”If every 8-year-old in the world is taught meditation, we will eliminate violence from the world within one generation.” -The Dalai Lama
(Note: If you want to get right to the tips, scroll down!)
If you’re reading this post, you’re likely already familiar with the term mindfulness.
The word has become downright 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 the ubiquitousness of yoga in our culture these days.
So this mindfulness stuff all sounds good, but I get lots of questions about what it actually is, and how to incorporate it into daily life.
I’ll try to help clarify and simplify.
Have you been interested in starting a mindfulness practice but haven’t known where to start?
You’re certainly not alone.
I know starting a meditation practice can feel overwhelming. You might get so bogged down in the details of all you think you have to do to be a good meditator that you never 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 centered in the present moment as life’s waves roll over you, you’ll start freely sharing your authentic voice and most compassionate, joyful self with the world.
And the world needs you!
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, I said simple, which doesn’t necessarily mean easy!
We have a habit of distracting ourselves from our lives by wandering into the past to regret or blame or replay our tired old story over and over; or jumping into the future to worry or control (euphemistically masked as planning).
If the suggestion to “Just be present” were easy, we’d be doing it all the time. But because of how our brains and our culture are wired, we spend most of our time anywhere but the present moment.
But we can change that with some extremely simple practices and a healthy dose of commitment.
First, a note of clarity. Meditation is a tool to cultivate mindfulness.
When you meditate, you’re practicing returning to the present moment again and again.
Meditation is an exercise to build your “mindfulness muscle.” When you practice meditation in a repetitive, structured way, you increase your capacity to stay present in the moments of your life.
That structure is extremely supportive to mindfulness, especially when you’re just getting started. That’s why creating a simple but consistent meditation practice is strongly recommended to bring nonjudgmental moment-to-moment awareness into your daily life.
That said, there are tons of ways you can craft that daily structure in a way that feels great to you.
It’s important that you design a routine that feels inviting to you; if it feels like a “have to” rather than a “want to,” your odds of making it a habit are slim.
Here are 10 tips to get your meditation practice started.
♦ 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.
♦ Commit. Decide what your new mindfulness practice consists of and commit 100% to it. 10 minutes a day is a great place to start. If committing to 10 minutes a day for 21 days in a row feels right to settle your new habit in, go with that. 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.
♦ 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.
♦ Dedicate a place. Create an inviting sanctuary in a quiet space where you won’t be interrupted. Set up your meditation chair or cushion (“zafus” are meditation cushions you can easily purchase online) in a comfortable space, perhaps facing a window, somewhere the energy feels cozy to you. Bring in candles, calming pictures, plants, a Buddha or other inspirational figure, whatever feels sweet to you. 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.
♦ 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. If you’re on the ground, settle your sitz bones (the bones you feel at the base of your seat) toward the 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 you spine.
You’re alert yet relaxed. Melt your shoulders 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.
♦ 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 in-out cycle as “1,” count up to 10, and begin again at 1. You might label “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 this one breath.
♦ 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 repetition, it will eventually stay here more consistently.
♦ It’s all OK. While you’re intending to focus on your breath, you’ll invariably notice thoughts, emotions, and sensations. 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 breath.
♦ 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!
♦ 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 current 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, 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 begin 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 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, how about dedicating some of those periods to practicing noticing the sense of smell, touch, taste, vibration, and emotion that comes up for you? Bring nonjudgmental intention and awareness into how you communicate with others and see what happens.
Whatever methods you choose to get started, may you feel supported as you strengthen your mindfulness muscle!
In Love and Support,