Think of any skill you have ever learned. Whether it was cooking, dancing, or driving a car, it was necessary to practice that skill regularly to see improvement. Mindfulness is a skill like any other, and needs the same type of regular practice.
The first step toward learning mindfulness is to find a good teacher. Start by doing a search for local meditation classes. Sometimes these are free or by donation. Yoga studios or martial arts schools might offer meditation instruction. At our facility, we have the Chan Meditation Center offering free classes once per month, and we provide basic mindfulness instruction as part of our weight loss counseling.
There are also instructional videos on You Tube, or free meditation apps if you can’t make it to a live class. While learning mindfulness via app can be fine, studying with a teacher is better because the teacher can help you with questions and difficulties that arise as you begin. As with any skill, real-time face-to-face instruction is important, even if it is just to lay a foundation. And this can all be found for free if you look for it. So take some time to learn the basics–sitting and doing nothing is not as easy as it sounds!
The next step is to set aside a small amount of time daily to practice mindfulness. Don’t worry if you are not “good at it” at first–you will improve with practice. You do not need to make a large investment of time. Start with a mere three to five minutes a day.
In these few short minutes, you will practice the skill of compassionate awareness of the present moment. Think of this as mind training. Our minds are like puppies, always chasing after the next new thing–following every enticing thought, becoming wrapped up in fleeting emotions, and mired in worn out storylines. This “puppy mind” is not particularly efficient as it is led around by every whim and distraction. When you watch your “puppy mind” running in circles and chasing every object (even its own tail), you realize that there must be a better way.
The Benefits of a Regular Practice
The better way is available to you in the present moment. During the few minutes of mindfulness practice, you become skilled at sitting still and not reacting to the whims of thought, sensation, and emotion. Not ruled by the past, or worried about the future. When a powerful emotion comes over you, you simply watch it rise and fall like a wave in the ocean. When an uncomfortable physical sensation arises—like an itch or a hunger pang–you sit through it and realize that it is not an emergency. You begin to tolerate discomfort and distress. You train your unruly puppy into a valuable service dog. When you cultivate the skill of mindful awareness, your mind becomes your greatest tool in your healthy living toolkit.
Letting Go of the Storyline
One of the first things you’ll notice during your mindfulness practice is that much of your mental chatter is comprised of recurring narratives you tell yourself. These are your familiar stories. You may see yourself as a persistent victim of circumstance or any number of “roles.” The raw data of your life is given a specific meaning, and that meaning tends to take on a life of its own—for better or worse. It becomes your identity. Here are a few examples common to people trying to lose weight. Do any of them sound familiar?
I have no willpower.
I am a fat person.
I cannot control myself around food.
I am not athletic.
I cannot lose weight.
I always gain the weight back.
What is your recurring storyline? Take a few moments to contemplate this question. Think of your struggles with weight, and what kind of narrative you have been telling yourself. A mindfulness practice will help you recognize these familiar storylines, and most importantly, help you realize they are not reality.
You can rewrite the storyline into something else, or even better, you can let go of it entirely.
Make a Commitment
Take a moment now to commit to three to five minutes a day. Think of the best time in your schedule—whether it is the morning before you get out of bed, in the evening when you are unwinding, or some other point in the day. Whatever you choose, make it a consistent time every day. Treat this time with the same respect you would have for an important appointment. It is the single greatest investment you can have in your own health.
Setting a “Sacred Space”
After choosing a daily time for your mindfulness practice, set aside a designated space. Your space should be quiet and allow you to sit comfortably with a straight back. Some people like to order special meditation cushions, but all you really need is a chair. During my time as a commuter, I was able to maintain a mindfulness practice on the train by using my Ipod and a downloaded audio file. I also maintained a mindfulness practice in my parked car during another busy period of my life. With some creativity, you can fit your practice in during less than perfect circumstances (because let’s face it, most of life is comprised of “less than perfect” circumstances).
Even if your space doubles as something else (your desk, kitchen table, a commuter train, etc.) make the space in some way “special.” Carrying a special stone, wearing a particular piece of jewelry, or beginning your practice with relaxing music are ways to differentiate your space if you are not at home. If you are at home, you can place a meaningful object in your space, such as a picture, quotation, or rosary/meditation beads. Something from nature, such as a plant or flowers, can help in creating a positive mood. Some people like to create an altar, light candles, or burn incense. If this helps you, go for it. However, it is not necessary in the beginning. Just focus on a simple and easy way to signify that your mindfulness practice is something important, and in some way sacred.
Performing your practice in the same place every day will help to accumulate momentum and energy. Think of the feeling when you enter a church, temple, or meditation center. The place has absorbed the energy of so many people that it resonates. It makes it easier to become quiet inside. The designated space will cue you into your practice and make it easier for you to continue. Some people even find that they look forward to their little space each day as a refuge from the busyness of life.
During our Mindful Life groups, we begin each session with a meditation bell and three minutes of silence. Many people find it helpful to cue their mindfulness practice with the sound of a meditation bell. You can download meditation bells and timers for your phone or find them on You Tube. Use the beautiful, reverberating sound of the bell to signal that it is time to settle in and begin your practice. These bells can also be set to ring at intervals during the day so you can pause and check in, or just rest your mind on the beautiful sound of the bell.
Good luck on this exciting journey! We are here for you if you have any questions.