Please don’t make the same mistake I did when I began mindfulness meditation 11 years ago…
My mind was filled with harmful ideas about mindfulness meditation. I mistakenly thought in order to practice mindfulness I needed to diligently:
- sit cross legged painfully for hours
- clear my mind of thoughts
- feel amazing
Because of these false ideas about mindfulness, I suffered.
I would sit cross-legged for 30 minutes and afterwards my feet would feel like pin-cushions! I couldn’t even walk after my meditation, let alone experience inner peace. My face would be screwed up like my leg was being amputated!
Because my body was in pain I could never pay attention and stay in the present moment. My thoughts and emotions were all over the place like scrambled eggs.
This article is written as a beginner’s guide so you can learn how to practice mindfulness and start experiencing the benefits of a mindful meditation practice.
This guide will answer some common questions about mindfulness:
- What exactly is mindfulness?
- Examples of mindfulness?
- What are the benefits of mindfulness?
- And most importantly how do you practice mindfulness?
Let’s start with the basics, shall we?
In my opinion there are four pillars of mindfulness that you need to know before starting out.
- First – The Definition of Mindfulness so we’re all on the same page.
- Second – Instructions On How To Practice Mindfulness
- Third – Examples Of Mindfulness Practice
- Fourth – Benefits Of Mindfulness
These four pillars will be the framework of this blog post. Feel free to skip a pillar if you’d like.
For example, if you already know about mindfulness but just want my examples on how to practice mindfulness, skip the second section and scroll down to the third section.
These are my humble thoughts having lived as a zen monk for 13 months, taught yoga for 10 years, and maintained a mindfulness practice since high school.
(Below you can watch a video I made about Karma back in freshman year of college 11 years ago! The video has, over the years collected hundreds of views and I’m kinda proud of it 🙂
What Exactly Is Mindfulness? Section 1/4
- Destination – When you get to the top of a mountain peak after a long hike and deeply breathe in the fresh air
- Process – The process of trekking up the mountain, taking the journey one slow step at a time
Getting to the top of the mountain is a destination example of mindfulness. When you reach the peak of the mountain you feel energized, calm, present and connected.
Basically you feel good.
(This is a great beginner tip for meditation, just focus on having a pleasant experience while meditating. For more beginner tips, see this article here)
You are in the present moment. Your thoughts and emotions are spacious and flowing. Your attention is open and stress is decreased.
This is the destination of mindfulness practice. You utilize various mindfulness practices and you reach the ‘destination’ of mindfulness.
But oftentimes we think we are failing at meditation unless we are at the destination of inner peace.
For example, oftentimes your mind is very clouded when you first begin paying attention to your thoughts and emotions. It’s like your trying to look into a steamy mirror but cannot see your reflection no matter how hard you try.
For me personally I have years of mindfulness training. I’ve had tons of experience with lots of different mindfulness exercises.
(I’ll cover some of these other mindfulness techniques like the Body Scan in section 3 down below.)
But oftentimes sitting in mindfulness meditation for the first 15 minutes my awareness will be filled with thoughts. I won’t be able to stop thinking!
But please realize – you do not have to clear your mind in order to have a successful mindfulness meditation practice.
Mindfulness can be beneficial ‘process’ even if you aren’t at the destination just yet.
The history and definition of mindfulness, from a western science perspective
How did Jon come up with this definition?
Mindfulness research began back in the 1970’s with this scientist named Jon Kabat-Zinn.
Jon began his mindfulness research in the face of much opposition. Back then American society viewed mental health much differently.
There was very little appreciation for mindfulness meditation.
But Jon was able to begin his research with chronic pain patients who didn’t respond to medication. These people lived in excruciating pain 24/7.
As a last ditch attempt, Jon was allowed to give mindfulness training to these chronic pain patients. They began practicing his stress reduction meditation practices …
And their pain went dramatically down. They were able to be mindful of their pain without making their pain worse, or getting trapped in their mind.
And Jon did all of his research with precise scientific measurements.
Soon the scientific community had to recognize his work because Jon’s patients were dramatically experiencing less stress as a result of their chronic pain, and their pain levels decreased too.
Stress had already been recognized as a problem, and now various mindful meditation practices were seen to help with stress reduction.
Nowadays Jon Kabat-Zinn’s programs are called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, and they have grown in global popularity.
Mindfulness-based stress reduction programs are now seen as a standard mental health treatment program, along with other mainstream therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy. Even the United States military is using mindfulness techniques!
Other well-known places like the Mayo Clinic hospital have whole wings devoted to mindfulness, and thousands of leaders, caregivers, prisons, hospitals, and cities have begun to implement mindfulness training.
Even health movements like Intuitive Eating are use mindfulness skills.
We will cover two mindfulness exercises in section 3 – but before we first let’s talk about how to practice mindfulness from a big picture standpoint.
How Do You Practice Mindfulness? Here’s How In 3 Simple Steps, Section 2/4
Step 1: Figure out a time or activity in which to practice. You can pick anytime – in the morning, afternoon, evening or even right before bed which is what I sometimes do.
Or you could pick to practice mindfulness as part of another activity like driving, washing the dishes, music, walking, etc.
This step represents intention.
You can practice mindfulness for a minute, an hour or however long – time doesn’t matter.
Step 2: Be present. That’s it. When you wash your hands, just feel the soap and hot water. When you drive, just listen to the road and feel the vibrations of the car.
Fun fact: I discovered while practicing mindfulness when driving that cars passing me would make a tiny sound.
The key is to come back to your body because your body is always in the present moment.
There’s a big connection between your mind and your gut.
Step 3: Bring your mind back to being present. Your mind will wander.
Expect to that you’ll need to pay attention every 30 seconds to a minute. Put another way your mind will wonder a lot.
What will probably happen as you start practicing mindfulness is you’ll notice that you will be thinking for maybe 1 min, 2 mins, 3 minutes or even longer.
But then at some point you will snap back to the present moment and pay attention again. You’ll be aware of the present.
And then you’l get bored. You’ll get fidgety …
Step 4: Do these 3 steps without judgment. Drop the good and bad. Pain is not good. Pain is not bad. Of course, if you hurting, then you move and get comfortable. But ‘bad’ is a judgment. ‘Bad’ is a label.
When you get fidgety and bored in your meditation practice, this doesn’t mean that you are doing anything wrong.
Remember, the process of mindfulness counts.
When you are bored, just try to feel your body. Return to step 2.
Being mindful is about the sensation, the experience – not judgment.
This applies to many situations! Oftentimes I help people with their food struggles. And people discover they are judging themselves for eating certain foods, kind of a moral judgment. They are ‘bad’ for eating a cookie.
But is eating a cookie really ‘bad’? There’s no criminal activity in eating a cookie. There’s no cruel intentions, no evil.
How does eating a cookie taste physically? Stick with that. Drop judgments about the good and the bad of eating a cookie.
When your mind wanders … is this good or bad? Trick question. It’s not either good or bad. It’s just your mind wandering.
Now technically speaking … these 4 steps are all you need.
But practically speaking, you’ll probably need more than these 4 steps.
The reason I put these 4 steps first is because they are the most important.
- You start with an intention.
- You focus and bring your mind to the present moment.
- Your mind wanders and you bring it back.
- Do these 3 steps without judgment
I’m repeating these steps here because if you search online ‘how to practice mindfulness’ you’ll get a ton of other guides. These guides are great and well-written.
But the problem is one guide will give you 10 steps while another guide gives you 7 steps. For example, here is yet another guide with 6 steps.
Notice how all these guides gives you a bunch of different steps. Don’t get confused!
If you don’t know the foundation of mindfulness, you will get confused. You’ll wonder which way the right way? Is it the 10 step process or the 7 step process?
But now you know. The 4 steps listed above are the foundation of practicing mindfulness.
What Is Mindfulness Meditation? Some Hints To Help Do These Steps
You know the basics of mindfulness. Four steps.
So go ahead. Try these 4 steps out. Like I said earlier, these four steps are the framework. They are the most important points.
However, for many beginners of mindfulness, these 4 steps aren’t enough information to be practical.
So now let’s add some helpful hints. Here are some more hints to help with the 4 fundamental steps which compromise mindfulness meditation.
- Find a comfortable position. You want to find some place where you can be relatively still. A comfortable chair is a great idea.
- Take a relaxed upright posture. Sit down, make sure you are sitting upright. Make sure you aren’t too tense. Don’t strain your back trying to sit upright. Your hands can be in your lap or on your knees.
- Focus on relaxation first.A general theme of mindfulness is that you calm the body first and then the mind quiets down naturally. So relax your shoulders. Stop clenching your jaw. Soften your belly and let your belly expand as you breathe in.
Remember, your mind is going to wander so don’t worry about your mind. Just relax your body. Eyes can be open or closed. All you are doing at this point is calmly sitting down in a comfortable position.
But … there’s more to meditation than just your body. The body is the first step. The next step is ‘thoughts’. This is where people get confused so listen up. First – you just have to try this out.
Second – here’s an analogy. The thoughts are like clouds, but you are the sky. When you are in your body, grounded, you can begin to see your thoughts like clouds floating by. So just let your thoughts in, and then the thoughts float by. Good thoughts come in, bad thoughts come in, they all float by. You will get caught up in these thoughts. Return to your body. Keep repeating this process.
Eventually you’ll be able to ‘see’ your thoughts arising and falling, but you won’t get ‘lost’ in your thoughts. This is hard to explain.
- Feel the breath. That’s it. Don’t worry about getting too complicated. Just feel your breath. You might feel your breath in your belly, lungs or nose. Notice the inhale, notice the exhale. That’s it. Pretty easy actually. Attention, awareness and mindfulness don’t need to be complicated. Keep things simple.
- Listen to noises or sensations in your body. In addition to your breath, you can use your 5 senses – taste, touch, eyes, ears and smell – to connect to the present moment. This step is very useful for dealing with stress as well. If you remember Jon’s patients with chronic pain, mindfulness helped these people reduce their stress. The pain was the same. But instead of judging the pain and tensing their muscles (which made the pain worse), they learned to relax their bodies and live with the pain.
- Be patient. Look. I’m a huge fan of mindfulness. It’s basically my life’s work. But you have to be patient. If you sit down and expect to calm down in 5 minutes you’ll be in for trouble. It takes longer than 5 minutes. Like I said earlier, it takes me about 15 minutes to get some more mental headspace. And even after 15 minutes, I’m still thinking … it’s just that my mind has shifted. I’ll talk more about additional benefits later down below!
- After your body is calm, you can begin to play around with your thoughts (let me explain). In the beginning maybe the first 10-15 minutes you are just calming down. You are softening your shoulders. You are feeling your breath. Just sitting there. Your mind wanders and you bring the mind back. That’s it.
Ok enough mindfulness instructions! What are some examples of mindfulness? Section 3/4
- Taste your food, notice all the textures
- Slow down when you walk in the shopping mall. Feel your feet on the ground
- Focus on your breath for a few breathing cycles before starting your car
- Smell your deodorant
- When you can’t stop thinking – try to feel your body too. No need to stop your thoughts because that’s probably impossible – but you can actually allow yourself to think while simultaneously feeling your body. It’s possible to feel and think at the same time.
- Listen very carefully to other people – notice their tone, volume, etc
- Wait mindfully. Waiting for the bus? Instead of pulling out your phone, just feel your feet beneath you.
- Close your eyes, take a deep breath.
Here are some other specific mindfulness meditation practices
- Breathing meditation – deep breathe into your belly, slowly release your exhale
- Body scan meditation
- Start with your head. Feel your head.
- Move your awareness down to your jaw, relax your jaw
- Keep moving your awareness down your body from jaw, to shoulders, to chest, to belly and down further.
- Just keep paying attention to your body sensations while you try to maintain body awareness.
- Notice itching, heat, pressure, sensation of your clothes, wind, sounds, etc
- After you reach your toes, feel your way back up again
- Mindful eating. For another post of mine about mindful eating verus intuitive eating read here.
- Mindful walking
What are the benefits of mindfulness? Section 4/4
- Mindfulness strengthens the emotional control which can increase your ability to avoid massive pitfalls. You are able to tolerate more difficult emotions and instead of reacting in unhealthy ways to uncomfortable feelings, you can choose more wisely.
For example, let’s say you just got fired from work. This is a very painful, embarrassing situation. Lots of feelings would come up, right? Embarrassment, perhaps confusion, anger, stress, anxiety … just a whirlwind of crazy feelings. Mindfulness helps you stay calm, feel all these things, realize that you are not ‘bad’ for getting fired.
Mindfulness helps you weather the storm. So you get into your car and practice mindfulness, perhaps using one of the breathing methods. Your’re still pissed, but you’re mindful. So then on the way back home, someone cuts you off in traffic. Because you’d been practicing mindfulness, you don’t fly into road rage.
On a different day, had you not practiced mindfulness, you would have flown into rage and driven the person off the road! Mindfulness helps you avoid getting into huge messes in life.
- Mindfulness helps you in relationships. Speaking of work, what’s the number one reason people get fired? They yell at their boss. Someone who gets angry easily is also more likely to get divorced. Put simply, mindfulness helps you stay present and grounded instead of yelling and saying things you regret.
In addition, mindfulness boosts your relationships. Think about it – what makes for a great relationship? It’s the strength of your connection with your partner. How do you build and grow that connection? You are present with each other, really listening and learning about the other person. When you are mindful, you notice the little things about the other person. You notice their micro-facial expressions, their posture, their tone of voice.
These are all little details that become more obvious as you practice mindfulness in your everyday life. Noticing these little details helps you understand the other person.
- Mindfulness boosts your empathy (which enhances your relationships). Empathy is everything in life. If you can’t get along with other people, you will be outcast. You will be lonely. But how do you connect with others?
Well … the general rule of thumb is that you connect with other people in terms of the emotions you yourself are conscious of. That’s a mouthful.
Basically if you are familiar with your own emotions, you can then recognize the same emotions in other people. And empathy, the key to a successful life – is literally recognizing emotions in other people. But you can’t recognize emotions in other people if you can’t recognize the same emotions in yourself!