An ever-growing body of research has established mindfulness practices as one of the most beneficial ways to decrease unnecessary stress and increase well-being.
The techniques of mindfulness have been shown to improve our work performance, enhance our relationships, and buffer against anxiety and depression.
The mind has three habits that continually throw us off center:
Dwelling on the past: Whether it's reliving regrets or rehashing resentments, ruminating often leads us away from happiness.
Worrying about the future: Anxiety can permeate our lives as we dread possible disasters.
Fighting reality: Our mind constantly evaluates our circumstances, and resists things it labels "bad"—even when resistance is futile. Cursing the weather epitomizes such resistance.
Mindfulness provides an alternative mode of being: Bringing our attention into the present with openness, and acknowledging that reality is the way it is. Sounds simple, right? Simple, and not easy.
The most common mindfulness practice is meditation, often focusing on the breath. It's an extremely straightforward practice, and yet this simplicity also brings a challenge because our minds seem to prefer noisy distraction to quiet focus.
When I ask people in my clinical practice about their past experience with meditation, what I often hear is, "I tried it but I was terrible at it." They may have liked the concept but found that their minds kept wandering, so they thought they must be doing it wrong.
If our intention for meditation is to focus, it's easy to think we've failed when our mind wanders. No wonder it's hard to stick with a meditation practice when we're criticizing ourselves for losing our concentration, over and over again.
But consider how often your mind is elsewhere when you're not meditating. Most of the time we don't notice that we're not really present. The practice of meditation helps us see how often our mind wanders, and how strong the pull is to leave the present.
Each time we realize we've lost our focus, we have an opportunity to come back to the present. Re-finding that focus is meditation—it's as much about the return as it is about staying focused. If we find that our minds wander 10 times a minute, that's 10 instances of coming back to the present.
Mindset for Meditation
If you've considered starting a meditation practice, or tried it in the past but struggled to sustain it, consider the following guidelines. They can help you get the most out of the practice, and be more inclined to stick with it.
The goal of meditation is not to "become good at it." Judgments about whether
we're "good" or "bad" at meditating are bound to bring disappointment. Meditation is an opportunity to let go of judgments as we come into the present, including judgments about our meditation "skills."
Accept that the mind will wander. As discussed above, meditation helps us notice when the mind loses focus. The mind is good at going other places. It will happen. It's not a bad thing. As soon as you realize it's happened, you've already re-found your focus.
You're not bad at meditating. The same mind that is prone to wander may also tell you that you suck at meditating. Part of a mindfulness practice includes taking our thoughts less seriously. Perhaps not every thought we have (including self-critical ones) reflects objective truth.
Let go of trying to achieve a specific outcome. When we know meditation is helpful, we might try to make the experience match our expectations. Maybe we aim to reach a state of calm focus, or we try to make our minds clear and settled. We expect in some way to have a "feeling of meditating," whatever that means. In reality we'll have all kinds of experiences while meditating, even within a single session. Part of the practice is opening our minds and hearts to whatever happens.
Common Reactions to Meditation
While it helps to let go of specific expectations for meditation, be aware that you might have some of these common experiences:
Suddenly remembering things you've been meaning to do. Taking care of "one more thing" before we meditate can keep us from the practice. Even once we start, our mind often returns to our to-do list. Those activities will wait; for now, come back to your focus.
Thoughts piling on top of each other. When we step out of a "doing" mode, we might suddenly be aware of the chatter in our head. It's a bit like being in a noisy party, and not realizing how loud it is until we step outside and then return. If you notice your thoughts are noisy and clamoring for your attention, stay with it—they'll probably settle down.
Feeling bored. Constant access to information and technology gives us endless ways to avoid being bored. When we leave those things behind for a few minutes our mind might tell us, "I can't stand this—it's so boring." We can treat our boredom just like any other distraction by acknowledging it and then returning to our focus.
Feeling frustrated or wanting to stop. It's hard to take time away from our busy schedules to "do nothing" (though meditation practice is far from nothing). You might start to think, "This is a waste of time," "I'm getting nothing out of this," or "Why did I think this was a good idea?" As suggested before, meditation includes noticing these thoughts and feelings and then coming back to whatever you're focusing on.
Getting Started With Meditation
With these principles as backdrop, let's consider the practical aspects of meditating:
Aim to practice when you're alert (unless you intend to meditate as you fall asleep).
Find a quiet place free from distractions, including your cell phone (if at all possible).
There are countless forms of meditation; a good starting place is to focus on the breath. You'll simply notice the sensations of breathing, and pay attention to them as you inhale and exhale.
Find a place to sit: the floor, a chair, the sofa, the edge of your bed, an ottoman—anything that's comfortable. It doesn't have to be fancy or specifically "spiritual." If you sit on the floor, you might be more comfortable sitting on a blanket or block (see example here) to elevate your hips.
Close your eyes if that's comfortable, or look at a point a few feet in front of you if you keep them open.
Practice with or without a recording. If you do it without, set a timer for the length of time you will meditate (and place the timer out of sight). Five minutes is a good starting place.
If you prefer a guided meditation, there are many apps and free online meditations available. I created an introductory guided meditation to accompany this post, which is available on my website.
If you decide to continue with meditation, there are many good resources available to support your practice (including the Free Mindfulness Project website). Enjoy!
Visit me on the Think Act Be website and on Twitter: @sethgillihan.