If you’re reading this post, you’re likely already familiar with the term mindfulness.
The word has become pretty mainstream in the US, with research on mindfulness-based stress reduction programs in hospitals and mindfulness programs in schools showing powerful results, with mindfulness-based leadership courses now being taught in some of the top MBA programs in the country and mindfulness-based stress reduction classes being in popular demand at companies like Google, not to mention how yoga has blown up in this country.
So this mindfulness stuff all sounds well and good, but there’s a good deal of confusion out there about what it actually is and how to incorporate it into our daily lives in a realistic way.
This post’s aim is to help clarify and simplify.
Have you been interested in starting a meditation practice but haven’t known where to start?
You’re certainly not alone.
Starting to meditate can feel overwhelming. It’s easy to get so bogged down in the details of all we think we have to do to be a good meditator that we never even start.
But that would be a true shame.
Because mindfulness’s ability to increase concentration and clarity, reduce anxiety and reactivity, and improve immunity and overall sense of wellbeing — among a long list of other benefits — is profound.
And when you learn how to stay more centered in the present moment as life’s waves roll through, you’ll start sharing your most authentic, compassionate, joyful self with the world more freely and easily.
The great news is that, actually, mindfulness is just about the simplest practice you could imagine:
Mindfulness is the practice of intentionally paying attention to our present moment experience without judging it as good or bad, and without trying to change it.
OK, so simple doesn’t always mean easy, it’s true.
We humans tend to have a habit of distracting ourselves from real life as it’s unfolding by wandering into the past to regret or blame or replay our tired old story on a loop, or jumping into the future to worry or plan or try to control.
If the suggestion to “Just be present” were easy, we’d already be doing it. But because of how our brains and culture are wired, we spend most of our time anywhere but the present moment.
But we can rewire those habits with some quite simple practices and a healthy dose of commitment.
First, a note of clarity:
Meditation is a tool to cultivate mindfulness.
You grow your “mindfulness muscle” by intentionally practicing returning to the present moment again and again.
And when you practice meditation in a repetitive, structured way, you’ll increase your capacity to stay present in the moments of your life — which means experiencing less suffering by being constantly pulled toward a past that’s already happened or a future that exists only in your mind.
The structured daily practice of meditation is extremely supportive and effective in growing our mindfulness muscle.
It’s important to design a daily ritual that feels good to you; if it feels like a “have to” rather than a “want to,” your odds of making it a habit are very slim.
So here are 10 tips to jumpstart your meditation practice.
1. Be intentional.
Be clear with yourself about why cultivating mindfulness is important to you. Greater sense of inner peace? Ability to be more present with your kids or partner? Better health or sleep? More compassion or creativity? Increased productivity?
Your intention is your motivation to get you over the hump until this ritual becomes your default habit and you really start to feel its benefits.
Decide what your new mindfulness practice consists of and commit 100% to it.
10 minutes a day is a great place to start. Maybe committing to 10 minutes a day for 21 days in a row feels like a reasonable starting point.
Or maybe it’s a promise to yourself to sit for 10 minutes every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Decide what’s realistic for your lifestyle, schedule it into your calendar, and commit to it. No excuses.
3. Dedicate a time.
Making your practice the first “real” thing you do after waking up is a great way to make sure you get your practice in before the wheels of your day and your mind have a chance to derail it.
No smart phone, coffee, or heavy conversation before you sit. If sitting before bed feels like a better fit for you, that’s a nice way to unwind from the day as well.
4. Dedicate a place.
Create an inviting sanctuary in a quiet space where you won’t be interrupted. This can be as simple as designating a corner in a reasonably quiet part of your house as your regular go-to meditation spot.
Set up your meditation chair or cushion (zafus are meditation cushions you can easily purchase online) in a comfortable space, perhaps facing a window or somewhere where the energy feels pleasant to you.
You can bring in candles, pictures, plants, a Buddha or other inspirational figure, whatever feels like it helps you connect.
Decide if and how you’d like to set a timer for your sessions (free phone apps are a nice portable option), and bring that into the room.
5. Get comfortable.
If you’re in a chair, plant both feet on the ground and sit toward the edge of your seat, if you can do so comfortably. You might roll a blanket or shawl to place between the chair and the lumbar curve of your back until your back muscles get strong enough to support you ease-fully sitting at the edge of your chair.
If you’re sitting on a cushion on the ground, settle your sitz bones (the bones you feel at the base of your seat) toward the front edge of your cushion, crossing one shin bone parallel in front of the other (switch the cross each day).
In either seated position, allow your spine to be erect without being rigid, so that your head feels like it’s floating effortlessly atop your spine.
Settle into a position in which you feel alert yet relaxed. Let your shoulders melt down away from your ears, and either rest one hand inside the other palm facing upward in your lap, or rest palms face down on your thighs. Close your eyes, or find a soft gaze a few feet on the ground in front of you.
6. Notice your breath.
The simplest way to begin to cultivate awareness wherever you are is to notice what the breath is doing.
Simply bring your attention to the breath as it breathes itself, without forcing or altering it.
You might lightly label “in” on the in breath in your mind and “out” on the out breath; or silently count one inhale-exhale cycle as “1;” count up to 10; then begin again at 1.
You might also play with labeling “cool” air coming into the nostrils and “warm” air exiting them; or simply notice the feeling of air as it contacts the tip of the nostrils.
Noticing the belly moving in and out, or the chest rising up and down, are nice ways to anchor to the breath as well.
Your only task right now is to notice just one breath at a time.
7. Just come back.
When your mind wanders away from this breath and this moment – and it will – just come back. No story, no judgment, no problem.
Imagine you’re gently bringing a puppy back to the paper where it’s being trained when it inevitably wanders off. With loving, consistent encouragement, the mind will gradually learn to stay here more consistently.
8. It’s all OK.
While you’re intending to focus on your breath, you’ll invariably notice thoughts, emotions, and sensations tugging at your attention.
You might notice frustration or anxiety or sadness as the mind quiets down. You might fall asleep occasionally. Your knee or hips or back might feel uncomfortable. You might feel the impulse to check your clock every 20 seconds.
Awareness excludes nothing. Notice and allow it all, including judgment if and when it comes up.
Whatever you notice, just let it be, and then come back to this one breath.
9. Be gentle, be grateful.
You’re building a practice that will support every aspect of your life, and it takes effort and dedication and strength and the willingness to be vulnerable to see what tenderness has been hidden under the layers of dust that have accrued over the years.
Be gentle with yourself during and grateful to yourself after your meditation sessions. You’re following through every day with your commitment to lead a more engaged, authentic life. Acknowledge and celebrate that.
10. Carry the intention into your day.
Meditation gives us skills to be able to be more open and present and thoughtful and joyful and real during our days. Check in with yourself at the end of your morning meditation about what your intention about (your commitment to) your day is.
Practice being present with awareness and without judgment throughout your day. This is how we truly create a positive ripple effect in the world.
These are just ideas to get you started. There are all kinds of meditation practices out there.
If you’re a visual person, you might explore meditations that involve gazing at a candle. If you’re the auditory type, maybe a guided meditation (Headspace is my personal favorite recommendation).
If you’re a kinesthetic person, a walking meditation where you focus on the sensations of your heel toe, heel toe hitting the ground, or working with mala beads in your hand might serve you well.
If you feel most at home in nature, you might move your practice outside to bring in awareness of the sound of birds chirping, the sight of clouds drifting, and the smell of pine needles in your nostrils.
Do some research and experiment to find what resonates with you. As your practice builds, you’ll start to expand your awareness more into the realm of thoughts and emotions.
But the principles of being intentional and committed to noticing and allowing each moment as it is are constants.
Meditation is a huge support in helping us be able to be more present with less judgment and more joy in our lives.
But if you’re not feeling ready to start a formal meditation practice yet, consider how to incorporate some mindful time into your days, building upon routines you already have in place.
If you drink coffee or tea every day, you might set a daily intention for that time to be present with whatever arises without judgment.
If you’re a runner, consider making some of your runs “mindful runs,” where you commit to focusing your attention on the feeling of your feet as they hit the ground or on the sensation of the breath in your chest and nostrils.
If you’re a musician, a gardener, or a cook, you could dedicate some of those sessions to noticing the sense of smell, touch, taste, sensation, and emotion that come up as you do your thing.
You can play with consciously bringing nonjudgmental intention and awareness into your communication with others to build your mindful communication muscle.
Whatever methods you choose to get started, may you feel supported as you strengthen your mindfulness muscle. Your consistent practice can truly transform your life, and, by extension, contribute to the well-being of all beings.
Lots of Love,
* Photo by In Her Image Photography