions and thoughts
just come and go. Free of judgement. Free of reaction. We notice a
background of stillness against which sounds, sensations and thoughts
come and go, appear and disappear. We become aware of that still and
silent presence which is just noticing the movement of sounds,
sensations and thoughts. In this stillness, awareness is open and
undistracted. Stillness is not a static nothingness; it is an alive,
alert and non-reactive presence (see chapters 11 and 12).
LEARNING TO RELAX
In these days of tension, human beings can learn a great
deal about relaxation from watching a cat, who doesn’t just lie down
when it is time to rest, but pours his body on the floor and rests in
every nerve and muscle.
—Juliette Clarke, A Cat Lover’s Notebook
Having established a conducive environment and adopted a
supportive posture along with a curious, non-judgemental state of mind,
we are now ready to begin to learn how to master the process of
relaxing the body and calming the mind.
This type of relaxation—relaxation of body and mind—is the ideal
prelude to all forms of meditation. In our method of Mindfulness-Based
Stillness Meditation, relaxation flows quite naturally from good
preparations. In a conducive environment it is easy to relax our
bodies, and as we do this our minds tend to find their own inner calm.
However, we can learn and develop the techniques of relaxation of body
and mind in ways that will bring great benefits to our lives. This is
another life skill worth taking the time to master.
The word ‘master’ is used deliberately, as the techniques of
relaxation are skills that warrant learning, studying and practising
until we become so adept at using them that we can do so free of
effort. As discussed, from being the awkward beginner we become the
tentative learner, and then advance through the early stages of
accomplishment until finally we master what we have set out to learn.
This process of learning is worth mentioning repeatedly and reflecting
upon until we really get it. What we need to ‘get’ in this
context is being comfortable with where we are at. As a beginner, we
have beginner’s experiences. It is natural as a beginner to have some
uncertainty, even awkwardness or critical appraisal going on inside.
Remember, though, particularly as you learn to relax, to do so
in a relaxed fashion! Avoid the temptation to turn relaxation into a
stressful business. Take your time. Be realistic. Once you learn these
techniques and practise them a little, you will find they lead to deep
and satisfying relaxation.
Getting ready for progressive muscle relaxation (pmr)
We are aiming to master the process of relaxing the body and
calming the mind. It is really very simple. We start with an age-old
method that reliably and deeply relaxes the body, and then we learn how
to bring that experience of relaxation into our minds and our daily
The Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) exercise probably has
its origins in the ancient traditions of yoga. It is simple to learn,
reliably relaxes the body, frees us of any tension we may be carrying
in the body, and leaves us feeling really comfortable and at ease. The
technique involves learning to focus our attention upon the feeling of
each part or segment of the body as we contract and then release the
muscles in that area, starting with the feet and moving progressively
up through each muscle group until we reach the head.
There are four things to be aware of as we bring our attention
to each part of the body. So first we will take the time to learn and
practice these four things; then we can put them all together and
practise the PMR exercise effectively.
1. Bringing awareness to the body
To begin with we take a real interest in noticing, or being aware
of, how each part of our body is feeling when we first give our
attention to it. The key thing is to be just a bit curious. So start
with the feet and take a real interest in what they feel like today.
Then take your attention to your calves: how do they feel? And what
about your thighs?
During this simple exercise, aim to let go of expectations. Let
go of thoughts such as: ‘It should be like this or that’; ‘Why is it
like this or that?’ And we aim to let go of judgement, of: ‘This is
good, am I doing this right?’; or ‘This is bad, there must be something
wrong with me’. Relax into relaxation itself by simply being content
to notice how your body is feeling today.
Even if you do have some discomfort or pain, aim to let go of
wishing it away. Almost paradoxically, yet in a way you will come to
really understand, the more we can suspend our hopes and fears, the
more we can simply take a non-judgemental interest in how it really is
right now; the more we relax, the more comfortable we become; and the
more at ease we are the more likely it is that this simple method of
relaxation will flow on into meditation. This is a crucial point. While
the majority of people who use this approach will already be basically
physically comfortable and so will find that bringing awareness to
their body is straightforward, if you have pain or some physical
disability, these techniques can transform your experience of and
relationship to your body. The key is to adopt an open curiosity as to
how your body feels today, right now as you do this exercise, to accept
that this is the truth of the matter, this is how it is, and then to
use these techniques to lead your body into a deeper, more peaceful
The joy of all this is that it does work, and it works in quite a
direct and simple way. We spend a few moments, perhaps fifteen to 30
seconds, exploring how a particular part of our body is feeling, and
then we go on to the next step, and explore a different sensation.
2. Contracting the muscles
Next, just briefly, we contract the muscles in the particular
area we are giving our attention to. The aim is to notice the
difference in the feeling that is created in each part of the body by
tensing up the muscles. We only hold the tension for perhaps five or
ten seconds—just long enough to appreciate the feeling of tension that
is created. Tight, tense, contracted. What does it feel like? Again
that gentle curiosity. Free of expectations, just interested to notice,
to be aware of the feeling of tension in this particular part of your
3. Feeling the muscles letting go
Then we relax the muscles. We do this in a measured, gradual way.
It takes a few seconds. This is not like releasing a rubber band that
we have stretched and let go with a sudden ping. What we do here is
gentle. Simply relaxing and releasing. Notice the muscles softening and
loosening, the tightness and tension draining away.
As we do this, not only do we release the tension we
artificially created by contracting the muscles, but we release any
residual tension that may have been stored in the body as part of a
chronic pattern of tension.
Also, as another great benefit of this exercise, as we
experience letting go of the muscle tension we become increasingly
familiar with the feeling of letting go—in other words, we come to
recognise the feeling of relaxation. We recognise and know what it
feels like to relax the body, and as we continue to practise this
exercise we begin to be able to relax anytime, anywhere, just by paying
attention. This is a wonderful life skill to have. And anyone can learn
4. Familiarity with the feeling of relaxation
Finally, we give our attention to noticing what each part of the
body feels like once it is deeply relaxed, and we develop a familiarity
with the feeling of relaxation itself. Once we are able to know what
it feels like to be deeply relaxed, we have a benchmark. We know what
it is to be relaxed.
Now, many might say that this is a little absurd; of course I
know what it feels like to be relaxed. Well, in fairness, our
observation over several decades is that many people constantly carry
significant levels of tension in their bodies and have simply become
used to the feeling of it.
For example, way back in his early days of teaching, Ian
remembers a man named Brian who thought he knew how to feel relaxed.
Ian recalls: Usually I close my eyes with beginners groups and meditate
with them. Fairly invariably, at some stage in the meditation,
beginners tend to open their eyes to check out what is going on. Seeing
my eyes closed seems to give the sense that I am confident that they
will be okay, and they soon close their eyes again and relax into it.
This day I happened to open my eyes, and Brian was sitting
there, deep furrows across his brow, shoulders hunched and hands
tightly squeezed in two fists. Once we had finished, I asked Brian how
he had felt during the exercise, and he replied through clenched teeth,
‘Oh, fine, really relaxed’.
I was a bit taken aback. What Brian had demonstrated and helped
me to learn—his particular gift, if you like—was that many people have
this muscular tension in their body and that they have become so used
to the feeling of that tension that they do not even consciously
register it anymore. Their bodies and their minds have adapted to this
unnatural and quite uncomfortable state. What Brian was saying when he
said he felt fine was that he was used to how he felt. For him, to be
tense was his common experience; it was the norm. What Brian was not
saying, and what he helped me to realise, is that he, like many other
beginners we have helped over the years, did not know what being deeply
relaxed felt like.
This then is a wonderful benefit, almost a side effect of
learning to relax. As we practise these techniques, we come to learn
how to relax at will and to know what it feels like when we are
Once Brian got into the habit of practising relaxation as a
lead-in to his meditation, he began to pay attention to the feeling in
his body. As he did so, he began to notice something quite new. After a
few weeks he reported, ‘I feel a lightness in my body. The backaches
and shoulder pain have gone and I seem to have more energy.’ This all
occurred courtesy of a simple technique for releasing tension and
letting go into
Relaxing each part of the body
Let us now return to contracting and relaxing the muscles. These
days many people have done the PMR exercise before, but if it is new to
you what follows describes how to contract and relax the muscles in
each of the main areas of your body. In the next chapter, we will use
this knowledge as the basis for practising the PMR exercise.
Learning how to contract and relax the muscles at will only
takes a few minutes and is best done in the posture you intend to use
to meditate. The descriptions that follow are based on a sitting
position in a chair, but are easily adapted if you need to lie down or
use some other posture.
After doing this exercise your muscles should feel all loose and
floppy like a rag doll. Most people find it fairly easy to work out
how to contract the muscles in each given area of their body, but some
need a little more help. We offer some suggestions in the text below.
Start with the feet. The aim here is to contract all the muscles in
the feet, making them stiff and tight. Hold your attention on the
feeling this tightness produces in your feet for just a few seconds,
and then relax the muscles again, allowing them to go soft and loose.
You can imagine your feet are in sand and you are trying to curl
your toes down into the sand. At the same time, brace the muscles
along the tops of your feet to resist that movement. This will make the
muscles in the tops and the bottoms of your feet rigid. It will create
tension in your feet, and you will notice the feeling that it creates.
The feeling of tension is quite different to the feeling in your feet
when you first pay attention to them.
As you contract the muscles in the calves, some muscles in the
feet or the thighs might also contract a little too. Just ignore this
if it happens and concentrate on the feeling in the calves.
If you find it difficult to contract your calf muscles on
command, keep your feet flat on the floor and press the balls of your
feet down on the floor. This will contract the muscles at the back of
the calves. In a similar way, you can tighten the muscles in your shins
by resisting this attempted motion, or if it helps, imagine pulling
your toes up off the floor while resisting raising them.
This is the biggest muscle group in the body, so we can get a
good sense of the technique here. It is best to be sitting in a chair
for this and to place your hands on your knees. Attempt to lift your
feet off the floor as you hold your knees down. This contracts the big
muscles on top of the thighs. Without actually moving your feet, feel
your calves and heels pulling back towards your chair again. This
contracts the muscles at the back of the thighs.
Lift yourself up off the chair a little by tightening the big muscles of the backside. Then relax again.
Once we get into the larger areas of the backside, torso, tummy
and chest, there is another technique that is very helpful in bringing
the feeling of relaxation into every part of the body, not just the
muscles. The muscles of the backside cover a significant portion of our
hips, pelvis and genital area. We can take the feeling of relaxing the
buttocks and aim to convey that feeling throughout the hips, pelvis
and genital area.
We use the muscles of the body to get the feeling of relaxation,
and then we extend that feeling throughout the areas of the body that
are not made up of muscles. Areas like the pelvis, internal parts of
our tummy, and the inside of the chest, for instance.
The benefit of all this is that the relaxation begins to flow
into every part of the body. As well as the internal parts of the
torso, the bones, joints and head all relax, and as we come to feel
this relaxation all through the body, it flows into the mind. We relax
the body and the mind goes with it. We feel deeply relaxed. It is very
simple—no effort required. We just do it, and it flows.
Imagine you are lying on your back and someone is about to drop
something heavy onto your tummy. You brace the muscles at the front of
the tummy, along with those of the lower back.
This is easy. Contract the muscles tight like a barrel. The image
of Tarzan is good for men. And Jane for the women! While that may be a
joke, the idea is simple. Hold the rib cage tight for a moment, and
then let the muscles go.
Next, brace the arms in whatever position they are in. Do this as
if you are trying to hold your arms still while someone attempts to
move them. Some people find it helpful to clench their fists, but it
may be easier just to make your hands and fingers rigid in whatever
position they are in.
Lift the shoulders up and the chin down a little, and then feel
the relaxation through the neck and the throat as well as the
Bite down gently on your teeth, closing your mouth firmly. Then
relax and feel the jaw drop open a little. Feel the mouth and tongue
becoming soft and loose.
The eyes and the forehead
Close the eyelids tightly and then release them. Finally, for the
forehead, furrow your brow (frown), and then lift the eyebrows a
Relaxation: in summary
As you learn how to relax your muscles in order to practise the PMR, pay attention to four things:
1. Notice how the area feels in the particular moment that you first pay attention to it.
2. Contract the muscles in that area and hold the contraction
long enough to notice the feeling that the tightening of the muscles
3. Slowly and smoothly relax the muscles, noticing the feeling of
tension releasing and the feeling of relaxation that follows.
4. Give attention to what that area feels like now that you have
relaxed it. Notice the feeling of relaxation in the muscles and extend
that feeling throughout every part of the body—that is, all through the
feet, all through the tummy, all through the head.
Mindfulness and the PMR
Now that we have worked out how to contract and relax the
different muscle groups throughout the body, we are nearly ready to
begin the practice of the PMR. However, before we begin there are two
more useful pieces of advice to consider that are of value to the
experienced mediator and to the beginner alike.
There are two ways to do an exercise like the PMR. One way is to
do it mindfully, the other is mindlessly. While mindfulness is a major
contributing element to our meditation practice and later chapters
will delve more deeply into the subject, for now suffice it to say that
mindfulness quite simply is paying attention to what we are doing. It
is concentrating on what we are doing in a way that is free of
Mindlessness, on the other hand, is when we do not pay
attention, when we do not concentrate, and when our mind wanders off
and thinks about all sorts of other things. Virtually everyone has
periods of mindlessness, but you will find it very beneficial to learn
to be more mindful, to keep your focus on what you are doing, to be
less judgemental and to notice what will work for you.
As we practise the PMR exercise, we do need to concentrate, but
it will work best if that concentration is light rather than too
intense. Consider a stringed instrument such as a violin or a guitar:
if the strings are either too tight or too loose it will sound bad. The
strings need just the right amount of tension for them to be in tune
and for the instrument to sound its best. So it is with the mind. If we
are too relaxed, too ‘loose’, it will not work so well. Too intense,
too serious, too much effort, and again it will not be so useful.
Sogyal Rinpoche has a terrific way of explaining how to balance
this need for being alert, being able to concentrate and to relax. He
recommends that for meditation we should employ about 25 per cent of
our maximum effort in concentration. What is 25 per cent exactly? Well,
that is something that we do not need to dwell on too much. The
important bit is that we do aim to concentrate, but in a light, relaxed
sort of way.
Almost everyone will find that, as they do these exercises, the
mind will wander, there will be times when they will become distracted,
and for most this will happen fairly regularly. So another 25 per cent
of our attention needs to go towards noticing what our mind is up to.
We need to notice whether it is on track and actually doing the
exercises, or whether it has wandered off, become spaced out, got lost
in some other thoughts and become generally mindless. Again, we are all
highly likely to experience our mind wandering off, so we need to use
the vigilant part of our mind to notice when we do become distracted
and, once we recognise this, to bring the mind gently back to the
The key here is to avoid beating yourself up in the process. Be
reassured that this is the normal experience. Especially for beginners,
the mind does tend to wander and become distracted. You just need to
notice this when it happens and bring your attention back to the PMR
again. This is a normal part of learning any meditation method. It is a
normal part of training the mind and, as you do so, you will find that
you develop the capacity to concentrate better, and to hold your
attention more consistently and for longer periods of time, not only in
your meditation but in anything else you do during the day. This is
another of the really useful life skills you develop as you learn and
practise meditation—the ability to concentrate.
Now, if you have been doing the rather simple maths you will
have noticed we have 25 per cent of our focus given to concentration
and 25 per cent to noticing when our concentration wanders and to
it on track. What of the other 50 per cent? Well, we aim to just
leave, that spacious. The whole exercise is intended to help us to
relax. To feel more comfortable, more at ease. It will not help us to
attempt to force our mind to relax; to attempt to confine it, to
suppress it. This would be like trying to tame a wild horse by
confining it in a tight space. A wild horse faced with that restriction
gets more restless, more agitated, more wild. Let such an animal loose
in a big paddock, let it have space, and it may well run around for a
few minutes. Perhaps it will even kick up its heels, but then, in a
relatively short period of time, it will settle and become calm and
relaxed. It will find its own natural peace and ease. So give your mind
space. Avoid the temptation to attempt to squeeze your mind into
submission, to confine and restrict it—that will just make it wilder!
Use light concentration, gently correct it when it wanders, and
patiently give it time and space. Remember, 25 per cent concentration,
25 per cent vigilance, 50 per cent spaciousness.
So now, knowing how to contract and relax your muscles, and
being prepared to use concentration and mindfulness, we are ready to
begin the actual practice of the Progressive Muscle Relaxation
© Ian Gawler and Paul Bedson