Posted by Jesper on September 24, 2023
If you are anything like me, you often crave for a bit of peace and clarity in your busy stressful life. Perhaps you often feel distracted by hundreds of things clamoring for your attention, and find it difficult to determine what is actually important. And maybe you also occasionally wonder what you are doing in this world, and what you could do to live a more fulfilling life.
There is one thing that has helped me with all of these questions, perhaps more than all other hacks and advice I’ve read combined. You’ve heard of it already, it is called mindfulness. Yet while the word is pretty well-known, I see many people who could benefit from mindfulness but currently do not because they do not know where to start, or because they tried it and had a bad experience, or they just do not see the point.
Today I am here to tell you that for me and many others, mindfulness is indeed as good as people say, and there is no need to sit still for hours on end or to practice for many years to get its benefits. I invite you to try if it can be of use for you, too.
So what is mindfulness, really? It is many different things to many different people, which makes it difficult to define. But if I had to try, I would define mindfulness as the practice of paying close attention to your experiences, without making any judgement about them. It is not a difficult thing to do, and yet we usually go through our lives paying attention to nothing and judging everything. If you can simply stop doing that for a couple of minutes, you are practicing mindfulness.
Practicing mindfulness is not complicated: the easiest way is to sit down somewhere quiet, close your eyes, and pay close attention to your breath or any other sensation or feeling. Then just observe what happens in your body and your thoughts and your environment, without wanting to change anything about them. That’s really it, there is nothing else to it, and yet it can transform your life.
When you repeat this practice often enough, eventually you might start to notice more and subtler forms of experience. These experiences do not suddenly appear, but by practicing you become able to notice them more often. Eventually, you will notice the wrong ideas that we all have and that lie at the root of our confusion, and you will be able to transform them or dissolve them entirely.
This could be the end of this post, so if you feel like this is enough for you, you can stop reading and go practice. But if you are curious and still uncertain about what you should actually do, there are some more things that I’ve learned about mindfulness and would like to share.
Why practice mindfulness?
People practice mindfulness for all kinds of different reasons. Monks have practiced it for thousands of years for spiritual reasons, and psychologists have studied it as a tool for reducing stress and anxiety. I would personally classify the possible reasons to practice mindfulness into three categories: direct benefits, self-improvement, and curiosity.
- Because it’s relaxing.
- Because it feels good.
- To reduce stress.
- Because it makes you feel happier.
- To let go of old habits.
- To feel more gratitude for little things.
- To become more compassionate.
- To train your mind to become more focused and clearer.
- To build the skill to notice your thoughts as they appear.
- To become aware of your negative thought patterns and transform them into something more helpful.
- To discover more about how your mind works.
- To gain more awareness of your needs and desires.
- To investigate your implicit expectations and assumptions and put them to question.
- To become more aware of your unconscious thoughts.
- To become Enlightened (though I am still not sure what, if anything, this actually means).
You may have your own reasons for wanting to practice mindfulness, or you might start for one reason and discover another reason by practicing. This is all valid.
The wrong way to meditate
Some people will tell you that “there is no wrong way to do meditation” but in fact, there is. In particular, if you have a lot of anxiety, anger, or depressive thoughts, there is a risk that instead of just noticing these feelings you instead become engulfed by them. Eventually you stop noticing them entirely and you become them. If this happens, you can try to return your attention to your body and just notice how you are feeling. Another difficult but potentially rewarding option is to try integrating these negative feelings into your meditation practice. But if this does not work and the negative thoughts keep getting more intense, it is important to stop practicing and take care of yourself: go for a walk, listen to some music, take a nap, eat your favorite snack, call a friend, or do whatever else makes you feel better. There are many ways to practice mindfulness and perhaps this one was not the right one for you at this moment, that’s perfectly okay. Next time, perhaps try a guided meditation (I have a few recommendations for meditation apps at the bottom of this post) or try meditating at a different time or in a different environment. If you continue to struggle with negative thoughts triggered by mindfulness, you could also read Trauma-sensitive Mindfulness (I have not read it yet, but Matthew recommends it). In the end, it might also be the case that meditation simply isn’t the right thing for you at this point in your life, and that is okay too.
Seven common misconceptions
Apart from “there is no wrong way to meditate”, there are many other misconceptions that prevent some people from giving mindfulness a shot. Here is my attempt to rectify some of them:
- The goal of mindfulness is not to stop having thoughts or feelings, but to notice that you are having them and to stop identifying with them or holding on to them.
- Mindfulness is not inherently connected to religion or spirituality. It does not require any belief in the mystical or supernatural, and some of its benefits have been scientifically proven.
- Mindfulness is not really about reducing stress or becoming happier, though these are a result of mindfulness for many people. In particular, even if your life is already happy and stress-free you can still find many benefits in mindfulness, such as deeper insight into your needs and goals in life.
- You don’t need to practice mindfulness for long stretches at a time or regularly for many years to get its benefits. You can really just make your next breath a mindful one, and you will instantly become more relaxed.
- You do not need to sit still to meditate, you can lie down or stand up or walk or move your body in any way you like, as long as you continue to pay attention to your perceptions. In fact, you can practice mindfulness at any moment of the day while doing something else. But especially at first, it is often easier to meditate when there are not too many distractions.
- You do not need to focus on your breath to meditate, you can focus on other things such as the sounds around you, the feeling of your body, your visual field, a mental image of a good friend or loved one, an emotion, or your consciousness itself. Personally I had some success meditating by focusing completely on the sensations in my feet when other parts of my body were feeling sore. But focusing on the breath works well for many people, so it is recommended to try it first.
- You do not need to force your breath into any particular rhythm to meditate. Stay away from any guided meditation that talks about “breathwork” or instructs you to breathe in a way that feels unnatural. If your breath is fast, just notice that it is fast. If your breath is slow, notice that it is slow. You do not need to change anything.
The Four Elements meditation
While you can be mindful without any help or guidance, following a guided meditation often makes it a bit easier to get in the right mindset. Doing it from time to time can also really help deepen your experience. So to get you started, here is a self-guided meditation that I’ve put together. I often use it during a silent meditation when I feel the need for some direction for my thoughts. It is build from five stages inspired by the four elements and the spirits. You can read all stages in advance, read each one individually after you finish the last one, or just pick a single one. It usually takes me around 15 minutes to go through all five, but your experience may vary. Also be aware that it might have the side-effect of making you think you are the Avatar, and if this happens I deny all responsibility.
Air. Take a deep breath. Notice how the air flows into your nose, fills your lungs, and raises your chest and belly. Slowly let it go. Continue following your breath for ten in- and out-breaths. Feel the oxygen reaching into every part of your lungs, and the carbondioxide flow back out through your nose. See if you can gently increase the length of your breath without forcing it. Like the air, you are empty but always present.
Water. Imagine refreshing water pouring gently on top of your head. Feel it flow down your forehead, your face, your ears, your lips, your chin. Let it flow further down along your throat and neck to your chest, down your hands and your fingertips. Down along your body to your stomach and your hips. Finally, through your legs to your knees and feet and every little toe. Like the water, you are always in motion, never the same as the moment before.
Earth. Notice the places where your body is touching your chair or the floor beneath you. Feel how the earth pulls you and holds you in place, inviting you to rest. Feel at the same time how the earth supports you and ensures you don’t fall, providing solidity and stability. Like the earth, each part of your body itself supports and holds the parts connected to it. Like the earth, you are allowed to just be without doing anything.
Fire. Feel the temperature of your body. Which places are warm, which ones are cold? Your toes, your ears, your nose, your armpits, your belly, your heart? Inside of you is a gentle warmth that is with you for as long as you are alive. It surrounds you like a soft blanket, protecting you from the cold outside. Feel how it gives you energy and movement and life. Feel how at the same time, it consumes you from the inside. Like the fire, you are constantly dying and being reborn in every moment.
Spirits. Pay attention to your thoughts themselves. Each thought is like a spirit creature: some are small and cute, others are scary or hidden away. Give each thought the time to manifest without judging it. Each thought has a reason for being there and wants the best for you, even if they are sometimes misguided. All they want is to be listened to and to be taken seriously. Embrace each of them like an old friend. Be grateful to each of them for being there for you. Like the spirits, the only thing you really need is to be listened to and to be loved.
Finally, let me point you to some resources for the practice of mindfulness that I found helpful.
- InsightTimer is a free app with a vast collection of guided meditations. There is a lot of really good content on here, but you will sometimes need to filter through some less useful stuff.
- The Waking Up app is a more focused and in-depth app that uses the practice of “non-dual meditation”, also known as “no-effort meditation”. I started using it recently and found it very helpful. It is paid but you can get a 30 day trial through my referral link.
- The Way Out Is In is a podcast about the practice of mindfulness featuring in-depth conversations between Brother Phap Huu, the abbot of Plum Village monastery in France, and journalist Jo Confino. Each episode also ends with a short guided meditation.
- The Miracle of Mindfulness is the classic book written in 1975 by Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, who is often credited with “bringing mindfulness to the West”. He has a large number of books on various topics, I particularly enjoyed Silence and am currently cracking my brain on Cracking the Walnut. If you are into (climate) activism, you might also enjoy Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet.
- This blog post on meditation, insight, and rationality was one of the first things I read about mindfulness and explains the point of meditation from a rational perspective. While I don’t agree anymore with everything in it, it definitely helped me to get over that initial bump of confusion.
From time to time, someone will (re)discover their own way of practicing mindfulness and loudly shout that they have found the True Path to Happiness. Some of these that I’ve noticed so far: focusing, unmasking, self-love, meta-cognitive therapy, authentic relating, gratitude journaling, and immersive journaling games. If you find the framing of mindfulness as meditation not working for you, one of these might be a better fit.
As always, feel free to send any comments about this blog post to me via email or to @firstname.lastname@example.org.