Mindfulness for beginners
You know that feeling when you go for a walk, but instead of relaxing and enjoying beautiful weather, your thoughts wander off to your kitchen, planning what to make for dinner the next day? Or when you play with your kid, but actually you are not in the moment together with your child, because you are making a shopping list in your mind? How often do you find yourself enter the other room only to realize that you’ve forgotten what you walked there for in the first place?
We spend so little time in the moment. Instead, we have a tendency to either go back into the past or project about the future in our heads. In other words, we tend to either brood on something, or we try to work out and anticipate what will happen. Contemporary lifestyle and modern technology don’t make it easier for us – they separate us from being here and now even more, offering instantly delivered entertainment that is better, broader and more colorful than before. In this context, mindfulness becomes a “luxury commodity.”
This text is meant to respond to this phenomenon of our reality and contribute, even if it’s just a drop in the bucket, to showing more people how to live their lives more consciously and more attentively. It was written mainly for beginners, for whom meditation and mindfulness are still unchartered waters, and for those who would like to start meditating, but don’t know how to get around that. First of all, let’s explain in clear terms what is what.
What is what?
Terms “mindfulness” and “meditation” are sometimes used interchangeably as definitions of a methodical way of quieting your mind. Meanwhile, mindfulness is a concept encompassing much more than just meditation – it’s actually a way of living. The foundation of mindfulness practice lies in meditation, but these two terms mean something different.
You may have also come across the concept of MBSR, which often appears in reference to the mindfulness training. MBSR stands for “mindfulness-based stress reduction” (or, in other words, stress reduction training based on mindfulness). MBSR was developed and popularized in the 1970s by professor Jon Kabat-Zinn. In 1979, at the Stress Reduction Clinic of the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, he introduced mindfulness exercises as a special program to assist patients whose chronic conditions conventional medicine failed to solve.
The program involved patients suffering from chronic pain, hypertension, depression, digestive disorders and many other diseases. Quite soon, it turned out that the so-called MSBR training has extremely beneficial effects and brings the participants noticeable relief: in case of patients with depression – a significant reduction of anxiety and depression was observed. Many symptoms which the patients showed diminished or even disappeared completely, while all examined groups experienced the decrease of the stress hormone level.
The creator of the program repeatedly emphasized that although mindfulness has its roots in the Buddhist tradition, it is not associated with any religious or philosophical movement. Enough to be said that prof. Jon Kabat-Zinn popularized the method by laying solid scientific foundations for meditation. This way, it has gained a wide range of enthusiasts who now practice mindfulness on a daily basis. Nowadays, there are several hundred centers around the world where this method is taught.
What is mindfulness
After this introduction, which can be useful for any person getting started with mindfulness, let’s get down to details. What exactly is mindfulness and what is it all about?
Generally speaking, mindfulness is about being consciously present. Thanks to maintaining awareness of everything that happens to us, we experience more acceptance and less judgment. In order to make it work for us, we need to learn how to do formal meditation, which basically means starting the mindfulness practice. This, in turn, will help us incorporate what we get from the “sat out” hours of meditation into our everyday life, so it will become an informal practice, a real life as it is.
Formal practice could be, for example, a meditation in a sitting position, with closed or semi-closed eyes, during which we try, by focusing on our breath, to notice the thoughts come to our head and then let them go (instead of clinging to them).
In meditation, the point is not to “fly away”, but just to be fully present in the moment and aware of what thoughts run through your head, what emotions and what reactions they evoke in the body.
There are tons of mindfulness practice exercises. In fact, everything you do carefully can be your own mindfulness exercise. Our whole life is an opportunity to practice mindfulness: picking up children from kindergarten, washing windows, conversations with people, riding a bus, having sex, drinking tea, swimming in the sea. Everything!
Eat a raisin
One of the most famous mindfulness exercises is the so-called raisin meditation. It is about eating a raisin very slowly and attentively, using all your senses to focus on this activity. Do you want to try?
Pick up a raisin (any kind of food will do) and first look at it closely. Hold it and turn it in your hands to feel its density and the texture of its skin. Then smell it. Look at it from different angles, check it against the sunlight, put it on the table, roll it gently in your fingers. Note the hollows and rigids in the skin. Slowly place it in your mouth, but don’t chew it right away. Note the sensations on the tongue and on the palate. Suck on it and only after a while start to chew, all the time maintaining your focus and staying open to any sensations that come up. Feel free to do it your way.
When it comes to meditation, the point is not about doing everything slowly, although some of the mindfulness training exercises are practised at a slow pace. This practice is supposed to slow down our activity so that we can notice more of what the present is “made of“ and sharpen our senses to feel the sensations of the moment.
The next exercise you may try out is walking meditation. You are to put one foot after the other with the intention of observing what is happening in the whole body. Just like in the raisin meditation, watch, feel and experience every sensation that comes up. Feel your body inside of you, but also notice how it makes contact with the outside world: the floor, pavement or carpet.
Thích Nhất Hạnh
If you want to see what the walking meditation may look like, watch the film “Wandering to the West” by Ming-liang Tsai. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not asking you to walk around the block like this from now on. Walking meditation is simply practising to be mindful and it goes for all mindfulness exercises. Similarly, you don’t workout at the gym so that you can flip all the boulders lying around on your way to work, but to train the muscle.
Why is formal practice important?
The formal practice of mindfulness is an intentional allowance of time and space (at least a few minutes and optimally around 30 to 45 minutes every day) only for meditation, during which we put our whole focus on what is happening in our body and mind. It is essential for one main reason: we teach our body and our brain new ways of responding. As we breathe calmly, we are able to notice when and how thoughts crop up, then to realize what emotions they evoke in us and what reactions they ultimately trigger in our body.
We will not become more mindful only from reading books on meditation. Practice and exercises are necessary. Let it be even 3 minutes, but make sure it’s every day. Gradually extending the time spent on meditation, you’ll be able to do even a 60-minute sitting meditation. If you think you don’t have time for this stuff, it probably means you need it more than you think.
Let’s summarize here what positive changes mindfulness and the method of MBSR can introduce to your life.
When you suffer from certain conditions, mindfulness can contribute to:
- regulating the work of the vegetative system (a part of the nervous system);
- strengthening your vitality;
- easing various physical ailments, in general;
- reducing physical pain (including chronic pain);
- coping with cardiovascular disease and hypertension problems;
- alleviating the symptoms of epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis (cases of tumour regression are also known and medically documented).
If you are a healthy person, mindfulness will help you:
- be more patient and joyful in your daily life;
- reduce stress and cool down your temper flares;
- focus your mind;
- make better decisions;
- handle your emotions;
- boost your creativity;
- enhance body awareness;
- improve your immune system;
- fall asleep easier and get a quality shut-eye;
- have more satisfying relationships;
- maintain balance between personal and professional life, in their physical and spiritual aspects;
- feel more serenity and happiness in your everyday life.
There are far more positive effects I could go on and on about, but – just for the purpose of this article – naming the few listed above should suffice.
It is worth adding here that there are several contraindications to participate in the MBSR course, i.a. addiction to alcohol or drugs, trauma, psychosis and some psychiatric conditions. In such cases, you should consult a doctor.
Mindfulness in practice
My life has become better. I can regain serenity more easily on a daily basis. I am more patient, which positively affects all areas of my life, including my relationships with relatives and colleagues. I’ve managed to get rid of many habitual reactions. I react mindlessly far less often than I used to. Instead of that, I am able to stay focused, aware and present in the moment. And all this thanks to meditation.
Even as a child, I have always been a lively and temperamental person. I was the life and soul of every party. I also had a quick temper and would lash out and react too emotionally and too impulsively. Not realizing that it could be otherwise, I would struggle with that for a long time. I learned about meditation six years ago through Zen Buddhism. In the more orthodox Buddhist circles, practising the zazen sitting meditation only in order to quiet the mind is considered as contradictory to the notion of Zen. However, none of the Buddhists whom I met have ever forced me to become religious. We would sit together for a few hours of meditation: they with the intention of prayer, while I with the intention of leading a conscious life – and it did not bother anyone. Once in a while, I would take part in an all-day retreat called sesin. It was such an intense experience for me and had a huge impact on my future life.
After a few years of Zen practice, a fellow psychologist told me about mindfulness and I instantly felt that it was something for me. I explored the subject on my own, and after a few years I decided to take part in a one-week intense mindfulness course. During my stay there, I learned many new fantastic techniques that I use today on a regular basis. Currently, I try to meditate formally for a minimum of 15 minutes every day. I noticed, however, that the best meditations are those lasting more than 35 minutes. Why? Because then through meditation I can always see what is the real challenge in my life now and where my attention wanders off.
For me, meditation is pure presence. This term came to my mind when I tried to describe my state during this weekly mindfulness course I did. It also manifests in a beautiful way when I meditate with others – usually it is my partner or my son. Yes, children can practise meditation, too! They approach it very easily and with great curiosity. it is a great experience for me, as a parent, to do a sitting meditation with a 7-year-old, who is always so frisky and full of energy that he can’t sit still for a second (the apple never falls far from the tree). Interestingly, when Franek sees me meditating, he joins me voluntarily and sometimes it is him who suggests it. There is no point in talking him into meditating – it never works.
- What I have learned throughout my intensive practice are, among others, the eight pillars of mindfulness. Every one of them starts with the sentence: In every single moment of my life I practice…
1. … trust
2. … acceptance
3. … kindness
4. … beginner’s mind
5. … non-judging
6. … patience
7. … letting go
8. … non-striving.
Usually it is the letting go and non-striving that arouse most controversies here. When I talk about mindfulness with my friends or clients, they sometimes ask me how I combine coaching, which is goal-oriented with meditation, which is about letting go and giving up the pursuit of any goals.
Well, that’s easy :) Non-striving is a wonderful state, which I recommend to everyone, because then, free from any pressure or expectations, you are open to creative solutions and come up with wise answers to difficult questions. Many other positive things are likely to happen. From the perspective of a coach, mindfulness is a state essential for any kind of personal development work. Coaching involves a lot of body work as well as working on emotions, but most people are not familiar with that. Those who have never tried coaching sessions often think that this is just drumming “you are the winner!” into your head. They couldn’t be more wrong.
Letting go, as I see it, is about not pushing yourself into doing anything and not struggling against reality. If you want to see what it’s like, think about some unpleasant thing that you experienced recently. Close your eyes, put your hands on your knees and try to bring back your emotions you felt in that moment. Next, stretch out your fingers very slowly, opening it upwards. Hold them in this position for a while with the intention of letting go. And then, let it go. Let go of a grudge or dispute you had over something with someone. Feel how the emotions you have felt a moment ago are literally moving upward. Be present with that feeling for a while and let it sink in.
How to get started with meditation?
It’s easier than you think. Just sit down with your back straight and start breathing.
Then introduce mindfulness into your everyday life. Take a mindful walk. Carry out a mindful conversation. Wash the floor mindfully. You will see that there will be more acceptance, openness, kindness, patience and generosity in your life, but also creativity and inner peace when dealing with difficult situations.
I can’t promise you anything, though, because everything depends on your practice.
If, however, I were to give you one tip, I would say: do not look for instant results. Open yourself to a long-lasting process. As you allow for your time perspective to change, you will see how many moments await you and all of them will make great occasions to practice.
Start your mindfulness training today
Any knowledge need putting it into practice. You took the first step as you reached for my article. I’m very glad you did so! Now take the next one. Do a mindfulness meditation today, preferably right after reading this text. If you are reading it on a bus, at the post office or at work and there are no conditions to do it right away, think about what time would be convenient later that day. Then write down in your calendar the exact time you set aside for meditation. If you use a digital calendar on your phone, set a reminder. Make a commitment that you will sit for meditation. You already know how to get around that. There is nothing stopping you.
When my clients, friends or acquaintances ask me how to start practicing daily meditation, and then how to stick to this habit, I keep telling them one thing:
I haven’t learned that from any book. This one sentence embraces my personal several years’ experience in meditation. I encourage you to return in your mind to this truth whenever you feel that you need a motivational push to hold on to your mindfulness practice.
With all my heart, I wish you that after today’s meditation you will try it again tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, and so on. Think that your life consists of moments, not days. When you realize this simple fact, you will see how life itself constantly provides you with opportunities to practice mindfulness.