It’s important to remember, and to celebrate, that we all have different brains and will all have unique responses to mindfulness practices. Some of us have brains that are wired with higher interoceptive abilities (easily feeling direct sensations in the body), and some are wired to easily see visual imagery in our mind’s eye. Some of us may have visceral reactions to certain sense-awareness practices, possibly being overloaded by auditory stimulation, or physical sensations such as the tactile feeling of clothing on our skin, or the feeling of our breath in our chest. The big take-away for all of us is that if you are not getting somewhere in a certain meditation practice, you’re not doing it “wrong”—it may be just how you’re wired.
If you are not getting somewhere in a certain meditation practice, you’re not doing it “wrong”—it may be just how you’re wired.
In order to be inclusive in mindfulness practices we need to know we can explore different anchor points that will be more aligned with our personal neurology. The general spirit of mindfulness is one of acceptance, which includes being present to all that arises through the six senses (eyes, ears, taste, touch, body, mind). However, for those of us who are wired to experience sensory overload when we concentrate on certain senses, we need to choose anchor points that we can practice focusing our concentration on. You may get more traction in your meditation practice with certain tools. Remember, it may differ from day to day.
Here are three examples of how adults in the neurodiverse community have helped inform the way I teach in autism-informed research groups, and for the broader community.
Three Ways to Adjust Mindfulness Teachings for the Neurodiverse Community
1. Say Farewell to the Bell
It’s not necessary to have a mindfulness bell or gong to ring as we start and close our meditation. I am a traditionalist, and love ringing the bell three times at closing, but I’ve learned that the bell can create physical pain to those with sensitivity to loud sounds. This is particularly heightened with virtual groups, where the sound can be harsh over people’s speakers or earbuds. Listening practice can be done with many other sounds.
2. Make Sure Your Language Is Clear
Mindfulness language is filled with metaphors that can be challenging for those on the spectrum. Autistic advisors have suggested language in mindfulness instruction be concrete, clear, and direct. For example, rather than starting a practice with “I invite you to feel the quality of your breath,” I start with “Now I want you to pay attention to the breath you feel in your nostrils.”
3. Suggest Alternate Focal Points
Since some people are uncomfortable with sensations in certain parts of the body, I like to offer at least three choices on what to hold awareness on, not only the breath.
Some neurodiverse people say it is much more soothing and a better focus to concentrate on the sensations of the pulsing heartbeat than it is the breath. If the heartbeat is preferred to focus on, one can strengthen their awareness of it by starting off with holding the breath for about five seconds at the end of the in-breath to really feel the heartbeat strongly. Then simply paying attention to the places in the body where the heartbeat is felt is a good starting practice. (As an example of neurodiversity, I have a very hard time easily feeling my heartbeat, even with extensive concentration. And I believe I must have spent at least 1000 hours in my early retreats trying to locate the feeling of my toe!)
With those three tips in mind, here are a few examples of mindfulness practices that use different sense anchors. Celebrate your own neurodiversity, and use what is right for you. As with all mindfulness tools, once you find what works best for you, bring some gentle and compassionate focus to really give the mediation all your attention. You’re worth it.
Three Practice Choices: Sound, Movement, or Body Awareness of Breath
1. Sound Breath Awareness
- Hold your hand up in front of your mouth and exhale on the palm of your hand, with a nice and loud “haaah,” just like you might breathe hot air on your glasses to clean them.
- Concentrate on the sound of your breath. Now close your mouth and continue, with the loud sound of your breath. Keep up the breathing so you can hear the exhalation as well as the inhalation. Close your eyes if that is comfortable.
- Make the breaths long and smooth, maintaining the sound so you can hear. Listen closely with all your concentration. The sound may be like the sound of the ocean tide, flowing in and out.
- Continue to focus all your attention on the sound of your breathing for the next 5-10 breaths. Let the sound be your anchor.
2. Movement Breath Awareness
The Lotus breath practice is a concrete way of focusing on the breath that provides an anchor with movement.
- Simply hold one of your hands in front of you. Imagine it is a beautiful lotus flower that opens in the day, and closes at night.
- Open and close your hand slowly, feeling the sensations of the hand opening and closing, just like a lotus flower.
- Now, breath in time with the opening and closing. Breathe in while your hand opens, and breathe out while your hand closes. Focus on this for 5-10 breaths.
3. Body Breath Awareness
- Try laying a hand on your belly and one on your chest. See if you can feel the rising and falling of your hands resting on your body.
- Next, try and focus full awareness on just the belly rising and falling.
- Then, shift that to the chest. Can you feel movement there? Stay with that movement for 5-10 breaths.
Let your students know they can assess which anchor helps them best, and then try and hold awareness for longer.
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