How to Practice Mindfulness: A Guide for the Skeptical Meditator

On the drive home to Austin from Corpus Christi at the end of a recent work trip, I felt inspired to listen to Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill album. As I cruised along the highway, belting out the lyrics from memory along with my good pal Alanis, I was struck by the current relevance of her words.

(I also realized afterward that the album is over twenty years old now… what?)

In the opening track, titled “All I Really Want,” there’s a verse that has always been powerful to me. It goes like this:

Why are you so petrified of silence?
Here can you handle this? (silent pause)
Did you think about your bills, you ex, your deadlines
Or when you think you’re going to die?
Or did you long for the next distraction?

It hit me on a different level when I heard it this time. Fear of silence is a common symptom of mindlessness, a plague in our Western way of living. (You were way ahead of us on that insight, Alanis.)

The antidote to mindlessness is mindfulness, but what does mindfulness really mean?

Mindfulness has become a buzzword in all the latest self-help and wellness advice. Unfortunately, most of the folks who are slinging the word mindfulness around don’t seem to fully understand it themselves.

Let’s fix that, shall we?

What is all this mindfulness stuff, anyway?

At its most basic, mindfulness is being present in the current moment. On the flipside, mindlessness is mental absence in the current moment.

In his book 10% Happier, Dan Harris explores the concept of mindfulness through a series of interactions with well-known leaders in the self-help and spirituality worlds. When Harris interviews Eckhart Tolle (of The Power of Now fame), Tolle gives him this explanation of mindfulness versus mindlessness:

“Make the present moment your friend rather than your enemy. Because many people live habitually as if the present moment were an obstacle that they need to overcome to get to the next moment. And imagine living your whole life like that, where always this moment is never quite right, not good enough because you need to get to the next one. That is continuous stress.”

(You can read my full review of 10% Happier in the Worthy Reads list. It’s in the Free Resource Library now! Click below to get access!)

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Can you remember an occasion when you fell victim to mindlessness?

Maybe you wanted to eat a single serving of potato chips but finished the entire bag before realizing what happened. Or perhaps you’ve driven home from work and, upon parking your car, realized you don’t remember how you got there. This is one way we succumb to mindless behavior.

The other way mindlessness strikes is through the method described by Eckhart Tolle. When we spend our days always reaching for the next thing, we never take the time to appreciate where we are right now. And the result is not healthy for our mind or our body.

Dan Harris puts it this way in 10% Happier:

“This (…) is the lie we tell ourselves our whole lives: as soon as we get the next meal, party, vacation, sexual encounter, as soon as we get married, get a promotion, get to the airport check-in, get through security and consume a bouquet of Auntie Anne’s Cinnamon Sugar Stix, we’ll feel really good. But when we find ourselves in the airport gate area, having ingested 470 calories’ worth of sugar and fat before dinner, we don’t bother to examine the lie that fuels our lives. We tell ourselves we’ll sleep it off, take a run, eat a healthy breakfast, and then, finally, everything will be complete. We live so much of our lives pushed forward by these ‘if only’ thoughts, and yet the itch remains. The pursuit of happiness becomes the source of our unhappiness.”

The prevalence of mindlessness is an affliction on society. Something has to give.

Mindfulness practice is the cure

If the idea of mindfulness meditation makes feel uncomfortable, allow me to present some science. Research has proven the benefits of meditation time and time again.

Not only does mindfulness meditation make you calmer and less stressed in the short term, it actually changes your brain.

A study from UCLA found that meditation slows the brain’s aging process. Gray matter is essentially “preserved” and prevented from experiencing atrophy. Another study from Johns Hopkins found that the effects of meditation practice rival antidepressants in the treatment of depression and anxiety.

One more study tested the effects of meditation in the short term and found that just a few weeks of mindfulness training improved focus and memory in students taking the reading-comprehension section of the GRE.

I could go on and on about the science-backed benefits of meditation and mindfulness. If you still don’t believe me, simply do a quick Google search for “effects of meditation on the brain.” You’ll find more articles than you can shake a stick at. (Do people still say “shake a stick at”? Just me?)

How to practice mindfulness

There’s a perception out there that mindfulness meditation practices must be “just so” to be effective. Anyone who is skeptical of meditation or of beginning a mindfulness practice can latch onto this misconception and use it as a reason not to try at all.

I’d like to debunk that theory right here and now.

You don’t need a meditation cushion, or an altar, or a Zen garden water fountain to practice mindfulness. You don’t have to set aside an hour each day in a silent room to get the full effect.

There’s only one thing you need to effectively practice mindfulness. Do you want to know what the super-secret magic ingredient is?

It’s your breath. (And I certainly hope you’ve got that, or we have bigger problems.)

Because your breath is always with you, the only tool you need for mindfulness meditation is handy at all times.

So what does the practice actually look like?
  1. Find comfortable seat. On the floor, in a chair, cross-legged, legs extended… it doesn’t matter. Sit up tall with a straight spine. (If you have back pain, it’s okay to lay on your back but be vigilant to prevent falling asleep!)
  2. Direct your attention to your breath. Focus on the feeling of the air entering and exiting your nostrils, or the expansion and release in your lungs and chest. It can help to breathe in and out to a count of four or six. (In…2…3…4…5…6. Pause. Out…2…3…4…5…6. Pause. And so on.)
  3. Recognize when your mind begins to wander. Your mind will wander. Simply note that you are thinking (by mentally labeling the action as “thinking”) and then return to your breath.
  4. Rinse and repeat.

The real heart of the practice lies in the “breath / mind wandering / breath” cycle. Thoughts will creep in a thousand times. The goal is to continue redirecting your focus back to your breath each time this happens.

Start with five-minute sessions. This will probably feel like an eternity. Little by little you can increase the amount of time you spend on this practice. Set a timer so you’re not distracted by looking at the clock.

What if I’m still not into this idea?

Maybe you’re skeptical about a traditional seated meditation practice. One solution is to try pairing breath awareness with physical activity.

My own introduction to mindfulness practice and focusing on my breath came from an unexpected place: Bikram yoga.

If you’re not familiar with Bikram yoga, it’s a series of the same 26 postures and two breathing exercises, performed in the same order with the same teacher instructions every time. Classes last 90 minutes and are held in a studio room heated to 105 degrees and 40-60% humidity.

Needless to say, it’s not the most comfortable environment.

Bikram Choudhury, the man behind the practice, is known for his collection of Bentleys and sexual harassment allegations. But that’s all a story for a different day. Bikram is also known for his colorful turns of phrase and his rigorous, demanding style of teaching.

One of the terms all Bikram yoga teachers quote from the creator is that the practice is a “90-minute, open-eyed, moving meditation.” Some teachers go on to explain that Bikram didn’t think Westerners could handle traditional meditation and so he devised his sequence of postures to force us into mindful breath awareness.

I can say from personal experience that nothing gets you to focus on your breath like struggling to breathe.

You don’t need to take up Bikram yoga to make this concept work for you. All forms of yoga are, at their core, about linking breath to movement. (The word “yoga” roughly translates to “union,” meaning union of the breath and the body.)

And, technically, you are practicing yoga any time you make this breath/body connection.

If you like running, try practicing breath awareness on your next run. Breathe in for a certain number of steps and out for the same number of steps, for instance.

If you play a sport–tennis, soccer, you name it–find places within play where you can focus on your breath. When I played tennis in high school, I had a ball-dribbling and breath routine I would practice before every serve. Test out different strategies and stick with what works for you.

Consistency beats perfection

You will get this mantra from me time and time again. Perfectionism is the killer of goals and of building new habits. Try to practice mindfulness in little bits regularly. Don’t beat yourself up if you forget to.

In the same way that the “breath / mind wandering / breath” cycle is where you find the benefits of seated mindfulness meditation, it is returning to the habit when you fall off the wagon that you reap the rewards of a lifelong mindfulness practice.

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