How to Start a Mindfulness Meditation Practice
A Blueprint for Getting Started
Guided Meditation (download)
A Mindfulness Meditation
What is Mindfulness?
FYI: There’s a good explanation in this edition of the Language of Mindfulness podcast.
The world’s most popular description of Mindfulness is provided by Jon Kabat-Zinn who is Professor of Medicine emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. I like his definition as it provides not only a good description but a roadmap.
Mindfulness is “the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally”
Let’s take a close look at this.
…the awareness that arises…
Mindfulness is an “awareness that arises”. Ok, that’s kind of vague so let’s come back to that with the comment, that if mindfulness “arises”, then we don’t have to think about this much. It will just happen.
…from paying attention, on purpose…
This is huge. There is massive lesson here and I hope you’re taking notes on this cause it matters.
You choose to be mindful
There is a choice involved AND you are aware of the choice. This is foundational and leads to a test for mindfulness – if you aren’t aware of being mindful, you aren’t.
…in the present moment…
This is a trickier than it sounds. Thinking about plans for tomorrow or what happened yesterday is necessary and legit, but mindfulness is always about now. That’s why focus on the breath. That’s always now. It’s not complicated.
During a meditation, the task at hand is to simply come back to your breath, and notice what is going on. If you have thoughts like “I can’t do this!” Or “This is absurd” – that’s fine. Yes, those are judgements, and the way to be non-judgemental is to think to yourself “ok, I’m having the judgmental thoughts. Fine, back to focus on breathing.” That’s really different than believing your thoughts. See the difference? It’s a huge deal. In one case you are are under the spell of your thoughts, believing whatever your thinking. In the other case you are just a person that is having some thoughts.
The key point is, and you can write this down and carry it around with you cause it’s that important 😉 – You are not your thoughts.
How often should I meditate?
Every day ideally. The rule here is frequency is more important than duration. More, shorter meditations are better than fewer longer ones, in general. The only requirement actually is to meditate enough to make a difference. If you were learning to play an instrument (and in many ways you really are), you won’t get far practicing twice a week. That said, two times a week is better than zero.
How long should I meditate?
Long enough to settle in a bit and do the practice. It usually takes a good 5 minutes at least for a body/mind to calm down sufficiently. If you practice 5 minutes after that, then great. So about 10 minutes is a good starting place. I find that I think I’m gonna do 10 minutes and wind up doing 30 cause it’s so nice to relax. The trick is to focus on relaxing for quite a while till you settle in. The science show even brief meditations, when done regularly, are enough to actually change your brain.
Can mindfulness meditation be Harmful?
There is a lot to say on this. The answer is that for the vast majority of people, mindfulness meditation is very beneficial. That said, you may not want to take on a meditation practice if you are deeply depressed, of if meditation triggers a trauma response. How do you know? Trauma responses are overwhelming and often scary, even terrifying. Bottom line is that if the meditation practice causes you to feel worse, don’t do it.
There is a natural discomfort that occurs when learning something new. For most people, learning to ride a bike is not a ton-o-fun. Learning to play an F-Chord on guitar (which involves holding two strings done with one finger) is just simply awkward and painful to start. That kind of discomfort is common when starting a mindfulness meditation practice. It’s normal. It’s annoying. It’s not overwhelming. And it goes away.
But if you got on a bike and abject fear and overwhelm came on so strong that you felt like you were overcome or about to be overcome – that’s something else. You freeze, or go blank and can’t move or barely able to speak. Or you start to shake or start to have a flood of memories and feelings that you can’t stop. If that’s happening, then something else is going on besides normal discomfort. I hate to make this sound so dramatic, but it is.
If you suspect you have an issue such that meditation isn’t good for you, do some research on trauma-informed mindfulness. Try a movement-based mindfulness process such as tai-chi, chi-gong, contact improvisation, yoga, or other practice. They can be very solid ways to get mindfulness into your life and using a different mode for being mindful means it may not trigger you.
Or get some expert 1:1 one help. I strongly a somatic therapist that is trained in trauma and PTSD specifically. If it’s what you need, you will be in the right hands, and if not, they will tell you. Ask specifically, “are you trained or certified in managing PTSD or trauma?” Knowing what it is is insufficient. They need to actually trained and have experience with it.
The bottom line is that if you feel worse after meditation practice, don’t repeat it. You might be annoyed by your newbiness, but not seriously worse.
I don't know if I'm breathing right?
The best practice is simply to breathe as you would normally and not try to do anything specific. There are some fancy pants breathing techniques out there that are useful, and I do think you should try them at some point. But for the purpose of getting started and getting established, just breath like you would normally and don’t try to make it faster or slower or hold your breath, etc. etc. You will find that as you relax, your breathing will get more comfortable and slow down naturally. It’s not an objective, it’s an outcome.
How do I stop my thoughts?
This is a common misconception. The intent of a mindfulness meditation is not to stop your thoughts, but rather, to be aware of thoughts when they arise. Thoughts are not bad and if you resist them, you make them stronger. So don’t. Keep returning to your breathing. Over time, your mind will become calmer all by itself. With practice, you can experience times when you have no thoughts whatsoever. In those moments, you are very close to something special. That’s another class.