By: Joe Burton | Last Updated: Aug 27, 2020
Here’s a short introduction to help you get a quick start to your own mindfulness practice.
Mindfulness is attention and awareness training to reduce stress, increase resilience and improve your ability to focus for a healthier and happier life. Learning how to practice mindfulness is easy and most people start to experience benefits in their first few practices.
This short guide offers basic tips to get you started on a path to bring more focus, calm and joy into your life. You can practice anytime, anywhere.
Why Should I Practice Mindfulness?
There have been over 4,500 studies on the health and performance benefits of mindfulness in recent years. It’s the must-have life skill for a stressed-out world. Studies even show that mindfulness and meditation can be as effective as medication. But unlike medication, mindfulness has no pill form. It takes practice. You can learn more about the many science benefits at resources.whil.com.
What's the Difference Between Meditation and Mindfulness?
You can increase your ability to focus with practice. There are dozens of techniques to do this. Meditation is just one form of brain training to improve attention. By training your brain to focus on one object at a time, like the breath, you’ll be building muscle memory to be able to focus throughout the rest of your day.
Mindfulness is the goal of meditation. It is a lifestyle or quality of being. It’s the act of applying your ability to be calm, focused, aware, kind, open, curious, intentional, nonjudgmental and compassionate to the other 24 hours of your day.
How Do I Create a New Habit?
Just like any habit, meditation gets easier to do if it’s part of your routine. For anyone new to a mindfulness practice, we recommend following Dr. BJ Fogg’s advice to start a new “Tiny Habit”:
Get specific as to what new behavior you want. For example, meditate 5 minutes per day. Translate target outcomes into behaviors (e.g., I practice every day at the same time each day, no matter where I am.)
Make it easy (I use the Whil app, so all I need is my phone and a place to sit). Meditate in the same spot daily to avoid distractions, if possible. Simplicity changes behavior.
Trigger the behavior. Some triggers are natural (e.g., I meditate when I lay down to sleep every night). Others you must design (e.g., I block time on my calendar and receive reminders). No behavior changes successfully without a trigger.
How Should I Sit?
Sit like a normal person. When you’re ready, find a comfortable way to sit in a chair with your head, neck and back aligned. You can also lay down if that’s more comfortable - but not if you think you’ll fall asleep. Sleeping is not meditating. Close your eyes or just relax your gaze and allow the trainer’s words to guide you.
How Much Time Do I Need?
Meditation practice can be done in short bursts. We recommend 5-10 minutes a day on a fairly regular basis to enjoy the greatest benefits. The more you practice, the better the results. As Dr. Dan Siegel, Whil Trainer, Author and Neuropsychiatrist puts it, “Any individual can learn to focus their attention in a new way. This is a teachable skill. You can learn it at any age. Once you learn to focus your attention in a new way, you’re getting the brain to fire in a new way. Your immune system will function in a more optimal way. Your cardiovascular profile -your cholesterol levels, blood pressure, heart rate - all those things will improve. Mindfulness meditation has been shown to create these benefits in our life over time."
Consider five minutes a day for one week to begin to change your life. Below are the basics for specific practices.
The Mind Likes to Wander
Spoiler alert - during meditation, your mind will wander. Harvard University researchers share that this is the natural condition of the mind. The human brain cycles through normal states of awareness (wandering, distracted awareness, focused). Turns out, the average person spends about half their time with the mind “wandering.” That means worrying about the future. Worrying about the past. Is my boss out to get me? Fantasizing, fretting, conspiracy theories. You name it. Most of us have trained our brain to cycles through a myriad of thoughts, except what’s actually happening in the moment.
The average person spends another 20% of their time in “distracted awareness.” This is when we’re kind of listening, but not really. Beyond being bad for your performance, these natural tendencies for the mind to wander are also terrible for our health. When the brain runs constantly with negative distraction, it can cut years off of our lives.
As you practice, the mind will likely wander time and again. Now you know that’s normal, so don’t beat yourself up. What’s important is how you respond when it happens. Simply acknowledge the distracting thought without adding any judgment to it and take a moment to come back to the present moment. Return your focus to your breath.
Set an Intention
Mindfulness helps you to be more intentional in creating the kind of life you want. What areas of your life are you focusing on? What is most important to you in this moment? Focus produces results. Mindfulness is about single-tasking to improve the quality of your life.
As you practice, remain open to emotions. A big part of brain training is learning to manage your emotions so they don’t manage you. You’ll also be training your body to be more calm. Too many of us are driven by the stress of feeling like we’re on high alert. Over time, practice will result in a more relaxed central nervous system as a default.
Do a Body Scan
You can use any single point of focus to improve the quality of your attention. A “body scan” involves systematically focusing on different parts of the body from the head down to the toes - noticing sensations as you go.
For example, you might spend 1 minute exploring your head, neck and shoulders. Then a minute moving your attention to your upper chest, then back, then abdomen and so on. As you progress, you might begin to notice an array of new sensations that are affecting you. Some may be pleasant. Some feelings might be neutral. And some might be unpleasant. Whatever the sensation is, just notice it.
A body scan helps you improve your body awareness. How your body feels impacts your moods, emotions and ultimately, your behaviors. When your body doesn't feel good, it's hard to be at your best. Once again, if you realize your mind has wandered, simply label the thought and return your attention to your body.
Add Mindful Walking
Once you’re comfortable with sitting meditation, try a walking meditation. Just like a seated practice or body scan, walking meditation involves paying attention to the breath or sensations in the body, then bringing your attention back to the present moment when your mind wanders. Walk slowly and deliberately to bring a quality of attention to the bodily sensations that are generally overlooked during our normal fast-paced day. You can practice walking meditation anywhere (your office, a park or garden, even on your way to and from the bathroom) where you won’t be interrupted. Don’t worry. It’s not weird. Just walk and focus.
Try Mindful Eating
Bringing mindfulness to eating allows you to make mealtime the focus of your attention. Instead of rushing through your meal, create a new routine to enjoy your food, as well as allow the brain to recover from the pace of your day. Give the experience your full attention. Notice how you feel. Are you hungry? Are you relaxed? Notice the food. What does it look like? What does it smell like? What are the colors and textures? Enjoy each bite as it hits your tongue. The taste. The texture. What does it feel like as you chew and swallow? Can you feel it make its way to your stomach?
Take your time. Make each bite the focus of your attention. Notice everything you can about the experience. And as distractions come up, simply recognize them and dismiss them with a one word label.
Studies suggest bringing this kind of attention to what you’re putting into your body (quantity and quality) can lead to weight loss, help to avoid or control diabetes, as well as improve your sleep (from avoiding foods that wreak havoc on our systems). When we pay close attention to our eating habits and what we’re eating, we can also avoid stress-eating or needless unhealthy snacks. When we feel better about our bodies, that also boosts confidence and therefore our overall mental wellbeing.
Be Friendly to Yourself
As you start your new meditation practice, try to remain relaxed, curious and non judgemental. Any new habit will have its ups and downs. There’s no right or wrong way to practice meditation. Don't be hard on yourself. Don’t try too hard. The purpose of meditation isn’t to master your mind or stop thinking altogether. We’re improving our awareness of our thoughts and how they impact our quality of life. It helps to bring calmness, compassion and acceptance to the process. Allow it to unfold. Enjoy giving your brain a break in a friendly and accepting space. The rest will come.
Mindfulness is simple, but it isn’t always easy. Creating a new healthy habit requires commitment. It’s like anything else. The more you practice, the better you get.
Many of us have been practicing stress and constant distraction for decades. Give yourself time to learn a new approach to life. Just like any other skill, in time, mindfulness will get easier. As it does, you’ll notice that you’re enjoying life more.
Overcome Mental Hurdles
When you’re first starting out, it’s normal to question your progress. Remember, most of us have been training negative thoughts, stress, and self-criticism for years. At Whil, we even put a special program together to help you with doubt, restlessness, sleepiness and other hurdles that are common when you’re just starting a mindfulness practice.
Try to let go of any judgments you have. There’s no such thing as good or bad mindfulness. The important thing is to not give up. You’re training your brain all the time. Now, you’re just being intentional about it.
Join a Team
Practicing on your own is great, but there’s nothing like creating community to support your efforts. Creating a work group to practice with can help make mindfulness and meditation part of your routine - and improve your company culture. Learn more about team practices at www.whil.com.
Joe is an entrepreneur in the digital wellness space, former president of Headspace, and spent fifteen years as a global COO in public companies. He's an alumnus of Harvard Business School and a regular contributor to Forbes, Business Insider and The Huffington Post. He's worked in over 50 countries and travels the world speaking on topics including disruption, culture, resiliency and mindfulness.