1. Mindfulness, what’s that?
It’s simply the idea of paying attention to what you’re paying attention to, and being aware of your thoughts and emotions.
2. Why should I care about paying attention?
Being mindful is seemingly universally beneficial. Mindfulness meditation has been scientifically shown to decrease depression, distraction, anxiety, rumination, and emotional reactivity, while at the same time improving information processing abilities, resilience, cognitive flexibility, immune function, intuition, emotion regulation, and relationship satisfaction. For these reasons and more, companies like Google, LinkedIn, Monsanto, Aetna, and many others offer mindfulness programs to their employees. Mindfulness is also key to becoming emotionally intelligent, a set of skills that has been shown to be important to becoming an exceptionally effective leader or manager.
3. Yeah right, how does it do all that?
The human brain is well adapted to reviewing the past, building models of the world, and predicting the future. Unfortunately, it is so well adapted to these tasks that it often goes overboard, letting these things take over, and then feeding back into itself. There are at least two problems with this. First, when you are thinking, you are not doing, or worse, you are doing things on auto-pilot. Second, this feedback loop can amplify the wrong things, for example, strengthening unwarranted negative emotions or unjustifiably reinforcing how you view yourself based on your past actions. Being mindful simply means that you observe this process in a detached way, and reserve the right to say, “Wait a second, let me decide whether this is the kind of thought or emotion that makes sense for me right now.”
4. So, mindfulness is about stopping thoughts?
Not exactly. It’s more about learning how to recognize when you are thinking or feeling, and then making a conscious decision around whether it makes sense to continue that line of thought or to express that emotion, or whether you’d be better served by letting it go.
5. Wait, are mindfulness and meditation the same thing?
No. Meditation is simply a technique used to train you to learn how to be mindful. It is like a targeted workout for your brain, one that trains you to learn a particular skill: being aware of where you are spending your attentional energy. Mindfulness, on the other hand, is a way of life. It can be practiced in every thing you do. You can walk mindfully, eat mindfully, listen mindfully, speak mindfully – drive, read, play, and love mindfully. Mindfulness is all about being present and aware of what’s currently happening in and around you, encapsulated in these three words: Be Here Now.
6. I’m not a spiritual person, how do you expect me to get on board with this “woo-woo” stuff?
While it is true that historically meditation has been closely associated with various spiritual traditions, there’s no reason you can’t be a complete atheist and still experience the benefits of calm, clarity, focus and productivity that meditation and mindfulness impart. The very fact that nearly all spiritual traditions include meditation in their repertoire speaks to its universality. There are many different types of meditation. Mindfulness meditation is deceptively simple, and completely secular. It simply involves paying attention to your breath, noticing when you get distracted by a thought or emotion, and then returning to focusing on your breath. That’s it. No mantras, invocations, chakras, or third-eyes are necessary if you are not so inclined.
7. Okay, you’ve piqued my interest. How do I go about becoming mindful? It is simple, but not easy. You just need to take some time every day to pay attention to what’s going on in your head and around you. This should be a designated time alone, with no screens or other distractions. Just watch your thoughts, without judgment. Here’s a simple 1-2-3 guide to meditation:
- Find a quiet, distraction-free place. Put your phone in airplane mode, but set a timer.
- Sit still, in a way that you are comfortable, but can remain alert and not be tempted to fall asleep.
- Spend a minute or two getting comfortable, relaxing, closing your eyes, and noticing the sensations in your body.
- Bring your attention to your breath, noticing what it feels like in your body. No need to control it, just breathe naturally. Possibly start counting your breath, if that helps you keep focused.
- You will naturally get distracted by wandering thoughts and feelings, or even by sounds or smells. When this happens, simply notice it, without judging it. Then, go back to the previous step. Do this for as long as you like, even if it’s just a minute or two.
- Do this at least once every day. Work your way up to 10 or more minutes.
8. My mind is too restless, I think I’d be no good at it.
Many people use the excuse that they are “no good” at meditation as the reason they don’t meditate. This makes about as much sense as saying you don’t work out because you are out of shape. The whole point of meditating is to learn how to focus your mind, and to practice that skill. That’s why it’s called a practice.
9. It sounds like meditation will turn me into a spineless accept-a-tron, that’s not what I want!
No, it won’t do that. What it will teach you is that in any challenging situation, if the world is not as you would like, you have more than one option. The first option is to work hard to change the state of the world. This is a valid and important option. The second option, often neglected, is to accept the state of the world and change your expectations, something which is often simpler to do and frequently in line with the natural order. Meditation gives you the space to step back, evaluate both options, and choose the one that aligns with your values.
10. Meditation sounds too boring, I think I’ll give it a pass.
The modern world tends to promote the idea that we must always be stimulated, aroused, and entertained. This “always on” way of living is clearly not a sustainable one, and yet we get into the habit of always wanting to do something, even if nothing needs to be done. It may seem like a bit of an indulgence to take a break, but you will only be meditating for a few minutes. Surely you can afford that, given all of the benefits that will ensue. As you gain more experience in meditation, and explore different styles, you’ll also find it less and less boring. Fundamentally, you’ll be exploring your own thought processes, gaining insights into the ways you think, and understanding how you may be the same or different from others. What could possibly be more fascinating than that?