Updated: Feb 25, 2022
We have all heard this word... and most of us have put off the practice in favor of almost anything else. Perhaps it's the image of a monk on a mountain that feels unrealistic. Perhaps you tried it and found it anxiety-inducing. Perhaps you are one of the many who has said "mindfulness just isn't for me". Well, I am here to challenge you, once again, to try again.
Why? The benefits of a meditation or mindfulness practice are far reaching from effectively treating depression, anxiety, pain, manage cancer treatment and so on. All you have to do is Google "the benefits of meditation" to be inundated with reasons to try it.
What is it? The basic principle of a mindfulness practice is to learn to sit in the moment of what is rather than attend to the ever-present internal narrative - the planning, the worrying, the considering - or anything else that takes us out of this moment right here. Our phones, work, TV. Unfortunately, just like any other skill that is learned, it takes practice. So, despite thoroughly understanding why one might want to engage in a mindfulness or meditation practice, many of us have not learned the mechanics of what to expect with meditation or how to know we are improving and therefore find putting the energy into it hard to access.
So what skill are you trying to learn? Think of your attention as a flashlight. Mindfulness is the practice of being aware of and directing the flashlight to the things that we actually intend to focus on. While you cannot control the sounds that enter your ears, you are able to pay attention to some sounds over others. Try it right now. Can you hear the traffic? The people in the other room? The sound of your own breath? All of these things are entering your ears and are being processed by your brain but as you focus on one over another, the others fade. The same is true for our thoughts. Our brains are designed to create thought and, because of how much we practice it, they are good at it. Where things can go hairy is when we believe our thoughts are truth. When this happens, we have emotional, behavioural, and physiological reactions in accordance with this. This can make us feel like a victim of our thoughts. By strengthening our ability to steer the flashlight, we can (1) take away the power of the thoughts might have over our experience and (2) begin to direct the flashlight toward thoughts (or not) that serve us.
Tip number one? Remember that, like any other skill, getting "good" at mindfulness takes practice. Learning to control the flashlight or learning to sit in a moment is not a skill that is taught in most families. But knowing this means that you can approach mindfulness the same way you would build a muscle - slowly, consistently, and accepting weakness and fatigue.
Here's some other tips:
- Mindfulness doesn't need to look like it does in the brochures. Find your unique gateway to the practice that enhance presence for you. Others use guided meditations, music, focusing on an object like a candle, or breathing. Maybe you find painting or walking in nature more your bag.
- Approach your practice like a scientist - try new things and observe what does and doesn't work for you. Does music help or detract? Do you resonate more with a male or female voice? What time of day works for you? Find the types of meditations that work for you.
- You will fail. Like learning any new skill, you can’t expect to be perfect at it right off the bat. It's going to be uncomfortable from time to time. You will get frustrated. In the process of learning a new skill, show yourself the compassion and non-judgement you show others. Many years of experiences have led to your current approach, it’s going to take some time to adopt a new one.
- Set yourself up for success. Pick times that work for you. Mornings are great because they can set the tone of the day. Make it part of your routine. Put your phone on silent. Set the boundaries you need, especially in the beginning, that will help you to stay present - need to be alone? Need quiet?
- Set realistic expectations. Just starting? 20 minutes is too long. Try for 5 minutes every day. Then try that for 8 weeks. (Research has shown that a committed, daily mindfulness practice of 5-10 minutes per day for 8 weeks should be enough for you to see the benefit to continue).
How do you know you are getting there:
You notice more. For example, remember that time you got mad at yourself because you couldn't focus on your breath or because you got caught up in thought again? That moment that you noticed yourself thinking is actually a success. Not a failure.
While driving, instead of getting frustrated at the car in front of me for cutting me off, I found myself saying "Hmm, I bet they are in a hurry." The words may not have been all that different but the feeling behind them was. In the first scenario, I was reacting. Not really in control. In the second, I was grounded and reflecting. Which would you rather experience?
You might begin to see the absurdity and humanity in your own reactions. You approach your reality and the content of your thoughts with more lightness and laughter. There I go again, feeling guilty I didn't do better on that test. Or Ha! I really got bothered he didn't do the dishes again, didn't I?
Rather than getting sucked into something heavy for a whole evening, maybe this time you notice, see that it isn't serving you or changing anything, and focus on something else instead.
The bottom line? The differences may be subtle. But they will be meaningful. And all it takes is
Types of meditations (click the name for an example):
My favorite guided meditation (Alan Watts know's what's up): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jPpUNAFHgxM&t=2s
Insight Timer - I like this one because there are loads of free resources and you can see how many people are meditating with you.
Headspace - 10 free sessions but very solid starting place
Calm - I personally love the background sounds, timer, AND don't forget to check out Stephen Fry's bedtime story. Not just for kids!
Try Youtube, there's tons! (e.g. "3 minute body scan meditation")
Free Guided Meditations (from UCLA) http://marc.ucla.edu/mindful-meditations
Blogs/Webpages (sometimes it's hard to know where to get good information): https://www.mindful.org/meditation/mindfulness-getting-started/
The Mindful Minute is a popular one for beginners.
This great book comes with a CD with guided meditations on it including a 3 minute check in, body scan, and loving kindness meditation (one of my favs). It also gives some great info on HOW mindfulness works to combat anxiety/depression.
Good luck. Be Patient.
And let me know how it goes!