In this previous article, we outlined the basics and benefits of mindfulness, identifying it as a way to cultivate peace, deepen your relationship with yourself, and provide ease for your distressing symptoms. So, how do you start practicing mindfulness? The most effective way to develop a practice of mindfulness is through meditation. This requires an object of focus, most often the breath, sometimes the body, and sometimes objects in your environment. Focusing on your breath is very useful, as you carry this object of meditation with you everywhere, and at all times. Furthermore, you can only breathe in the present: focusing on something that can live only in the moment is exactly where we want to place the mind.
What to Do with the Body During a Mindful Meditation
To begin, find a place where you will not be disturbed and that is free of noise. Talking and music will make meditation especially difficult. Sit on the edge of a chair with your feet flat on the floor in front of you; alternately, try sitting on a cushion or two on the floor. If it feels comfortable to fold or cross your legs, cross them. If not, don’t. The idea is to find a way to hold the body that is stable and comfortable.
You will want to set a timer before you begin. If this is your first time, just a few minutes will do. In time, it will be beneficial to build the time you spend in meditation. Without a timer, it is all too easy to become overwhelmed or identify feelings of discomfort or boredom as signals to end meditation: this is what we want to avoid.
Once you have situated yourself, gently close your eyes. Putting a slight flare in your tailbone, begin to pull your spine gently upright as if your back were a tree growing out of fresh earth, reaching toward the sun. Your hands can be folded together in your lap, or resting on your knees or thighs. Where you sense tension in your body, slowly loosen those muscles. In the neck and face, this is helped by adopting a slight smile.
Deeply relax the muscles in your belly–no one is watching! Loosen up, and pull air deeply into the belly, all the way down. Then slowly let the air back out. Draw your full attention, your full awareness to the sensation of the breath as it enters and exits your nose. Fall fully into the sensation, noticing its most subtle aspects. Feel the speed of the breath, its smoothness, its temperature, its humidity or dryness. Stay with it as closely as you can, even if it feels like it fades to almost nothing.
Along the way, your mind will distract you with different thoughts, daydreams, and emotions. That’s no big deal–it’s just what the mind does. When that happens, just notice that you’ve become distracted, then gently bring yourself back to the breath. If you are pulled away one hundred times, come back one hundred times. If you spend your entire meditation session lost in a daydream, it is still a successful session if you only noticed this once, then came back to watching the breath. Each act of mindfulness strengthens mindfulness.
If your mind tells you “I’m not doing this right,” or “this isn’t working,” that’s ok. Just see those as thoughts–as clouds on a breeze–and come back to watching the feelings of your breath.
In time, your thoughts and feelings themselves will become temporary objects of meditation. When they arise, you will watch them without any attempt to get involved, without any labeling as good or bad. You will treat them exactly as you’ve treated your breath: watching it rise, sensing it fall, over and over without any attempt to manage the experience.
Benefits begin from after a few weeks to several months of at least 10 minutes of meditation per day. However, if you don’t feel ready to sit in meditation for 10 minutes just yet, that is fine–start exactly where you are. If you can only handle two minutes, sit for two minutes. Think of this like going to the gym for the first time. No one would expect you to start bench pressing massive weights on day one: by starting with what you can handle and building upward do you develop the capacity to sit for longer and longer, thus reaping more benefit. This is not meant to be an exercise in mundane torture, sitting in quiet agony! That said, learning to sit through your irritation, the sense that you would rather be doing anything, anywhere else than sitting is a significant accomplishment in its own right. When you become increasingly more able to tolerate your own restlessness, the limits on what you can feel and accomplish grow.
If you're interested in learning more about mindfulness and how to start practicing it, there are many great resources available. There are books, websites, apps, and even classes you can take, and you can check out a list of resources at the end of the article. Mindfulness is a simple yet profound way to improve your life, and it's something anyone can do.
If you're new to the practice of mindfulness, it can be helpful to set aside some time each day to meditate. But once you get the hang of it, you'll find that you can be mindful at any moment, whether you're washing the dishes or taking a walk.
Here are a few tips to help you keep mindfulness top-of-mind throughout your day:
- Make a commitment to yourself. Mindfulness takes practice, so be deliberate about choosing to stick with it. Set aside some time each day for practice, even if it's just 5 or 10 minutes.
- Start with the basics. Mindfulness is simply about paying attention to your present moment experience. You don't need anything special to do it.
Here are a few mindfulness exercises you can try at home to get started:
- Mindful breathing: Find a comfortable place to sit or lie down. Close your eyes and focus your attention on your breath. Notice the sensation of the breath as it enters and exits your body. If your mind wanders, just gently bring it back to your breath.
- Body scan: Lie down in a comfortable position and close your eyes. Start at your toes and slowly move up your body, noticing any sensations you feel along the way.
- Mindful eating: Take a few moments to really savor your food. Notice the smell, taste, and texture of what you're eating. Pay attention to how your body feels before, during, and after eating.
- Mindful walking: Take a slow, mindful walk around your neighborhood or local park. Pay attention to the sensation of your feet hitting the ground and the sights and sounds around you. If your mind wanders, just gently bring it back to the present moment.
- Loving-kindness meditation: Sit in a comfortable position and close your eyes. Bring to mind someone you love and send them thoughts of well-wishing, such as "may you be happy," "may you be healthy," or "may you be free from suffering." You can also extend these thoughts to yourself, to someone you don't know well, or to all beings everywhere.
The importance of self-compassion in mindfulness practice
Mindfulness and self-compassion are two important components of a happy and healthy life. Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention to your present moment experience with openness, curiosity, and without judgment. Self-compassion is extending compassion to yourself when you're experiencing difficult emotions or situations. Both mindfulness and self-compassion have been shown to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression. They can also improve your overall well-being. When you're practicing mindfulness, it's important to be gentle with yourself if your mind wanders or you find it difficult to focus. Remember that everyone has difficulties with mindfulness from time to time – it's part of the practice! Instead of beating yourself up for not being perfect, try to treat yourself with the same kindness, compassion, and understanding you would extend to a good friend. With regular practice, mindfulness and self-compassion can help you live a better life by reducing stress, anxiety, and depression, and increasing your overall well-being.
Where to go from here?
Building a mindfulness practice is a powerful tool that can help you live a more peaceful and fulfilling life. The practice can offer huge benefits to your physical, emotional, and mental health. If you’re interested in giving mindfulness a try, consider working with a therapist who can help you integrate these principles. As useful as mindfulness practice is, it is not a panacea: it is one of many tools on the path to wellbeing. Meditation practice can complement the experience of therapy, where you can process your concerns in the context of a professional, confidential, and caring relationship. If you'd like to get started, schedule a free consultation with one of our experts at Relational Psych today. We would be honored to help you begin your journey to better wellbeing.
“Mindfulness in Plain English” - By Bhante Gunaratana
“Wherever You Go, There You Are” by Jon Kabat-Zinn
“The Miracle of Mindfulness” by Thich Nhat Hanh