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Mindfulness: How to Practice


Think you might want to try mindfulness? Maybe you've heard about the potential benefits of this practice for good mental health?For more information about what mindfulness is, & it's benefits, check out my blog, 'Mindfulness: Pseudo or Science?'.

Ready to start a practice? Read on friend:)




Attitudes in Mindfulness Practice

There are some attitudes we want to bring to mindfulness practice in order to encourage us to be in the 'observer' role.


A Non-Striving Approach

This is going to sound like a contradiction, but we want to try to not make anything 'happen' when we are practicing mindfulness. The contradiction is that we usually come to mindfulness because we want something to change. We want to feel better, or stress less. But when we practice, we want to let go of trying to make something happen, because it gets in the way of simply attending to what is.


A common misconception of mindfulness is that we are trying to 'clear' our mind. If we hold onto this, we will spend our mindfulness practice beating ourselves up because we can't clear our mind! Instead of trying to clear our mind, we are actually trying to step into the observer role & not engage in our thoughts too much- but just notice them.


We want to try to let go of trying to 'relax' or feel better when we practice mindfulness. We are literally just sitting with what is- right now- good, bad or ugly.


A Non-Judgmental Approach

We have an automatic tendency to judge our experiences as good or bad. We want to try to let go of this tendency when we practice mindfulness. We might acknowledge that certain emotional states feel pleasant or unpleasant in our body (for example, that sick feeling in my stomach might be unpleasant, but we try not to label it as 'bad').


We also want to try to be non-judgmental of ourselves & our experiences whilst practicing mindfulness. For example, if I notice that I have been wrapped up in a thought for the past 5 minutes, & not focused on my breath as intended, I want to try not to beat myself up too much about this. Instead, I could simply notice how I have been wrapped up in that thought for 5 minutes, then firmly, but gently, turn my attention back to my breath. I might have to do this a hundred times in 5 minutes- that's okay. The instructions remain the same- firmly, but gently turn my mind back to my breath.


Practicing Mindfulness

So, how do we actually 'do' mindfulness? There are many different ways we can practice mindfulness. We can practice formally (with or without an 'anchor') or informally.


Formal Practice

Formal mindfulness practice means carving out time to sit, lay or walk, & intentionally practice being in the present moment. We can use any physical sense as an 'anchor' on which to focus our attention- as long as it is happening in the present moment.


We can focus on the sensations of our breathing to anchor us to the present moment- & when our mind wanders, we just take note of that, & bring our attention back to the breath. We are not trying to breath in any special way in mindfulness- just to allow the breath to flow as it will & notice it, over & over again.


Formal practice could also involve using other senses, such as sight, hearing, taste, touch or smell, to anchor us in the present moment. Walking mindfulness practice is a wonderful way of paying attention to the physical sensations of our body slowly walking & moving. And when our mind wanders, we simply bring our attention back to our walking.


Formal practice is a wonderful way to stop 'doing' & practice just 'being'.


We can also practice 'without anchor', which means to practice sitting with whatever happens to arise in our field of awareness. This might involve becoming aware of certain physical sensations, emotions or thoughts, & rather then trying to turn our attention towards some other sensation, instead we try to observe the experience without judgement.


For example, as we sit, we might notice sensations of tension in parts of our body, & pay attention to that with open curiosity. We might notice strong emotions arising, & again just notice what the source of those might be. We might notice certain thoughts that are preoccupying our mind, & just observe how they come & go in our field of thought, as well as physical sensations & emotions that may accompany them.


Formal practice without an anchor is a great way to check in with what is going on in our body & mind, but what we may be too distracted or busy to be aware of usually. Increasing our awareness to these experiences going on 'in the background' can be tremendously helpful in increasing our self awareness.


Informal Practice

Informal practice is a way we can access the benefits of mindfulness without having to carve out time to sit, or walk, or be quiet. We can bring mindfulness practice to our daily tasks. This is a great way to start mindfulness if the thought of sitting in silence for a time feels difficult. Many people tell me they feel fearful of sitting in silence for a period of time. They worry that the 'noise' of all their thoughts & feelings may feel overwhelming. Informal practice can therefor be a less daunting way to start being mindful.


Informal practice is simply bringing awareness to the physical sensations of whatever we are doing, & again, when our mind wanders to other things, we just notice that it has, & firmly but gently turn our attention back to the physical sensations of what we are doing.


An informal mindfulness practice I often suggest to my clients, is brushing teeth mindfully. Each day & night we brush our teeth, but this time is usually spent thinking of other things. Instead of letting our mind wander, we can practice brushing our teeth mindfully by focusing on the physical sensations of brushing our teeth.


Paying attention to how the bristles feel on our teeth & gums, the taste of the toothpaste, etc. When our mind wanders, we notice where it has gone (& how we are not longer aware of the physical sensations of brushing), & turn our attention back to the brushing. This is a great way to squeeze in mindfulness practice twice a day!


How Much Practice?

The research suggests that 20-30mins of mindfulness practice, 5-6 times/ week has significant benefits to emotion regulation, stress management & general cognitive awareness. There is also significant research into the benefits of regular mindfulness practice on physical health conditions, such as eczema & cardiac rehabilitation.


Mindfulness practice is no longer an abstract concept based on observational studies or anecdotal reports. There is a large body of neurological studies showing dramatic differences in brain functioning, as demonstrated in functional MRI's, after just a 2 week period of regular mindfulness practice.


I usually recommend to clients that they start with 5 minutes of formal or informal mindfulness practice daily, & build up from there. When we start this kind of practice, sitting for 5 minutes can feel like an eternity. It is very normal to feel frustrated when we struggle to stay focused on our breath or other sensations, & have thoughts like, 'I'm not doing it right', or, 'This isn't working'. With regular practice we learn to observe these thoughts without having to get wrapped up in them.


That being said, even a seasoned practitioner has days when it is very difficult to stay in the present moment- these days offer the greatest of insights as well as the greatest benefits from practice.


To get the greatest benefits from mindfulness practice, we need to practice regularly, but the research suggests it is more effective to practice small amounts often, rather then long practices infrequently.


Ultimately, we want to be able to bring mindfulness into our day to day lives. We can't be mindful all the time, but being able to notice when we are being 'mindless', & bring ourselves back to the present, allows us to really experience our lives, moment by moment.



More Mindfulness Resources

There is a huge amount of information on mindfulness available online & in bookstores now. I have my favourites, which I often direct my clients to when they are first embarking on mindfulness practice.


Jon Kabat-Zinn (https://www.mindfulnesscds.com/) has a plethora of work on mindfulness practice, & its applications to mental & physical health. His Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBRS) program is widely regarded as being instrumental in bringing mindfulness practice into mainstream medicine & treatment. He has authored & co-authored many books on mindfulness, as well as many guided mindfulness CD's.


Tara Brach (https://www.tarabrach.com/) & Jack Kornfield (https://jackkornfield.com/) are also well-respected mindfulness teachers, have a huge range of mindfulness resources for beginners through to advanced practitioners. 


There are also a range of mindfulness apps for smart phones now available. The 'Smiling Mind' app (www.smilingmind.com.au) is a very good example of this, & a great place to start if you are considering trying mindfulness.


So explore & see what's out there! 


Alex.



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