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.