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7 Things Not to Do When Practicing Mindfulness Meditation

Don't make these mistakes, and watch your meditation practice flourish.

I don't know about you, but when I hear that I should practice something, my resistance ramps up. For example, as a child, when I was told I had to practice the piano, I never wanted to. So it's no surprise that with all this talk about how wonderful mindfulness is, I can balk.

Nonetheless, something keeps pulling me back. I've read enough, gone to enough workshops, and practiced enough to know that it helps. It certainly doesn't cure everything, but as Good Morning America's Dan Harris says in his new book, it can make you 10 percent happier.

Here are some tips I’ve gathered to make mindfulness meditation work for me. For some reason, they all emerged in the form of "don't do this." … I guess my resistance machine just doesn’t want to take a break. Nonetheless, I hope you’ll find these tips useful.

1. Don't get hijacked. One of the most common types of mindfulness instruction is to focus on your breathing. When your attention strays, you bring it back to the breath. It’s an elegant way to learn to focus your mind. Simple, right? Well, it’s simple but certainly not easy.

It’s not long before we lose track of the breath and get hijacked by thoughts and emotions. This doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong; in fact, it happens to everyone. The idea is to gently bring yourself back to the body, back to the breath. When you notice a thought or emotion, simply acknowledge it, but let it pass.

Avoid judging yourself for the mind wandering. Meditation expert Sharon Salzberg calls the point when you notice your mind has wandered “the magic moment." It’s the moment when you have a chance to do it differently; the time when you can be gentle with yourself and simply start again.

2. Don't bring a gun. My headings are sounding dramatic! Recently, I listened to one of Tara Brach's podcasts. She told a story about the famous Diane Fossey studying the inner workings of gorilla groups in Rwanda. Ms. Fossey was once asked how her group of researchers had gained so much more information than those in the past. Apparently, Ms. Fossey replied, "We didn't bring guns." The gorillas could sense when people were there out of genuine and compassionate curiosity. This is how we must be when we are exploring the contents of our own minds. We have to approach ourselves with gentleness, and not come in with the intention to judge.

3. Don't expect a particular outcome. When you’re practicing a specific mindfulness practice, don’t expect any certain outcome or even that you will get through all of the steps. For example, a popular mindfulness exercise is called RAIN. The acronym stands for recognize, allow, investigate, and non-identification. I won't explain the whole practice (you can read about it here), but even if you only get to the first part where you pause and recognize what's going on, that's huge. It reminds me of a popular Victor Frankl quote:

"Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom."

Similarly, don't expect that one particular mindfulness practice will make you feel relaxed. That may happen, but it may not. Simply being open to the present moment is what matters (although a little relaxation thrown in never hurts). Or, as meditation expert Susan Piver says (I'm paraphrasing): We don't practice meditation to get better at meditation. We practice meditation to wake up.

4. Don't try too hard. I’m an expert at making things more complicated than they need to be. For example, sometimes when I'm doing a self-compassion practice, I worry that I'm not doing it right if I don't feel a lot of warmth and kindness toward myself. I’m trying to generate all this goodwill toward myself and I’m just not feeling it!

Meditation teacher and author Tara Brach explains that we don’t have to generate some artificial feeling of self-love by saying positive affirmations or giving ourselves a pep talk. It's enough to simply have the intention to be kind to yourself. Wow! That makes it a lot easier. Similarly, you can set your intention to bring your awareness to the present moment, regardless of what happens next.

5. Don't wait until conditions are perfect. I still fall prey to this: I think, I'll start meditating again on Monday, sort of like I used to say I’d start a diet on Monday. I’d want to wait until the conditions were perfect. But it's okay to practice informally, and to start right now. You don’t have to wait until you have 30 minutes a day or the perfect cushion to sit on.

I participated in a continuing education workshop with Kristin Neff, Ph.D. a leading researcher on self-compassion and a long-time meditation practitioner. She noted that her research was showing that even informal mindfulness practice was shown to be quite powerful in increasing people’s self-compassion. Of course, other research shows that meditation is dose-dependent in that the more you do it the better the outcome. But just like exercise, every little bit helps.

6. Don't worry if you need to take a break. There are times in all of our lives when practicing mindfulness or meditation may not be the best thing to do. Perhaps we’re too tired, physically ill, or emotionally raw. If any mindfulness or meditation exercise does not feel safe, please stop and take care of yourself in another way. You might want to check out my list of 80+ self-care ideas.

7. Don't give up on yourself. I know it's easy to think, "My mind is too busy; I'll never be good at this mindfulness stuff." Tara Brach says that she can still go into a mindless trance of feeling bad about herself, but the pain doesn’t go as deep or last as long. (Read more on The Trance of Unworthiness.) She also told a story (you can listen to it here) about the Dalai Lama admitting that he still has “demons” he struggles with at times.

I’m relieved to know that we’re all in very good company.

I am the co-author of Dying of Embarrassment, Painfully Shy, and Nurturing the Shy Child; I also write at The Self-Compassion Project.

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