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You’re Not Doing Mindfulness Wrong

Here's how to be mindful without turning off your mind.

Key points

  • Mindfulness meditation is not about turning off your mind.
  • Practicing mindful awareness can be an important step in reducing avoidance and control.
  • You can practice mindful awareness by noticing what's inside, what's outside, and the experience of noticing itself.

Mindfulness is hard to get your head around. But being mindful—consciously present and aware of your experience—is an important way to let go of avoidance and control and get moving in your life. In this post, we’re going to lay out a simple (but not necessarily easy) way to practice and benefit from this type of meditation without getting lost in it. To help you get started, we break it down into three useful steps and then help you incorporate them regularly with a teeny tiny practice.

Mindfulness meditation isn’t about what you think it is.

Every year in one of my classes, I (Jen) have students practice mindfulness meditation at home for a week. Before they start, I usually say something like, “The task for this week is not to turn off your mind. It is just to prioritize awareness for a short period of time while you do nothing else. Again, the goal is not to turn off your mind.” They are also given specific written instructions about what to do and have access to an audio file of someone guiding them through the meditation the whole time.

Without fail, about half of them come back the next week and say something like, “Wow, I am terrible at this. I couldn’t turn my mind off at all.”

While this may just be proof that my students don’t listen to me (which is also likely true), the bigger point here is that we tend to turn meditation into something it isn’t. We think of blissed-out monks “ohm-ing” in a silent room with a completely blank mind. And, quite reasonably, we determine that we can’t easily pull that off.

Now, there are versions of meditation where the goal is to stop your thinking altogether—and at times, those versions are great—but that’s not the intention of mindfulness meditation.

Mindfulness meditation doesn’t involve making your mind blank—it just involves paying attention to whatever is there. It involves observing the world—including your thoughts and other experiences—from a situation-centered perspective rather than a self-centered perspective. Situation-centered means focusing on an experience as it is, not through the filter of your mind. Self-centered means focusing on an experience through that filter. It’s the difference between your experience of tasting a ripe strawberry as you bite into it and your mind’s judgments and evaluations about it: for example, “Wow, this is amazing!” or “Ack, that wasn’t ripe yet.”

Great, so how do you do that?

Step 1: Sit back and check out the world around you.

The easiest way to start is to start with the things outside of you. Just sit down silently and pay attention to everything around you, on purpose. Like, right now. What do you notice around you right now?

As a starting place, you can try this trick therapists use to help people ground themselves when they’re feeling overwhelmed. See if you can find five blue things in the room or place you’re in right now.

The process of looking around and focusing on your senses on the world you’re in right now—that’s mindful awareness. Being here, and being present. You can’t notice the blue things around you from the past or the future or from within the veil of your constant-thought machine. You have to practice moving from a self-centered to a situation-centered perspective to do it.

Step 2: Sit back and check out the world inside you.

The task of being situation-centered becomes about a million times more difficult when instead of observing blue things around us, we’re stuck in our own thoughts. But the principle and practice of observing those thoughts inside our heads is the same.

So let’s try it again. Right now, wherever you are, just shut your eyes for a second. See if you can notice one thought that is present right now. It doesn’t have to be the world’s most important thought. Often, in the beginning, it is something like, “I can’t find a single thought.” Or, if you can’t find a thought, see if you can notice a pain or an itch or any sensation. Maybe the feel of the back of your legs against whatever you’re sitting on.

Again, the noticing of the thought or sensation—that is mindful awareness. It is observing your thought or sensation with a little distance, rather than getting caught up in it.

Step 3: Check out the noticer.

Finally—and this is a little Jedi-level, so it’s OK if you can’t do it—notice that there is someone who just looked for blue things and noticed thoughts. The task isn’t to define that someone, just to notice them. That “someone” is the noticing part of you that comes before words and was present even when you were a baby, experiencing the world before you knew what to call things or how to tell stories about it.

Taking this perspective helps you make a distinction between the noticer and the stuff you’re noticing. Pain is a lot easier to handle when it’s not you but rather part of an experience you’re having. And taking meaningful action in your life when pain is present—scheduling that surgery, leaving a lousy job, coming out to your family—may feel just a little bit more doable.

Teeny tiny practice: Make it quick and consistent.

One way to incorporate this into your life and begin to “build the muscle” of mindfulness is to prioritize this kind of awareness for short periods of time each day. You can set aside a specific time to practice on purpose or just try to incorporate it into a daily routine, like brushing your teeth or washing the dishes. For example, if you were brushing your teeth, you could start by noticing the color of the toothbrush, the texture of the bristles, and the shine of the toothpaste. Then you could notice body reactions as the toothpaste hits your tongue. Then you could tune into the noticer behind your eyes where you are observing all this—and continue with these three kinds of awareness until your teeth are all fresh and smooth again.

The goal isn’t to transform your life overnight. It’s to practice consciously expanding your awareness bit by bit, so you can start to make meaningful changes.

Portions of this text are adapted from Stop Avoiding Stuff: 25 Microskills to Face Your Fears and Do It Anyway by the authors.