Mindfulness is everywhere these days.
Increasingly, people are really bringing greater attention to the present moment, cultivating compassion, and making time to sit with their feelings and thoughts as they arise, without reacting or getting lost in them.
There are hundreds of books on the subject, countless instructional videos, courses and workshops. One can easily find online meditation groups, especially popular during this time of global lockdown and heightened stress. There are mindfulness programs specifically for schoolchildren, for the workplace, for people in prison, and for seniors facing retirement. Mindfulness has also found its way into the mental health community, with numerous therapeutic approaches incorporating key elements of mindfulness into their theory and methods.
My research group at War Child Holland has developed a mindfulness-based psychosocial intervention to support refugee parents who are coping with the persistent stress of war and displacement. The changes participants have described in their wellbeing and parenting are powerful, changes they ascribe to finding greater calm, feeling less distressed, sleeping better, and creating a space between strong feelings and how they choose to respond to those feelings.
Why practice mindfulness?
The many benefits of a regular mindfulness practice are well-documented. People who meditate regularly, or who incorporate mindfulness into their daily activities, are less stressed, have an increased capacity for focused attention, and are less likely to react quickly, in ways they are likely to regret, when they experience strong and painful emotions.
For people working on healing from trauma, or trying to overcome depression or anxiety, mindfulness has been shown to be a powerful tool for lessening rumination, stepping back from unproductive worries about the future, and transforming harsh self-criticism into compassionate self-acceptance. Mindfulness creates a gentle, non-reactive awareness of one’s inner experience, which allows for a different way of relating to trauma-related triggers, memories, and feelings. If you’d like to read more, check out The Mindfulness Solution by psychologist Ronald Siegel, and Rewire Your Brain for Love, by neuropsychologist Marsha Lucas.
In this post, I share five strategies for getting the most out of your mindfulness practice. Before jumping into the strategies, some definitions are in order. In another post, I distinguish between mindfulness and meditation:
The terms "meditation" and "mindfulness" are often used interchangeably, but they are actually different concepts: Meditation is a practice in which we set aside time on a regular basis to cultivate a state of mindfulness: a state of mind in which we disengage from our thoughts, notice them without getting pulled into them, notice other sensations or feelings or sounds in the environment, all with a gentle curiosity and openness. It’s a state of being wholly present.
Meditation might be called a “formal” practice for cultivating mindfulness. As we’ll see, there are also many “informal” practices that allow us to cultivate mindfulness during everyday activities. Both types of practice are helpful in moving us along the road towards living more mindfully.
Strategy 1: Practice everyday
Like any skill, becoming mindful takes consistent practice. We are essentially rewiring the brain, altering deeply ingrained patterns of thought, feeling, and behavior. Whether you’re just starting out or have a longstanding mindfulness practice, try to allocate a time each day when you can sit in meditation. If sitting is difficult for you, take a mindful walk. Even if it’s just for a few minutes, honor your commitment to practicing each day.
Start small, maybe five minutes, and build up as you get more comfortable. It can be helpful to use a meditation app with a timer. They’re wonderful. I use Insight Timer, but there are a lot of choices. You may also find it easier to have the structure of a guided meditation. These are included with most of the meditation apps, and you can also find a wide selection online. A few of my favorite teachers, all of whom have guided meditations online, include Jack Kornfield, Tara Brach, Jon Kabat-Zinn, and Pema Chödrön. When I was first starting out, Jack Kornfield's guided breath-focused meditations were enormously helpful.
The simplest way to start is by focusing on your breath. Find a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed, if it’s possible (noise-cancelling headphones are great when you can' find a quiet spot). Sit comfortably, in a way that allows you to remain focused and alert. Bring your attention to the sensation of your breath going in and out. You can focus on the sensation of your belly or chest rising and falling with each inhale and exhale, of the feeling of the air as it enters and leaves your nostrils. No need to change your breathing, simply become aware of it, using at as an anchor for your attention. This can be a lot harder than it sounds. Our minds have become wired to seek distraction, and it likely won’t take long before you find yourself lost in thought, or caught up in a memory, or a worry about something yet to happen. When this occurs, simply notice where your attention has gone, and gently return to the breath, no judgment, just a gentle and patient return. For now, as a starting point, that’s all you need to do. Later on, as you get more comfortable with the practice, you can expand the focus of your attention in ways I discuss below, in Strategy 2.
Remember, be patient with yourself. Developing any new skill takes time and practice.
Strategy 2: Go beyond the breath, to cultivate self-compassion and self-acceptance
Focusing on the breath is a great way to get started, but for many people, it’s only a starting point. It allows us to quiet the mind, and to become more aware our feelings and thoughts as they arise without getting pulled into them.
But mindfulness is also about cultivating self-compassion and self-acceptance. For those of us with harsh inner-critics or parts of ourselves we’ve disowned because we deemed them shameful, unacceptable or frightening, focusing on the breath and creating a non-reactive awareness is just a starting point, an essential first step in the process of healing. To transform that inner critic and reclaim those unwanted parts, we need to open up our awareness to them, and to welcome them with a gentle and accepting heart. It’s remarkable how often our inner demons are transformed into essential and often quite vulnerable parts of ourselves, once we listen compassionately to what they are feeling and needing. That's no small task, however. Opening up to parts of ourselves we've avoided for years can be frightening. If you're dealing with the enduring effects of childhood trauma, working with a mindfulness-baed therapist can make the process feel a lot safer.
Tara Brach has a wonderful collection of online resources for cultivating self-compassion and self-acceptance within your mindfulness practice. Two other resources are A Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction Workbook by Bon Stahl and Elisha Goldstein, and The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook, by Kristin Neff and Christopher Germer. If you’re wanting explore how to work with split off parts, I recommend Parts Work by Tom Holmes, Easy Ego State Interventions by Robin Shapiro, and, for working with more extreme parts that result from early trauma, Healing the Fragmented Selves of Trauma Survivors, by Janina Fisher.
Strategy 3: Bring mindfulness into everyday activities
There are lots of folks who go off to mindfulness retreats, sit and walk in quiet meditation for days, and find serenity in the beauty and silence of their surroundings. Then they return home only to find themselves caught up in the same distracted, reactive patterns they had briefly escaped.
In another post, I describe a variety of “informal” mindfulness practices, ways of integrating mindfulness into the here and now of everyday life, regardless of the activity you are engaged in. Examples include:
- Mindful running, biking or walking. Simply be present with the experience: the sensations in your body, the sights and sounds around you, the feeling of warmth or coolness as you move. Notice the thoughts and feelings that arise, and gently return your focus to the here and now.
- Mindful showering. Notice the sensation of the water against your body, the sounds the water makes as it splashes, the sensation in your scalp as you lather in the shampoo. Notice when your thoughts wander, and simply return your focus to the here and now.
- Mindful communicating. Are you fully present in the conversations you are having? Or are you multitasking, checking your phone for texts or emails while you talk? Are you really listening, or is your mind racing ahead to what you’re going to say in response? Check out the simple one-breath technique I describe in another post if you want to communicate more mindfully.
- Mindful parenting. We can’t always be “on” with our kids. But during quality time, when you’re playing or talking with your child, can you be wholly present and fully engaged with what they are saying or doing? That’s a wonderful gift, one that conveys the powerful message: “You are worthy of my attention and interest.” It's a simple investment a with tremendous payoff.
The only limit to informal mindful practice is your own imagination. You can bring your full attention to any activity.
Strategy 4: Benefit from the wisdom and experience of mindfulness teachers
I was once at a mindfulness retreat with Jack Kornfield, who has written a wonderful series of books on mindfulness and spirituality. With a playful laugh, he cautioned us that reading about meditation is not meditation. With that caveat in mind, recognizing that reading about mindfulness is not a substitute for actually practicing it, I recommend finding a few authors/teachers whose work speaks to you and can help you deepen and expand your practice. I’ve already mentioned several of my favorites. Hopefully in the Comments section of this post, you'll share some of yours.
Strategy 5: Find a mindfulness community (a sangha)
Meditation can be a solitary experience. That’s okay; connecting with ourselves is a powerful and necessarily practice which can deepen our capacity to connect more authentically with others. At the same time, it can be helpful to have the support and shared experience of others engaged in similar work of mindfulness-based personal growth and healing. A community can be a large group, or as small as one other person. It’s the shared experience, support, and mutual learning that matter. That sense of community and shared experience can also help keep us on track with our daily practice.