What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is a practice, but a practice for what? What’s the end goal? Well, the key to a good mindfulness practice is to have no goal.

Huh? What’s the point then? Why bother spending time practicing something if an end-goal isn’t in sight? You could spend that time being more productive or catching up on Game of Thrones. Why spend time practicing something for nothing? [cue the Seinfeld theme music–“It’s a show about nothing!”]

The benefits of mindfulness are tremendous, and studies are proving more and more that it will benefit your overall well-being. I’m describing something pretty vague, I know, but I don’t want my meaning to become your meaning. I can tell you I have received direct benefits of mindfulness, and that these “side effects” were never really a goal for me. I don’t care what the studies prove.

The trick is to be ok with not having an end goal in mind. Now I know this will be difficult for our type A, task-oriented veterinary brethren to grasp, but I would recommend starting a mindfulness practice without a target. Or at least without a hard target. You’ll set yourself up for failure. Maybe just start with the premise that you should try it because it’s good for you.

The practice starts, very simply, with focus. That’s it. Nothing more than just observing something. I like to focus on my breath. There are lots of reasons to start with the breath, but it doesn’t have to be that. It could be just a word that you like. It could be a nonsense word. Some people like a specific sound. Maybe blade of grass coming out of a crack in a sidewalk? It could be a mantra if you are so inclined. Whatever you choose, make it your focus. Make whatever it is the focus of your complete attention.

Once you know your point of focus, you sit with it. When I started my mindfulness practice, I would lie down to meditate. It’s not recommended to do it that way, but you can, if you don’t fall asleep. If you choose to sit, it’s best to have your back supported. You can sit on pillows on the floor, or in a chair. Try to sit straight, but be comfortable. A quiet place with minimal to no distractions is ideal, but it doesn’t have to be that way. You can try busy or noisy places if you choose, but the distractions may be too overwhelming. My usual practice is to start before anyone else in the house is awake. I prefer quiet and solitude. However, even in the silence, there will be distraction.

For beginners, just start with 1 to 5 minutes. That’s it. But do it daily. I believe that the accumulation of the sessions rather than the accumulation of time amplifies your results. I don’t have any clue if my observations are backed by science, but I can tell you I don’t feel like my longer sessions make me more mindful on any particular day. I do note that when I haven’t meditated in the morning, my day is a little off. After I meditate, whether it’s for 1 minute or an hour, things seem to get a little more centered that day.

There are a ton of apps out there now that you can choose to aid in your mindfulness and meditation practice. I’ve tried at least a dozen. I’ve settled on Muse because I really like the headband’s ability to quantify my experience. The app also makes your meditation a little bit of a game, with badges and graphs and cumulative total time spent. This appeals to the scientist in me, even though I have no idea what the data really means in the bigger picture. I just know I’m at the highest level of challenges (which is currently 24, as of this writing) and I’ve got 81 consecutive days of meditation with the headband. I will do a review of some of the apps I’ve used in a future post. But for now, I would start with something like Buddhify, Headspace, 10% Happier, or Calm.  If you have your own app that you use and recommend, feel free to comment below.

There are many different books, audio recordings, podcasts and technologies that are centered on mindfulness. You can take a deep dive into all types of meditations with any or all the above. However, don’t fall into the trap of thinking you need to understand more about it in order to enjoy the benefits. Just start with a minute of mindful breathing, once or twice a day for a week, then start increasing your time. My mindfulness practice is at minimum 20 minutes once a day. On the few occasions where I am tight for time, I do 5 minutes. I strive for a second session before bed, but my willpower is at bare minimum at the end of the day, so the second session is not a priority. I don’t think it matters whether you do a morning or an evening meditation, but it does matter that you do it every day, at least if you think you want to give it a fair chance. A random session here or there will quickly become “Oh, yeah, I tried meditation a few times and it didn’t really do anything.” Avoid that trap and just commit to the 1 minute or so once a day. Set an alarm on your phone. Do it after you brush your teeth. Do it right before you go to bed, or do it right before your first sip of coffee. Tie it to something you already do habitually, and stick to it.

In a future article, I will go over some of the struggles that you may need to overcome while meditating and how I deal with them.


My path to mindfulness

I have always been interested in my mind. It’s the place where I spend every waking hour. It’s where I might spend some dream time. It can generate thoughts of elation, greed, lust, gratitude, anger, fear, terror all within an instant. It’s very open to suggestion, yet there are self-imposed permanencies. A scent can evoke a vivid memory. A place can spark an echo of childhood. There’s the occasional deja vu, and increasingly frequent failure to recall. It’s an amazing machine but it isn’t free from errors. It can get tired. It can completely fail you when you need it the most. It can be your best friend or your worst enemy.

When I was a kid, I loved to lie in bed and imagine what my life might be like in the future. I would think about things I wanted to do, things I wanted to have, create scenarios that I would picture myself in. It was kind of an escape, a way to have an adventure without leaving the comfort of being under the covers. I vaguely remember doing breathing exercises in my teens, but I don’t remember why I was doing them. Maybe I read an article in a magazine, maybe it just came naturally. Either way, it was something that I enjoyed doing because it brought some sort of contentment that I remember vividly.

As I got busier with more intense education from undergrad to veterinary school, I lost touch with my mindfulness. As new technologies like email and cell phones became a necessity in every day life, the frequency of being alone with my mind dropped off. I could always read a magazine, contact a friend, play a video game, or study. Opportunities to “just be” were few and far between.

At the end of 2013, I had reignited the fire of my vision for opening a veterinary clinic from the startup phase. I had purchased an existing vet hospital in 2002 and I inherited the culture that was already there. Culture change is not easy. Though I worked hard at it, I never really had a handle on it. I wondered what it would be like to start a clinic with a deliberate culture, having a specific raison d’etre, and that dream came a reality in October of 2014. But the steps that got me to that point are what lead me back to the mysteries of my own mind.

I hired a coach to help direct and guide me on my path to starting the business. He recommended some books that triggered a whole new realm of thinking about business and entrepreneurship. I read Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art, which was an eye-opening look into the tendency of the mind. Next I was told to read Tim Ferriss’s 4-Hour Workweek, which was right up my alley. That lead me to his blog and then to the goldmine of his podcasts, The Tim Ferriss Show. I could not get enough of them. My shower time and commute time were filled with Tim’s voice and his awesome guests. And a recurring theme that came up was meditation. I was easily convinced I needed to make this part of my routine. After a few sessions using the Buddhify app, I was hooked. I was back in my mind, cleaning up years and years of debris that hadn’t been addressed. I went through some very emotional experiences, but I pushed through because I was feeling great, in unexpected ways. Veterinary medicine is an extremely emotion-driven profession and I never had really addressed that. I just thought I was doing the job. A lot of the emotional junk was accumulating someplace within me, without me even knowing it.

From there I began my journey into my mind, and this blog is a direct result of my need to share with other veterinarians as well as anyone who gets frustrated, lost, scared, or generally disgruntled with everyday life. I don’t have a cure, but a very helpful treatment exists in the form of mindfulness.

Please comment if you would like to share your own journey and what works well for you to center and steady yourself.