A key part of mastering ourselves is being aware of our thoughts as they happen.
The concept of mindfulness plays a key role in Buddhist meditation and has been practiced for thousands of years. Of course, just because a thing is ancient doesn’t mean it’s valuable.
Meditation – in the non-mystical, secular sense – seems to be an exception. Modern scientific research has shed some light on the psychology of mindfulness as well as its many benefits to the human brain and body.
Practicing mindfulness has been shown to elevate positive emotions1, increase empathy2, reduce chronic pain and depression3, reduce stress and anxiety4, improve immune system functioning5, and produce a wide range of other positive effects6.7
What is mindfulness, with its laundry list of supposed benefits? In short, mindfulness is paying attention to your moment-to-moment situation, actions, and feelings. In a little more detail:
Mindfulness is characterized by dispassionate, nonevaluative and sustained moment-to-moment awareness of perceptible mental states and processes. This includes continuous, immediate awareness of physical sensations, perceptions, affective states, thoughts, and imagery.8
And said another way:
[It] involves above all the regular, disciplined practice of moment-to-moment awareness or mindfulness, the complete “owning” of each moment of your experience, good, bad, or ugly.9
We are largely unaware of our moment-to-moment experiences, often operating on “automatic pilot” mode.10 This isn’t a bad thing, per se, but it does present an opportunity.
A key idea to mindfulness is that we are capabable of developing the ability to focus our attention on our mental content, and that this development is gradual, progressive, and requires regular practice. By building the ability of moment-to-moment awareness we can achieve a richer and more vital sense of life as our experiences become more vivid and conscious. This enables us to increase the accuracy of our perceptions and develop a greater sense of personal control.10 Sounds pretty great, right?
There are criticisms of whether ‘mindfulness’ as described and used in the scientific literature accurately reflects the Buddhist tradition.11 For myself, I’m not concerned with the ‘correct’ Buddhist way. I’m much more interested in the benefits described at the start of this post, and how people have achieved them!
Methods of Mindfulness
The common form of mindfulness practice in the scientific literature – mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) as it is usually called – takes on a fairly specific form, originally created at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center.12 The MBSR method consists of an 8-10 week course where subjects perform daily mindfulness activities and weekly longer meditations.
Two of the basic forms of mindfulness practice follow below.13
(1) Sitting with the Breath
- Sit comfortably and relax.
- Focus your full attention on your breath.
- When you notice that your awareness has left your breath (it will!) gently let the thought go and return attention to the breath. Even if this happens a thousand times, keep gently returning to the breath.
That’s it! Seems easy enough, right? Yet, it’s surprisingly difficult. Your mind will wander a lot, especially when you are trying this out for the first time. How to Meditate basically explains this process, with a few more details added.
How often and for how long should you practice? Kabat-Zinn (1990) outlines a very basic routine, based on the above, as follows:
- Practice breathing awareness for at least ten minutes at least once a day.
- Each time you notice that your mind is no longer on your breath, see where it is, then let it go and gently return to the breath.
- Over time try extending the duration of the meditation until you can do it for thirty minutes or more.
If thirty minutes seems like a long time to sit around and do nothing but breathe, I used to agree. Now I like to compare it to sleeping. Sure, it would be great if I could feel refreshed and alert after only 3 hours of sleep, but whenever I try I feel like crap. Those extra hours of being awake are not worth the tiredness for the whole day. Now imagine the benefits of meditation like getting a full sleep. If you’ve been tired your whole life, you might not think you need to waste time sleeping more – until you’ve tried it. Likewise, spending the time to meditate may seem like a waste – until you’ve seen how the benefits make the rest of your waking life that much better. But I digress.
Once you become skilled in doing (1), you can then try this:
(2) Sitting with the Breath and Body
- After you have focused attention on your breath, shift that attention to “around” your breathing, i.e. to the whole body.
- When your awareness wanders, bring it back to the breath and body.
There are additional forms of meditation, but they usually build off the basic breath mindfulness. These basics are more than enough to get started with mindfulness practice, and if they become a habit and go well, more research can be done into alternative forms of mindfulness practice if desired.
A key element of all of the above is to practice for the sake of practicing. Thinking to yourself, “Darn it, focus on my breath! I want to reduce my stress and be happier!!” is counterproductive; just as doing something to make you happy because it’s supposed to make you happy probably won’t make you happy.
With this outline of how to practice mindfulness, if may be of further use to know how I go about meditating.
How I Meditate
I have started meditating several times in my life, but much like exercise it slowly trailed off each time. I blame this primarily on setting expectations for myself that were too high, trying to jump right in to thirty minutes per day, every day, without exception. But of course, there were exceptions – eventually I missed one, then two, then ten, then… I couldn’t get back into it.
Two months ago I started reading some of the literature on mindfulness and realized I should try it out again, this time using what I know about forming habits and maintaining motivation. This consists of several key things. First, I started very small (just ten minutes!) and will be working my way up in length of meditation. Second, I visibly track the day and duration of my meditations, so that I can easily see my progress; this motivates me to avoid skipping a day and ruinning my track record. Third, I try as much as possible to do it in the same environment at the same time every day – ideally early in the morning – for the consistency and to better ingrain the habit.
Over the past two months I have done ten minutes of breathing meditation every day (with two misses, blast).
I sit cross-legged on the floor (not enough flexibility to do any fancy yogi positions), I attempt to relax and focus on my breath for ten minutes, and then I go about my day as normal.
Even though it’s been two months, I’m not convinced it’s an ingrained habit yet. Once I am, I’ll ramp up the time to fifteen, then twenty, then thirty minutes (and beyond?). Yes, it will probably be a long time until I build a consistent mindfulness practice into my life, but the minimal effort seems more than worth it to me!
I also use a very simple iPhone app called Mindfulness Meditation which has guided meditations and a built-in timer. This has been very helpful, since it gives periodic suggestions and reminders, which helps me stay focused during the practice.
Overall I think the mindfulness practice is having an impact. I’m not bouncing around with stress-free joy, but I do feel more energetic and aware of my thoughts. I also feel happier. To be fair, since these things are quite subjective and have many influences, it’s hard to know exactly how much can be attributed to the meditation.
I have also yet to reach the ideal thirty minutes, so it’s hard to judge my results until that has happened.
Have I convinced you to set aside a mere ten minutes a day (for starters) to try out some mindfulness practice? If yes, good luck! If not, how come?
It is a challenge, largely because the benefits aren’t immediate, and in our modern busy lives it can be hard to set aside ten minutes to be alone.
But still, are you going to give it a try??
- wikihow.com – How to Meditate – A simple example of how to meditate.
- Full Catastrophe Living by Kabat-Zinn – Chapter 4 – Available online, with details on breathing meditation.
- zenhabits.net – Meditation for Beginners: 20 Practical Tips for Quieting the Mind – The first article I ever read on how to meditate, and one that stuck with me for a long time.
- iPhone app – Mindfulness Meditation – Meditation guides and a timer.
Header image from mudeth.
Brown et al. (2009). When what one has is enough: Mindfulness, financial desire discrepancy, and subjective well being. Journal of Research in Personality 43 (5): 727–736.
Buchheld, Grossman, Walach (2002). Measuring mindfulness in insight meditation (Vipassana) and meditation-based psychotherapy: the development of the Freiburg mindfulness inventory. J Medit Medit Res 2002;1:11–34.
Chang et al. (2004). The effects of a mindfulness-based stress reduction program on stress, mindfulness self-efficacy, and positive states of mind. Stress and Health. 20(3): 141-147.
Chiesa & Serretti (2009). Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction for Stress Management in Healthy People: A Review and Meta-Analysis. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. 15(5): 593-600.
Chiesa & Serretti (2010). A systematic review of neurobiological and clinical features of mindfulness meditations. Psychological Medicine. 40(8); 1239-1252.
Davidson, Kabat-Zinn, Schumacher et al. (2003). Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosomatic Medicine 65 (3): 564–70.
Fredrickson et al. (2008). Open hearts build lives: positive emotions, induced through loving-kindness meditation, build consequential personal resources. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 95 (5): 1045–62.
Goleman (1977). The meditative mind: the varieties of meditative experience. New York: Dutton.
Grossman, Niemann, Schmidt, & Walach (2004). Mindfulness-based stress reduction and health benefits: A meta-analysis. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 57: 35-43.
Hofmann et al. (2010). The Effect of Mindfulness-Based Therapy on Anxiety and Depression: A Meta-Analytic Review. J Consult Clin Psychol. 78(2): 169–183.
Kabat-Zinn (1982). An outpatient program in behavioral medicine for chronic pain patients based on the practice of mindfulness meditation: Theoretical considerations and preliminary results. General Hospital Psychiatry. 4: 33-47.
Kabat-Zinn (1990). Full catastrophe living: using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain and illness. New York: Delacorte.
Kabat-Zinn (2003). Mindfulness-based interventions in context: Past, present, and future. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice. 10:144–156.
Santorelli (1999). Heal thy self: lessons on mindfulness in medicine. New York: Random House; 1999.
Shapiro, Schwartz, & Bonner (1998). The effects of mindfulness-based stress reduction on medical and pre-medical students. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 21: 581-599.
Shao & Skarlicki (2009). The role of mindfulness in predicting individual performance. Canadian Journal of Behavioral Science 41 (4): 195–201.
Wallace (2006). The attention revolution: Unlocking the power of the focused mind. Boston: Wisdom Publications.
- Brown et al. (2009); Davidson et al. (2003); Fredrickson et al. (2008); Davidson, Kabat-Zinn, Schumacher, et al. (2003); Shao & Skarlicki (2009). [↩]
- Shapiro et al. (1998). [↩]
- Kabat-Zinn (1982), (2003); Hofmann et al. (2010). [↩]
- Chiesa & Serretti (2009); Shapiro et al. (1998); Chang et al. (2004); Kabat-Zinn (2003). [↩]
- Davidson et al. (2003). [↩]
- Chiesa & Serretti (2010); Grossman et al. (2004); Kabat-Zinn (2003). [↩]
- See also How To Be Happy, which is where I was initially introduced to the scientific literature on the benefits of mindfulness. [↩]
- Grossman et al. (2004). [↩]
- Kabat-Zinn (1990). [↩]
- Adapted from Grossman et al. (2004) who summarize six key ideas underlying the concept and approach of mindfullness, and largely references Kabat-Zinn (1990), Buchheld et al. (2002), and Goleman (1977). [↩] [↩]
- Wallace (2006). [↩]
- See Kabat-Zinn (1990) and Santorelli (1999) for details. [↩]
- Adopted from Kabat-Zinn (1990), see it for additional exercises. [↩]