Today we will focus on where to start when learning mindfulness meditation. Developing this practice can be one of the best ways for us to improve our health and well-being. However, as with many new adventures in life, the path forward can be hazy. Read on to have this thick fog of uncertainty blown away by the winds of knowledge.
We’ve all heard about meditation. How it can increase our happiness and productivity, induce a Zen-like state, and even improve our physical health. All these reported benefits sound great, but they also generate a ton of questions:
- “What IS meditation?”
- “How can I achieve these benefits?”
- “What IS mindfulness?”
- “How the HECK can sitting still and breathing improve my physical health?”
- “Where do I start?”
With the internet at our fingertips, it is far too easy to get overwhelmed by the tidal wave of information. There are countless different types of meditations, thousands of free online resources, and lots of mixed opinions to sift through.
At its core, mindfulness meditation is actually very simple. If we focus on the basics and commit enough TIME to our practice, the results we desire will follow. That’s why it’s called a meditation PRACTICE. Just as with any new skill, we must establish our proficiency through diligence.
We can’t let the wealth of knowledge discourage us when considering how to learn mindfulness meditation. Sometimes too much information can actually hinder our progress, resulting in paralysis by analysis.
That being said let’s throw out everything we think we know or have heard about mindfulness or meditation. Approach this post with a clean slate and take action as soon as possible. Don’t take this information and then start another spider web of Google searches. Learning through doing is always the best teacher and the sooner we just go for it the quicker we will understand the core concepts.
—The following couple of sections will explain how our brains operate and why it is so important for each of us to develop a meditation routine. If you’d like to skip directly to the technique, click here. That being said, I recommend reading the entire post, as understanding the reasons why we need to train our mindfulness will help us stay dedicated to the practice—
First, we have to dispel some common colloquial nonsense about mindfulness and meditation:
- Meditation IS NOT about emptying your mind of thoughts.
- Meditation IS NOT about achieving a deep state of calm.
- Meditation IS NOT a panacea; it won’t magically fix all of our problems.
Those first two points are often side effects of meditation; however, focusing on achieving them will cripple our progress if not halting it entirely.
So what IS mindfulness all about?
It is simply the training of our ability to exist in and observe the present moment free from judgment.
This is accomplished by tuning in to our physical senses; the things that connect us to the rest of the world and determine our reality. Our sense of touch is probably the easiest of these to tap into, but sight, smell, hearing, and taste can also help us achieve that state of being fully present and aware.
“What? Tune in to our senses? It’s not like we are going around all day blind and deaf!”
True, our basic senses are always active, but because of this our brain gets used to their constant input and dulls them to make more room for active thought in the brain. We can choose to pay more attention to them though, and when we do something beautiful happens.
We activate the mode of the brain that has been all but forgotten in modern society: The Being Mode.
We’ll continue that thought in a moment but first, a little context:
Our way of life has changed DRASTICALLY over the last couple hundred thousand years, but our biological makeup has pretty much stayed the same.
Because of this, things that occur within our brain often make much more sense when viewed in the context of our primal ancestors. This was the initial setting that our minds were designed for and our success in that niche directly catapulted us into the modern society we experience today.
The brain evolved to have two primary “modes” of functionality. We will refer to these as the “Being mode” and the “Doing mode”.
I’ll give a description of each of these two modes, and then tie it all into the primal perspective at the end of this section.
The Doing Mode
This is the mode that most of us find ourselves in the majority of the time. Recent studies using fMRI brain imaging has identified when we are in this mode and even given it the name: “The Default Mode Network”. Basically, this is the mode of the brain where the following thought processes occur:
- Problem Solving
- Critical Thinking
- Mental Time Travel
- Personal Story Creation
Another way to view this modality is the “thinking mode”. It focuses on the gap between where we are, where we want to be, and what we need to do in that space to achieve our goals. This procedure is what allows us to make the necessary changes to progress through life.
Although this part of the brain is active while trying to solve problems, it is also the main mode we are in even while at rest. When in this state our body goes on “autopilot” to give us the mental space for these thoughts.
That is why we are capable of planning the coming day’s events while doing repetitive chores like laundry and showering. It is really incredible the number of tasks we can carry out completely absent-mindedly. It is this same mechanism that results in the dulling of our senses.
If we were constantly aware of all the stimuli of our senses we would be overwhelmed and find it difficult to work through problems. Our brain does us the favor of putting these constant data streams on the back burner so that we can focus on more complex issues that autopilot cannot handle, while still getting things done.
This ability is amazingly powerful and is responsible for the massive potential we have to achieve incredible things. No wonder we spend most of our time there.
The Being Mode
Being mode is essentially what gives us the quality of awareness. Where Doing mode puts us in an abstract land of thoughts and possibilities, Being mode grounds us in the here and now. It reminds us that we are not our thoughts and that we exist independently from them.
It’s almost like Being mode is constantly there, it just very easily gets overwritten by Doing mode.
A popular way of describing this when teaching meditation is through the blue sky analogy. Basically imagine thoughts and emotions, the products of Doing mode, as clouds in the sky. Sometimes there are more clouds, sometimes less, and sometimes we can’t see the sky at all. There is a blanket of clouds or even a dark storm blocking our view.
Yet beyond those clouds, we know that the blue sky is back there somewhere, regardless of how obstructed our view. This clear blue sky is the Being mode. It is a calm place that is ever present, even when we are not consciously aware of it.
Just knowing this place exists doesn’t make accessing it any easier though. That’s where the goal of meditation lies; in accessing the blue sky of our mind.
Countless past and current studies have found that the benefits of regularly activating this part of the brain cannot be understated. An entirely new form of therapy based around mindfulness has been created and has shown help to patients with treatment-resistant depression. Meaning this stuff is more powerful than commonly prescribed antidepressant drugs.
I believe we were meant to spend much more time in Being mode than most modern humans do. This could be a large cause for the rise in depression and other modern mental health issues.
So Wait… You’re Saying Cavemen Meditated?!
I mean I guess it’s possible, but no, that doesn’t seem quite right. Meditation has been practiced for THOUSANDS of years, but we are going back even further than that.
Our primal ancestors didn’t NEED to meditate because they were NATURALLY put into Being mode much more often.
Remember, one of the easiest ways to access the being mode is by directly experiencing our senses, specifically, touch. Primal humans were VERY active out of NECESSITY.
There was no going to the supermarket to pick up their food for the next month. No, if they wanted to eat they had to hunt and forage. Physical exercise forces us into Being mode.
Imagine trying to chase down a prey item through a treacherous wooded terrain. One small misstep could result in a broken ankle which most likely would lead to death. There is no mental capacity for considering the future or the past, only the present moment. They felt every beat of their heart and every breath they took during that chase.
Think about the feeling we get after working out. There is an overarching sensation of contentedness and accomplishment.
This is also why many claim yoga to be a very calming experience. It forces us to pay full attention to our bodies where normally we wouldn’t give them a second thought.
Now, let’s think about those primal humans foraging. Munching one wrong berry or mushroom could quickly become the last thing they ever ate.
Determining the good plants from the bad required a keen attention to the senses. Recognizing the subtle differences in color, shape, texture, smell, and taste of the countless species available to us was the difference between life and death. Once again, this is a daily activity that forced our ancestors into Being mode.
Finally, early humans had much, MUCH less to worry about than we do today. Once the basic needs for survival were met (food, shelter, water, and safety of the herd or family unit) there wasn’t much more for them to worry about.
This left a lot of room for them to naturally gravitate towards Being mode. Again, Doing mode focuses on where we want to be versus where we are. Achieving the ideal situation back then was much simpler than it is now with the complexity of civilization.
Today we have to choose when we are where we want to be and find our own contentedness. Armed with the knowledge of what is possible, food, water, and shelter are no longer enough to satisfy us. Thus, we get trapped in Doing mode, never feeling good enough and always wanting more.
Another way to look at it is comparing it to exercise. Primal humans didn’t have to choose to be physically active. A sedentary life simply wasn’t an option. Their natural lifestyle kept them in peak physical condition. Today we have to CHOOSE to exercise to stay in shape.
Phew! Still with me? We’ll get into the actual practice soon, I promise.
One More Important Note
It’s easy to get excited when researching a new topic and this often leaves us with high expectations for the results. So I want to make it perfectly clear that mindfulness is something that takes time and practice. The chance of feeling the benefits after just a few sessions is slim.
However, it is completely possible that we will feel the benefits after our first attempt. Everyone will react differently and sometimes we may even feel worse than we did before the practice. Most likely, we won’t feel like the meditation did much for us at all.
The best remedy for these uncertain outcomes is going into it with an open mind. Be curious, and try not to form any prior expectations. They will only hold us back, as the more we try to create the desired outcome, the more we will feed Doing mode.
We may feel discouraged and angry with ourselves when realizing just how overactive our brains have become. We can’t let this realization corrupt the practice. If feeling this way, be kind to your wandering mind. In fact, noticing that we have drifted back into Doing mode is an essential step on our path to living mindfully.
It’s just like learning to ride a bike or doing simple math, or any other skill we have attained throughout life. We sucked at it in the beginning and it took time and practice to improve.
So no matter how useless or frustrating it may feel at first just TRUST ME.
After enough time passes you WILL begin to see the benefits. DON’T GIVE UP.
Even just a couple months of a regular practice can be more than enough to feel the effects extending into everyday life.
Here’s one more little fact for the super skeptics out there: fMRI brain imaging studies have not only shown us how meditation affects mental activity, but also that regular meditation actually alters the PHYSICAL STRUCTURE OF THE BRAIN. That’s what I would call some SERIOUS mental gains.
The Beginner’s Meditation
This mindfulness practice will focus on the body and the breath. This is a very simple meditation and is the one most people start with, usually with the accompaniment of a prerecorded guide to walk us through the technique.
Tons of free guided meditation recordings can be found online so the search shouldn’t be too difficult. Although it is recommended to use a recording, this is by no means necessary. Feel free to experiment.
1. First, we need to make some time and find a space to carry out our practice.
- Ideally, this will be a quiet place where we will not be disturbed by outside stimuli.
- Silence any smart devices or place them in another room.
- Each session should last for at least 10 minutes, but this is a very flexible number and many condense their practice into much shorter periods of time. However, the more time we spend practicing, the faster we will progress.
2. Second, we must set our body in a way that best supports the practice.
- For simplicity, use a flat backed chair, preferably without armrests. The position one meditates in is again something that varies from person to person, however, a simple upright sitting position is probably the best for most beginners.
- The spine should be erect rather than hunched forward, shoulders relaxed back and chest open. It’s common to try too hard to make the back erect, resulting in muscle tension. Find an upright position where the muscles around the spine are relaxed. We have a natural spine curvature. Try to find this sweet spot, but don’t over think it.
- The arms fall gently to our sides, with hands and forearms placed on the knees or thighs.
- Our feet should be flat on the floor ideally forming a 90-degree angle at our knee.
- If you know anything about proper posture while sitting at a desk, that is what you are going for. Proper, dignified posture that supports our intention to be aware.
3. Third, we will begin the practice.
- Start by taking a few deep breaths. Try to pay special attention to the sensations of breathing. Feel the abdomen expand and retract. This helps to ground us in the moment, preparing us for the practice.
- After a minute or so, gently close the eyes. Free from the flood of visual information, attempt to become more in-tune with the other senses. Feel the body pressing against the chair. Hear the subtle sounds around you. Maybe notice any scents in the environment.
- Next, we will focus a little more on each part of the body. Starting at either the head or the feet, slowly move through each body part, spending a couple seconds on each one. Think feet, legs, hips, abdomen, chest, arms, neck, and head. Although one can spend an entire meditation just doing this step, for this exercise it can be done more quickly as it’s just meant to further ground us and to see how our body is feeling right then.
- Coming to the end of the “body scan” as it is often called, begin to focus on the breath. Similarly to the very first step, try to focus on the physical sensations as well as other aspects of the breath such as how deep or shallow the breath is, how long or short, and the length of the pause between the in and out breaths.
- Throughout the entire practice, Doing mode will chime in. It might try to fix some things it finds in the body that it’s not too fond of, it may begin planning the day’s activities ahead, or it could feed us any other manner of random thoughts. When noticing this, simply let go of the thought and return to the area of intended focus. Either the body or the breath.
- Upon reaching the end of the meditation session, it can help to repeat the second step before opening the eyes to gently bring you back into the surrounding environment. (If not using a guided audio track, consider setting a gentle alarm to alert you of when the allotted time is up)
4. Some things to be aware of before and during meditation.
- The mind WILL wander. Often almost immediately. It can be surprising and appalling to realize how dominant Doing mode has become. It is important to be kind toward ourselves when making these realizations. It’s easy to get frustrated with the mind, but remember that becoming aware of this chatter is a solid step forward in our mindfulness journey.
- So we noticed the wandering of the mind and brought our focus back to the breath. Then we start thinking about that experience, about how clever and sneaky Doing mode is when trying to regain control, only to realize… it’s happened again. In thinking about the experience of noticing our mind wandering, we have yet again let our mind wander. It’s a phenomenon that really needs to be experienced to fully understand how quickly it can happen. The point is the mind will most likely wander A LOT. It doesn’t matter how many times it happens, how frequently it happens, or how long it takes to realize and bring the attention back. Again, the important part is to be kind towards yourself and simply return to the object of focus. Over time this becomes easier and easier to do.
- There are a plethora of other things to consider when it comes to meditation, so many that a whole post of its own could be dedicated to covering them. The best way to have these questions answered is through the all-in-one beginners program that I highly recommended:
Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World
That’s the title to a powerful book and meditation program I recently discovered. In my opinion, this is one of the best, if not THE best option available for beginners aspiring to develop a meditation practice.
It has helped to nourish my understanding of our brain’s inner machinations by explaining them in a detailed and unique way. In fact the Doing and Being modes I described here come directly from this book.
If you’ve read much of what I put out here, I’m ALL ABOUT breaking down aspects of our cognition and explaining them in a simple way and from a different perspective. (Often the primal one)
The writers spent years working closely with researchers and psychologists developing the program outlined in this book. It is based directly on the treatment approach I mentioned earlier, you know the one that has shown to be AS effective if not more so then commonly prescribed antidepressant drugs?
This approach has been given the name Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy or MBCT for short. MBCT is now recommended by the UK’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence.
The program involves doing a different meditation each week twice a day for eight weeks. Each meditation is accompanied by a guided audio track in the form of a CD included with the book.
If anyone out there still has a CD player sitting around then I am impressed. However, if you’re like most of modern society you can also stream or download these audio tracks for free on their website. (here have a link) That’s right, you can follow the entire 8-week program of meditations without spending a dime if you so choose.
That being said, getting the book is highly recommended for the explanation and context it provides, as well as for the extra assignments they give each week.
In addition to the meditation of the week, they give tiny homework assignments such as paying full attention to mundane tasks we usually hand-over to Doing mode. Placing these chores in the spotlight of awareness can expose us to the simple pleasures in life that normally pass us by, and show how mindfulness can begin to bleed into everyday life, independent from the formal practices.
Finally, each week includes what the authors call a “habit-releaser”. These include things like sitting in a different chair at work or taking a different route than we normally would. These help the mind become more comfortable in breaking down long ingrained habits which will directly enhance our progression with the formal meditations.
An in-depth educational resource paired with a step by step 8-week program for less than 20 dollars make this purchase a no-brainer. (teehee)
As long as one can make time to carry out the meditations twice a day, as well as perform the additional homework, then noticeable results are almost guaranteed. And it may happen much sooner than the two month period, however, to see lasting results the entire program should be completed and ideally, meditation practice would continue beyond the first two months.
Well, there it is.
This stuff doesn’t have to be complicated. Just like with any new skill in life, start small and grow from there.
As Tony Robbins says: “Complexity is the enemy of execution”
So don’t let yourself be overwhelmed by the flood of information available, it’s much more important to just pick something and START.
Since beginning my journey with meditation about six months ago it has become one of my most powerful tools. This is just the beginning of a long road, and also the inspiration for this entire site.
I believe EVERYONE should have a meditation practice, and that it should be viewed as being as important to our health as brushing our teeth is. The world just might be a very different place if this was true.
Helping to spread the word is a good place to start!
If you liked this post don’t be afraid to leave a comment with your thoughts, and share with your friends. Also, if you haven’t picked up Mindfulness yet, what are you waiting for?! It’s such a small investment that could drastically change your quality of life forever.
Well whether you decide to get the book or not, I do hope you at least try the simple meditation I outlined here. Don’t let this post immediately get dumped out of your brain until the next time you hear someone bring up meditation. Start TODAY and be the person that initiates the conversation.
A mindful brain is a happy brain.
Have a wonderful day.