Mindfulness and meditation are great resources to calm minds and bring order. Here are some tips from Matt Valentine.
1. Focus on developing concentration
Concentration is the anchor of mindfulness. If you imagine mindfulness as the ship, yourself as the ship captain who steers the ship and decides where to place the anchor, then concentration is the anchor and the object of your mindfulness, such as your breath or steps, is the anchor point.
Concentration is the constant partner to mindfulness. Think of it as the active force and mindfulness as the passive. When you consciously decide to focus on your breath and work to keep your focus on it, this is your concentration.
Think of mindfulness then as a field of vision that extends outward to cover everything in your perception. When your concentration wanders to a thought, sensation, or distraction and you're aware that you just became distracted this is your mindfulness. Mindfulness is the great observer.
In the beginning, you'll want to put all of your focus on developing your concentration. At the beginning of your practice, your mind will literally be all over the place. You’ll seem to have a new thought or some other distraction every few seconds.
This is perfectly normal. I went through the same thing at first. It took time to quiet my own mind as well as develop my concentration, but it was well worth it. Simply quieting the mind can bring you a great sense of peace and happiness.
Without developing your concentration, you won’t be able to practice very effectively. So it’s necessary, at first, to do so.
Once your concentration improves you’ll be able to put more focus into exercising mindfulness. You’ll start noticing why your mind strayed (was it a thought or feeling? What was the thought?), as opposed to simply noticing your mind stray and refocusing on your object of meditation.
2. Pick simple objects
At the beginning, you’re going to want to pick an easy object of meditation. Then once your skill improves you can pick more difficult objects. At first, I’d suggest practicing mindful breathing for a couple of weeks.
To practice mindful breathing, all you have to do is stop and be mindful of your breath. Whether you’re at your desk, at a stoplight, or in between places or sitting down for an extended meditation session. Just stop what you’re doing and follow your breath with mindfulness.
Focus your concentration on each exhale and inhale and let your mind quiet. If your mind seems a bit chaotic, don’t worry. This is perfectly normal and might last a few weeks before really beginning to calm down.
Mindful breathing is a major meditative practice of many spiritual traditions and has a number of benefits. In the beginning, sit for 10-15 minutes every morning and/or night and simply stop what you’re doing for 30-60 seconds every hour or two during your day to practice mindfulness of breath (you don’t have to sit to do this) and you’ll gradually begin to develop both your ability and establish mindfulness as a habit. Do this for at least 2-3 weeks before trying anything else.
After that, you can move on to mindful walking, eating, and many other nourishing practices. But continue to practice formal sitting meditation in the morning and/or night and mindful breathing throughout your day. These are great beginner practices and they’ll remain cornerstones of your mindfulness practice even as your skill improves.
The reason these are great beginner practices is because they don’t require a high level of skill. Walking meditation (or mindful walking) is an example of moving meditation, but it’s typically done in a slow manner to where it’s easy for a beginner to do. I’d still suggest sticking to mindful breathing for the first few weeks though before trying to practice walking meditation at all.
Don’t rush the process of developing mindfulness. You’ll gain nothing from doing so and only end up hurting your practice.
3. Sit often
Sitting meditation really is the cornerstone of all meditative practice. It was my first experience with mindfulness and I’d suggest it be your first experience with meditation as well. Adopting a daily practice of sitting meditation is very important.
There are various forms of meditation, and sitting meditation in particular, but because this post is centered on mindfulness practice what we’re talking about here is essentially mindful breathing while sitting in a quiet and distraction-free zone.
If you try to start practicing mindfulness without making sitting meditation a part of your daily practice then it will be much more difficult to get to a point where your mind becomes quiet. And later, sitting meditation will aid in your efforts to obtain a clear mind.
No matter how far a Zen monk, Yogi, or sage goes in their practice, they always sit and often twice a day (for 1-2 hours). Think of sitting meditation as your “practice” time to keep you sharp.
Every great athlete practices the fundamentals of their craft on a daily basis. No matter how good they become, they practice the fundamentals. For spiritual practice, this is sitting meditation.
4. Go easy on yourself
I've talked previously about the nonjudgmental aspect of mindfulness. Mindfulness is an open acceptance of everything, so those thoughts, feelings, and sensations that keep popping into your mind shouldn’t be labeled a bad thing. In fact, they aren’t a good thing or a bad thing.
Remember, mindfulness is just an observer. You shouldn’t be passing judgment, good or bad, on anything including disruptions to your concentration.
These distractions are normal. They’ll subside naturally, your mind will quiet over time, and it will bring you a great sense of peace. Don’t worry about that. You’ll know you’re practice is really successful not when these distractions subside but when you start becoming mindful of these distractions. No matter how many of them you have.
Don’t get frustrated if, at first, you can’t hold your concentration for more than a few seconds. This is perfectly normal. If you get frustrated just acknowledge the frustration in mindfulness and let it go. Know that these distractions will subside with practice and that your goal is primarily to develop your mindfulness.
When you develop the ability to shine the light of mindfulness on these distractions is when the real healing can begin. These disruptions are the things distorting your perception and keeping you from reality as it is, filled with peace, joy, and freedom. No matter what, just keep practicing. With time, you’ll see the fruits of your labor.
5. Prioritize mindfulness
You won’t get far in your practice of mindfulness if you don’t prioritize it. This goes for anything in life. This is because right from the beginning you’ll be clashing with old habits.
The more often we do something the more energy or “pull” it has. This is our habit energy. We all have this habit energy. What differs from one person to another is where we place this energy.
When you begin practicing mindfulness you’ll naturally be “pulled” in other directions constantly. This is your old habit energy attempting to pull you back to your old ways.
You can use the other mindfulness tips in this post, such as making sure to enjoy the process and to pick simple objects of mindfulness, but you’ll still need to prioritize your practice. This means, as with establishing any other new habit, you’ll have to fight with your old and likely less productive or positive ways.
But remember how energy works, the more time and effort you place into something the more pull it will have. Stick with it and gradually it will become easier until the point in which it takes almost no effort at all.
And the great thing about mindfulness is that you can do it while doing just about anything else. So it’s not so much choosing mindfulness over other things, it’s more of remembering to be mindful. At first, though, remember to keep it simple and choose simple objects of mindfulness.
6. Slow it down
We’re taught to move quickly, multitask, and ultimately be as productive as possible. This mentality is ingrained in us. It probably started during the industrial revolution, where we as a species became obsessed with speed and productivity. It was all about who could grow the fastest and claim the most land.
It was inevitable based on our development as a species, but this mindset has stayed with us to the present day and it’s completely against our true nature.
We’re so used to rushing around all day that a lot of times we never even realize there’s another way to live. We think that it’s “just how life is”. But it’s not. And of course, part of the point of mindfulness and meditation is to calm the mind.
But this job should be handled on both sides. While developing your practice of mindfulness you should also work to become aware of when you’re rushing around and when you’re not. And aside from helping to calm your mind, if you actively work on slowing down you’ll also find more opportunities to practice mindfulness. Due to this, it’s highly beneficial to analyze your daily schedule. You’ll find that opportunities to practice mindfulness are abundant in our daily lives.
Walking from point A to point B, sitting in a waiting room, driving to and from work, and just stopping for a moment to follow your breath anywhere and at any time. Slow it down and really start taking the time to enjoy the little moments with mindfulness.
7. Be patient
Mindfulness takes time and patience to develop. At first, it will be subtle. Unicorns won’t start flying through the air and celebration banners won’t drop from the sky. You’ll just feel….a little more alive. A little more present. That’s the best way I can describe it.
But with practice, you’ll notice your ability improve. You’ll feel more present and more alive. Of course, you’ll need to have some indicator that you’re practicing correctly.
The best advice I can give to make sure that you’re practicing correctly is to practice mindful breathing and sitting meditation often. These are the easiest ways to practice mindfulness and the method of mindful breathing, which you’ll do during both of those exercises, is the easiest way to tell when you lose your mindfulness.
Remember, mindfulness works like a muscle. The more you work it out, the stronger it gets. Make mindfulness a way of life so as to develop it into a powerful force for peace and happiness in your life.
8. Let go
When you begin your mindfulness practice (or if you have already) you’ll probably find it extraordinarily difficult not to become distracted. We covered this earlier, so it shouldn’t be of any surprise.
But something else will likely happen. You’ll have a hard time convincing yourself to let go of these distractions. Why is that? Well, we tend to blow everything in our mind out of proportion.
What that means is when we have a project due at school, a presentation at work, a big event with the family, or some personal business, we tend to mull over them in our heads repeatedly. “Did I remember to do that?” “Did I have them add that?” “What am I going to do about that?” “How is that going to work?” It’s an endless cycle of questions and answers.
When you begin your mindfulness practice you might have a very hard time convincing yourself to let go of these thoughts for even 10 minutes to sit down and meditate. But it’s so important.
You might think that you need to keep these things cycling through your brain constantly, otherwise, you’ll screw something up or just not do as good a job as you could or should, but that’s not the case. You only minimize your effectiveness in any given task by hounding over it and never giving your mind any rest.
You’d be surprised how refreshed and sharp your mind will be if you allow yourself to step away from something for even a single session of mindful breathing or walking meditation. So learn how to let go of these things and just follow your breath. Let go of everything. The more you practice the easier it will be to do this and the better you’ll feel.
9. Have fun
You’ve probably heard this one a million times before about a million other things, but that’s because it’s true. It’s not just true. It’s one of the most important points on this list. Why? Because when we enjoy something our drive to do that thing increases tenfold. Luckily, for the most part, this will come naturally when practicing mindfulness.
By the very act of practicing mindfulness, your monkey mind will begin to settle and you’ll feel an extraordinary sense of tranquility. When I first began my mindfulness practice I felt an amazing sense of peace that seemed to extend throughout the rest of my day. It was rough at first, I can’t say that it wasn’t difficult.
Your mind will likely be bouncing around uncontrollably for the first a couple of weeks, you’ll be pretty fidgety, and if you use a timer during sitting meditation you’ll find thoughts like “I wonder how much longer I have to go?” popping up regularly. But even so, you’ll find yourself feeling great after finishing a session. Even if it was just a few minutes long.
During this time, you really just have to push through the difficulty. But I don’t mean literally push or be forceful. I mean don't give up, keep chugging along. Just be mindful of whatever it is you’re being mindful of, in the beginning, this will be mostly your breath, and as thoughts arise gently acknowledge them and bring your concentration back to your breath.
This tough period won’t last long. Plus, you’ll still get a lot of joy from practicing during this time as well. Take the time to notice how mindfulness is affecting your mood and behavior. If you take the time to do this you’ll deepen your appreciation of your practice further and find even more drive to continue practicing.
But the real joy is in once your mind has begun to settle and you can just sit with little interruptions. When you can sit, stop, or walk and be mindful without feeling like you want to get up or like you have something you need to get to, you’ll know you’ve reached a real milestone.
I can’t describe this feeling to you. You just have to feel it for yourself. It’s one of the most beautiful and peaceful feelings you’ll ever feel in your life. In those moments everything is perfect just as it is and you feel like you could sit forever.
10. Don't accept the excuses you give yourself as to why mindfulness isn't for you. If you can't sit still, you need mindfulness the most.
Those who have the most difficulty sitting still are the ones who need mindfulness the most. If you’re constantly moving to the point where you can’t imagine yourself sitting still for more than a few minutes at a time then your mind is very, very busy. And the busier your mind, the more stressed and anxious it is as well.
Don't convince yourself that you can't practice mindfulness, especially mindful sitting/sitting meditation, because you have a hard time sitting. You need mindfulness the most.
If you do the work and just learn how to stop and follow your breath from time to time you’ll completely transform how you feel on a day to day basis. Those with the most difficulty sitting are typically the ones who end up appreciating the practice the most because they got the most meaning from it.
We often have to learn from experience in order to really appreciate something. If you experienced a chaotic mind then you’ll truly appreciate what your mind is like once you’ve found even a sliver of the peace you can feel from adopting the practice of mindfulness in your daily life.