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How PIGS can help when meditating...

When I first undertook mindfulness training, I was taught a sequence of steps to follow when self-guiding a meditation, and I’ve come to recognise this as being incredibly useful information. When I began to train as a mindfulness teacher, I noticed that some of the other trainee teachers seemed to ‘rush to the breath’ when guiding meditations. I subsequently discovered that they were not really aware of the significance of these initial stages of a meditation, as they’d not been taught about them, and to be fair, although they’re usually found in recordings they’re not immediately obvious, unless made explicit.

Earlier this year, I worked with Ruth Farenga & Karen Asprey at Mindful Pathway to develop a ‘graduate’ course for people who have completed an 8-week course, and wish to deepen their mindfulness practice. We decided to include this information, along with an acronym that I developed to help me when guiding myself in practice, and also when teaching: PIGS. The letters stand for; posture, intention (and motivation), grounding and settling. I know some of the course participants have found this useful, so I thought it would be beneficial to explore it here.

Let’s look at each step in turn. When we start a ‘formal’ mindful meditation, that is to say, we come to sit in our practice, rather than bringing mindfulness into our life in other ways, we are marking out this time and space in our life as a period of meditation. And in this particular type of practice (i.e. mindfulness, rather than any other meditation), we are intending to be awake and alert to our experience in each moment; to pay attention, and simultaneously to bring attitudes such as curiosity and kindness to our attention. So we begin by adopting a particular posture, this signals to mind and body that we are moving into the practice. But it also sets our body into a posture that reflects the way we wish our mind to be: Alert, awake and open, but at the same time relaxed, not striving or straining.

Why does this matter?
Well, we all recognise that our mind state is often reflected in our posture, we find this in body language: We can observe if people are feeling confident and alert, or sad and disconnected from us, simply by reading the ‘language’ of their body’s posture. But, in fact, it works just as strongly the other way around, and there’s a growing body of research that illustrates this. In one study, researchers asked people to watch a cartoon and rate how funny it was, but first they split them into two groups and asked one to hold a pencil between their teeth, and the other to hold a pencil between their lips. The result: The group holding the pencil between their teeth rated the cartoon as funnier. In this simple but ingenious experiment, both groups are doing something similar, and equally silly, but notice that those holding the pencil with their teeth were smiling - and their minds found the cartoon funnier [1]. Other research has shown how adopting a confident posture for a while before an interview situation results in the individual feeling more confident in the interview. So, we begin our practice by adopting a body posture that reflects the attitude we wish to hold with our mind: Awake, alert, dignified, but also relaxed and not straining.

Next we connect with our intention in the practice, for example, ‘to pay attention to our breath with curiosity and kindness’, or simply ’to be present in each moment’. We also reflect on our motivation, such as ‘to develop our full potential, and interact with others more compassionately’. It’s really important to develop an individual and genuine sense of what our motivation is, but it can be helpful if we find something within this that is not entirely self-referencing, as in the second part of that sentence. So it’s a case of finding our own words to express our personal motivation to practice. I also believe it’s valuable to genuinely reconnect with a sense of what motivation we’re holding, and avoid settling into a little mantra that we say to ourselves each time we practice.

Why does this matter?
Whenever we practice, we soon find that we have strayed from our intention; the mind wanders away from the object of our attention, such as the breath or sensations in the body, and we’re distracted. Holding a strong sense of our intention helps us to notice when we’re distracted, and being aware of our motivation to follow that intention strengthens our resolve to let go of distractions and come back to the present: Even when those distracting thoughts seem really interesting or important. It can help to think of motivation as being like a fuel that powers our intention.

The next stage is grounding; if you’ve been following guided meditations, you may recall hearing guidance to pay attention to the sensations of the body being supported, noticing the points of pressure or contact, feeling the weight of the body letting go into gravity, and so on. In this step we are inviting the mind into the body; we spend so much time ‘up in our heads’ that we can end up quite disconnected from our body, and lose touch with the feeling of being embodied.

Why does this matter?
If we begin to practise from this ‘heady’ position, we’re likely to remain distant and disembodied, and the practice can take on an ephemeral, transient quality. We’re also more readily drawn into an analytical, thought oriented experience, rather than a ‘felt’, embodied experience of the present. Also, during this grounding process, we come to feel supported, physically, as we sit, and so we develop a secure, solid and grounded basis for the meditation.

Settling is a process that is not always found in guided mindfulness meditations, but it can be a really helpful process to follow when guiding yourself, particularly if you’re coming from a very hectic or challenging part of your day. I find it helps to think of this as an encouragement for the mind to come to rest, and be less agitated, rather than a way to coerce or force it into settling, as the latter is almost bound to fail anyway. So we follow this step with an attitude of allowing the mind to settle, as much as it is willing, and not striving to change anything. There are several different ways to conduct this settling phase, and it’s worth trying them all from time to time, and finding what works best for you. You can count each in-breath, or out-breath, or both; just softly counting in the voice of your mind: ‘In-breath one, out-breath one… in-breath two, out-breath two…’ or simply counting ‘one… two… three… etc.’. Generally, it’s helpful to set a number to count up to, such as ten, and then beginning again if you loose track of counting, or reach the number. Alternatively, you can simply note each breath, so again; softly, in the voice of your mind, saying ‘Breathing in… Breathing out… Breathing in… Breathing out…’ or just ‘in-breath… out-breath…’ Doing these things gives us dual points of attention, the breath and the counting, and can also help to keep our attention connected to each breath.

Why does this matter?
We tend not to realise that our minds have a natural tendency to settle; we unwittingly invest so much energy in thinking and as a result the mind is constantly energised and agitated. And if we do wish the mind would become quieter, we tend to assume we have to stop the thinking, and make our minds blank. Unfortunately, strategies to do this tend to make things worse. So in this step we gently apply energy to our focus on the breath and counting or noting, in doing so we encourage our minds to stay connected to this focus, and when the mind wanders, we disengage from the thoughts and gently return to our intended focus: The breath and counting or noting. Gradually, the mind may begin to settle.

From this point we move into the practice we have chosen to follow, such as mindfulness of breath, mindfulness of sound, or perhaps a meditation that moves through stages of breath, body, sounds and thoughts, until coming to rest in an open awareness. But how long to spend on each stage? Well, this is something that will vary, there is no right or wrong answer, but it’s wise to avoid becoming too rigid, after all, we’re aiming to switch off the autopilot and be present, not switch it on and run through a mindfulness meditation like a check list! So pay attention to your posture, rather than simply adopting it. Check in with your intention and motivation so they are felt, and the same with grounding; allow yourself to feel how the body is supported, and feel embodied too. Really allow yourself time here, you are building a secure, solid foundation to practice upon. And when it comes to settling, you may wish to count the next five breaths or spend five minutes noting each breath.

Finally, all of the above is offered in the hope that it might be of help when self-guiding a meditation; it is not intended to be comprehensive guidance in how to actually practice meditation. But hopefully, you’ll find PIGS helpful whenever you begin a self-guided meditation.

[1] Strack, F., Martin, L., Stepper, S., (1988) Inhibiting and facilitating conditions of the human smile: a non-obtrusive test of the facial feedback hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54 (5): 768-77
PubMed link.

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