Whether you’re stuck in a rut or struggling to deal with deep-seated emotions, mindful practice can help and the benefits are instantaneous. But what is mindfulness and how do you get started? In this article, I share my own challenges and how practicing mindfulness has benefited me.
What Is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is lucid awareness: being completely present, conscious of moment-to-moment experiences, without being overly reactive of what is going on around you.
When you are aware of what you are experiencing through your senses or thoughts and emotions, you’re being mindful. Honing this practice to cultivate mindfulness nurtures the qualities of happiness, wisdom, compassion, and kindness in life.
“Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally… in the service of self-understanding and wisdom.”
– Jon Kabat-Zinn, creator of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)
It’s Not Magic, It’s Science
In her book Fully Present: The Science, Art, and Practice of Mindfulness, Susan Smalley, Ph.D. reviews multiple research studies on mindfulness and explains how regularly practicing mindfulness meditation can lead to several positive life changes, including:
- Reducing stress.
- Reducing chronic physical pain.
- Boosting the body’s immune system to fight disease.
- Coping with painful life events, such as the death of a loved one or major illness.
- Dealing with negative emotions like anger, fear, and greed.
- Increasing self-awareness to detect harmful reactive patterns of thought, feeling, and action.
- Enhancing positive emotions, including happiness and compassion.
- Increasing interpersonal skills and relationships.
- Reducing addictive behaviors, such as eating disorders, alcoholism, and smoking.
- Enhancing performance, whether in work, sports. or academics.
- Stimulating and releasing creativity.
- Positively changing actual brain structure.
The wonderful thing about mindfulness is that it is always available to you, and in many forms. Sitting meditations and body scans are among the most popular mindfulness practices, however just pausing for a moment to breathe before answering the phone, responding to an email, or taking a sip of water is mindful practice.
These mindful moments are a great place to start by allowing you to put a little space between yourself and your reactions, which then breaks down conditioned responses. To expand these moments into full mindfulness practice, try following these simple steps.
- Block out time. You don’t need any special equipment to be mindful, but you do need to dedicate time to it (and some physical space to sit).
- Observe. The goal of mindfulness is not to quiet the mind and keep the bothersome thoughts from rolling in, but rather to just observe and acknowledge the thoughts. Paying attention to the present is what helps achieve a greater calm.
- Don’t judge. Observe your thoughts without judgment. Easier said than done. So, when you feel judgments start to creep up during your practice, make a mental note and let them pass.
- Stay present. Whether your practice is 5 minutes or an hour, your mind will want to wander away in thought. Part of mindfulness practice is returning your mind back to the present moment. This will happen frequently, especially for beginners, so don’t be hard on yourself. Just recognize it and bring it back.
These steps are simple, but not necessarily easy. It’s referred to as mindful practice because it is meant to be continued and refined for the best results.
Guided meditations are ways to practice mindfulness and are especially helpful for beginners. If you have just a few minutes you can relax your entire body and focus your mind. Try these basic guided meditations to get started.
Mindfulness Practice Leads to Altered Traits
The more time you spend practicing mindfulness, the kinder, calmer, and more patient you’ll notice yourself becoming, and your family and friends will likely notice, too! These small shifts help you enjoy the little things in your day more – a walk, cup of coffee with a spouse, playing with kids or pets – and can lead to even greater changes with more practice.
Another way to consider the benefits of mindfulness is as Milarepa’s riddle puts it:
“In the beginning nothing comes, in the middle nothing stays, in the end nothing goes.”
In their book Altered Traits, Goleman and Davidson explain the riddle: “This can be understood as, at the start of contemplative practice, little or nothing seems to change in us. After continued practice, we notice some changes in our way of being, but they come and go. Finally, as the practice stabilizes, the changes are enduring, with no fluctuation. They are altered traits.”
I love that Milarepa’s poetic words from the 12th century have been supported by 21st-century research scientists who have mapped the benefits of mindfulness, all the way from a single session of practice to tens of thousands of hours practiced by Tibetan lamas.
The benefits are immediate, even for a beginner meditator: improved states of mind, reduced stress, and improved ability to learn. Although these benefits are also fleeting without continued practice. Over many practice hours, the benefits evolve to become changes at the trait level, both positive and enduring.
Personal Experience with Mindfulness Benefits
My meditation practice began in high school when I learned breathing meditation from a book, which I did to stay calm during 10th grade math class. I’m happy to report that breathing through math class, enjoying a calmer state of mind than usual, contributed to improved grades compared to prior years!
A few years later I regularly practiced Transcendental Meditation™ and enjoyed the deep relaxation possible from repeating a mantra in two 20-minute sessions each day.
While a junior in college, I read Ram Dass’s Be Here Now and was fortunate to meet Ram Dass as well as other meditation practitioners in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Those practitioners included me in Tuesday night get-togethers at a Harvard professor’s home to meditate for two hours. During those evenings, I frequently experienced mind states that went from concentrated to ecstatic. I was hooked!
I also went to Sunday afternoon classes with the same group. One day, Joseph Goldstein taught mindfulness − or as he called it, vipassana – class. I was drawn to the simplicity of the practice and to the instructions to just pay attention to the moment-to-moment experience.
During my senior year in college, I did my first 10-day silent retreat at the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Barre, Massachusetts. This was not at all easy, especially the first three days of directly experiencing my unruly mind, full of racing thoughts and anxieties about my impending future of earning a living in the adult world.
On day four, and then with increasing frequency after that, I began to experience glimpses of lucid awareness. Simply seeing a leaf brought a quiet, deep joy which the teachers of that retreat − Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield, and Sharon Salzburg, might have called experiencing “suchness.” I’m also able to see thoughts as they arise, pass away and lead to the next thought. And how often those thoughts lead to feelings, either pleasant or unpleasant, which can create a whole cascade of more thoughts and feelings – which are mostly memories of the past and worries or hopes for the future. It’s amazing how little they actually matter in the present – and so many of those thoughts are repetitive. It’s not that thinking isn’t useful – I use structured problem solving to benefit many people and organizations in my consulting work. It’s just that so much of it just hooks us into leaving the present moment to be lost in thought – and then missing the actual moment at hand.
Making Room for Mindfulness
In my next article, I’ll discuss how the carefully cultivated mindfulness practice of my adolescence and college years dwindled as I dove into the world of adulthood. And how I found it again when I needed to process deeply emotional life changes. What is mindfulness to you? Whether you’re struggling to start mindfulness practice or would like to take your practice to the next level, we can help. Learn More about our Mindful Leadership training option.