Getting Started with Mindfulness
You have questions about mindfulness and meditation.
Mindful has the answers.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.
While mindfulness is something we all naturally possess, it’s more readily available to us when we practice on a daily basis.
Whenever you bring awareness to what you’re directly experiencing via your senses, or to your state of mind via your thoughts and emotions, you’re being mindful. And there’s growing research showing that when you train your brain to be mindful, you’re actually remodeling the physical structure of your brain.
The goal of mindfulness is to wake up to the inner workings of our mental, emotional, and physical processes.
What is meditation?
Meditation is exploring. It’s not a fixed destination. Your head doesn’t become vacuumed free of thought, utterly undistracted. It’s a special place where each and every moment is momentous. When we meditate we venture into the workings of our minds: our sensations (air blowing on our skin or a harsh smell wafting into the room), our emotions (love this, hate that, crave this, loathe that) and thoughts (wouldn’t it be weird to see an elephant playing a trumpet).
Mindfulness meditation asks us to suspend judgment and unleash our natural curiosity about the workings of the mind, approaching our experience with warmth and kindness, to ourselves and others.
How do I practice mindfulness and meditation?
Mindfulness is available to us in every moment, whether through meditations and body scans, or mindful moment practices like taking time to pause and breathe when the phone rings instead of rushing to answer it.
VIDEO: “YOU ARE NOT YOUR THOUGHTS”
Jon Kabat-Zinn, creator of the research-backed stress-reduction program Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), explains how mindfulness lights up parts of our brains that aren’t normally activated when we’re mindlessly running on autopilot.
“Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally,” says Kabat-Zinn. “And then I sometimes add, in the service of self-understanding and wisdom.”
Read about Meditation & The Brain
The Remarkable Brains of Long-Term Meditators
Researchers suggest that people with an advanced meditation practice might operate at a different level of awareness — and it shows in their brainwaves.
How Meditation Protects the Aging Brain from Decline
A string of recent research suggests regular meditation practice may boost mental flexibility and focus, offering powerful protection against cognitive decline.
The Basics of Mindfulness Practice
Mindfulness helps us put some space between ourselves and our reactions, breaking down our conditioned responses. Here’s how to tune into mindfulness throughout the day:
- Set aside some time. You don’t need a meditation cushion or bench, or any sort of special equipment to access your mindfulness skills—but you do need to set aside some time and space.
- Observe the present moment as it is. The aim of mindfulness is not quieting the mind, or attempting to achieve a state of eternal calm. The goal is simple: we’re aiming to pay attention to the present moment, without judgment. Easier said than done, we know.
- Let your judgments roll by. When we notice judgments arise during our practice, we can make a mental note of them, and let them pass.
- Return to observing the present moment as it is. Our minds often get carried away in thought. That’s why mindfulness is the practice of returning, again and again, to the present moment.
- Be kind to your wandering mind. Don’t judge yourself for whatever thoughts crop up, just practice recognizing when your mind has wandered off, and gently bring it back.
That’s the practice. It’s often been said that it’s very simple, but it’s not necessarily easy. The work is to just keep doing it. Results will accrue.
How to Meditate
This meditation focuses on the breath, not because there is anything special about it, but because the physical sensation of breathing is always there and you can use it as an anchor to the present moment. Throughout the practice you may find yourself caught up in thoughts, emotions, sounds—wherever your mind goes, simply come back again to the next breath. Even if you only come back once, that’s okay.
A Simple Meditation Practice
- Sit comfortably. Find a spot that gives you a stable, solid, comfortable seat.
- Notice what your legs are doing. If on a cushion, cross your legs comfortably in front of you. If on a chair, rest the bottoms of your feet on the floor.
- Straighten your upper body—but don’t stiffen. Your spine has natural curvature. Let it be there.
- Notice what your arms are doing. Situate your upper arms parallel to your upper body. Rest the palms of your hands on your legs wherever it feels most natural.
- Soften your gaze. Drop your chin a little and let your gaze fall gently downward. It’s not necessary to close your eyes. You can simply let what appears before your eyes be there without focusing on it.
- Feel your breath. Bring your attention to the physical sensation of breathing: the air moving through your nose or mouth, the rising and falling of your belly, or your chest.
- Notice when your mind wanders from your breath. Inevitably, your attention will leave the breath and wander to other places. Don’t worry. There’s no need to block or eliminate thinking. When you notice your mind wandering gently return your attention to the breath.
- Be kind about your wandering mind. You may find your mind wandering constantly—that’s normal, too. Instead of wrestling with your thoughts, practice observing them without reacting. Just sit and pay attention. As hard as it is to maintain, that’s all there is. Come back to your breath over and over again, without judgment or expectation.
- When you’re ready, gently lift your gaze (if your eyes are closed, open them). Take a moment and notice any sounds in the environment. Notice how your body feels right now. Notice your thoughts and emotions.
A 3-Part Focused Attention Meditation Series
Explore this guided meditation series from editor-in-chief Barry Boyce to gently work with your wandering mind.
Mindful Practices for Every Day
As you spend time practicing mindfulness, you’ll probably find yourself feeling kinder, calmer, and more patient. These shifts in your experience are likely to generate changes in other parts of your life as well.
Mindfulness can help you become more playful, maximize your enjoyment of a long conversation with a friend over a cup of tea, then wind down for a relaxing night’s sleep. Try these 4 practices this week:
Meditation 101: Simple Guided Meditations
1. A Simple Breathing Meditation for Beginners
5-Minute Breathing Meditation
This practice can help reduce stress, anxiety, and negative emotions, cool yourself down when your temper flares, and sharpen your concentration skills.
2. A Body Scan to Cultivate Mindfulness
3-Minute Body Scan Meditation
A brief mindfulness meditation practice to relax your body and focus your mind.
3. A Simple Awareness of Breath Practice
An 11-Minute Awareness of Breath Meditation
One of the oldest meditation practices is also one of the simplest: Sit, and know you’re sitting.
4. A Compassion Meditation
Breathing Compassion In and Out
A loving-kindness meditation to reduce negative emotions like anxiety and depression and increase positive emotions like happiness and joy.
5. A Guided Meditation for Easing into Sleep
A Guided Meditation for Sleep
A 20-minute bedtime practice to help you stay settled and less caught up in your thoughts, as you fall asleep.
6. A Meditation Practice for Anxiety
A 20-Minute Meditation for Working with Anxiety
This meditation combines breath awareness, the body scan, and mindfulness of thoughts to explore sources of stress and anxiety.
7. A Loving-Kindness Meditation for Deep Connection
Loving-Kindness Heartscape Meditation
Jon Kabat-Zinn leads this heartscape meditation for deep healing of ourselves and others.
Try this free sample of our How to Meditate Course: Making Mindfulness a Habit—with Dr. Elisha Goldstein.
Common mindfulness questions
1. Is there a wrong way to meditate? A right way to meditate?
People think they’re messing up when they’re meditating because of how busy the mind is. But getting lost in thought, noticing it, and returning to your chosen meditation object— breath, sound, body sensation, or something else—is how it’s done. That’s about it. If you’re doing that, you’re doing it right!
2. Are there more formal ways to take up mindfulness practice?
Mindfulness can be practiced solo, anytime, or with like-minded friends. But there are others ways, and many resources, to tap into. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, and other mindfulness-based trainings are available across North America. We’ve organized a list of centers here.
Daily guided meditations are also available by smartphone app, or you can practice in person at a meditation center. Read more about the types of programs currently available.
3. Do I have to practice every day?
No, but being that it’s a beneficial practice, you may well find that the more you do it, the more you’ll find it beneficial to your life. Read Jack Kornfield’s guidelines for developing a daily practice here.
4. How do I find a meditation instructor?
If you want to make mindfulness a part of your life, you’ll probably want to consider working with a meditation teacher or instructor. You can even do that online using a video chat format of some kind, but even then the same principles apply. Here are 4 questions to consider when looking for a meditation teacher: 1) Do you have good chemistry with them? 2) Are they open and accessible? 3) Do they have a deep understanding of the practice? 4) Could they regard you like a friend?
5. How do yoga and mindfulness work together?
There are a number of yoga poses that will help you with your mindfulness meditation practice. Here are 10 simple yoga exercises to reduce stress, improve well-being, and get you primed for a sitting meditation session—or anytime.
What are the benefits of meditation?
Of course, when we meditate it doesn’t help to fixate on the benefits, but rather just to do the practice. That being said, there are plenty of benefits. Here are five reasons to practice mindfulness.
- Understand your pain. Pain is a fact of life, but it doesn’t have to rule you. Mindfulness can help you reshape your relationship with mental and physical pain.
- Connect better. Ever find yourself staring blankly at a friend, lover, child, and you’ve no idea what they’re saying? Mindfulness helps you give them your full attention.
- Lower stress. There’s lots of evidence these days that excess stress causes lots of illnesses and makes other illnesses worse. Mindfulness decreases stress.
- Focus your mind. It can be frustrating to have our mind stray off what we’re doing and be pulled in six directions. Meditation hones our innate ability to focus.
- Reduce brain chatter.The nattering, chattering voice in our head seems never to leave us alone. Isn’t it time we gave it a little break?
Read about the Power of Your Breath
Your Breath is Your Brain’s Remote Control
A study has found evidence to show that there is actually a direct link between nasal breathing and our cognitive functions.
How to Fight Stress with Intentional Breathing
This simple yet effective form of deep breathing defuses the stress feedback loop and teaches your brain and body to relax.
How Your Breath Controls Your Mood and Attention
New research explores the relationship between the pace and intentionality of your breathing, and the brain networks involved in mood, attention, and body awareness.
More Audio Mindfulness practices
A Basic Meditation to Tame Your Inner Critic
An in-the-moment exercise for confronting the nagging voice in your head.
A 5-minute Gratitude Practice: Savor Through the Senses
A mindfulness practice for cultivating life’s small delights as you move through the senses.
A Mindfulness Practice for Preschoolers
A practice for teaching preschool children the basics of mindfulness by drawing on the elements of nature.
A Mindfulness Practice for Kids: Coming Back to the Positive
A simple practice to help kids take some time to notice what has gone well and see what happens next.
A Mindfulness Practice for Teens and Tweens
A simple meditation, appropriate for older kids, that uses counting breaths to cultivate mindful awareness, decrease mind wandering and negative thought loops, and improve mood.
Video: mindful movement practice
Mindful movement can help you tap into that space beyond your busy mind where you are already calm and clear. By focusing on the breath while doing some simple movements you can synchronize your mind and body with breath and rhythm. What happens when you do that, even after just a few minutes, is you begin to pause and start to focus.
Why Practice Mindfulness?
Some of the most popular ideas about mindfulness are just plain wrong. When you begin to practice it, you may find the experience quite different than what you expected. There’s a good chance you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
Mindful’s editor-in-chief, Barry Boyce sets the record straight regarding these 5 things people get wrong about mindfulness:
- Mindfulness isn’t about “fixing” you
- Mindfulness is not about stopping your thoughts
- Mindfulness does not belong to a religion
- Mindfulness is not an escape from reality
- Mindfulness is not a panacea
Mindfulness Is About More than Just Stress Reduction
Stress reduction is often an effect of mindfulness practice, but the ultimate goal isn’t meant to be stress reduction. The goal of mindfulness is to wake up to the inner workings of our mental, emotional, and physical processes.
Mindfulness trains your body to thrive: Athletes around the world use mindfulness to foster peak performance—from university basketball players practicing acceptance of negative thoughts before games, to BMX champions learning to follow their breath, and big-wave surfers transforming their fears. Seattle Seahawks Coach Pete Carroll, assisted by sports psychologist Michael Gervais, talks about coaching the “whole person.” As writer Hugh Delehanty illustrates, players learn a blend of mindfulness, which Gervais calls tactical breathing, and cognitive behavioral training to foster what he calls “full presence and conviction in the moment.”
Mindfulness boosts creativity: Whether it’s writing, drawing, or coloring, they all have accompanying meditative practices. We can also apply mindfulness to the creative process.
Mindfulness strengthens neural connections: By training our brains in mindfulness and related practices, we can build new neural pathways and networks in the brain, boosting concentration, flexibility, and awareness. Well-being is a skill that can be learned. Try this basic meditation to strengthen neural connections.
Mindful has many resources to help you live a more mindful life and tap into the best of who you are:
Four New Apps to Keep You Mindful
The Mindful editors share their latest app discoveries — and a major electronics company launches a well-being initiative.
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