Photo by Peter Marlow/Magnum
With so many approaches to mindfulness, it can be difficult to know where to start. Explore these methods to find what suits you
by Gill Johnson & Willem Kuyken + BIO
Photo by Peter Marlow/Magnum
The familiar smell of antiseptic filled her nostrils. The hard plastic seat dug into her legs. Time moved slowly in the hushed room. Charlotte, a young mother with a recent cancer diagnosis, was waiting for the results of her latest scan, and she feared the worst. She then deliberately moved her attention to the sensation of her feet on the floor, and made a careful effort to feel her toes and heels directly. Charlotte was putting into practice the mindfulness skills that she had learnt on a recent eight-week course to cope with her challenging situation.
In its simplest form, mindfulness is our innate capacity to be aware of our experience as it happens. In any moment, what we attend to is processed by our minds to create our reality: where we place our attention shapes our perception of our world. When we are mindful, we guide that attention to the present moment.
But there’s more to it than that. Mindfulness is not just about what we are aware of, but also how we’re aware of it. True mindfulness involves attending to the present moment with kindness, warmth and interest. By paying a kindly interest to where our attention is focused, we get a better understanding of our actual experience, rather than what we think it should or could be. This open interest in the present moment is described as ‘simple knowing’.
As mindfulness teachers, we know that people are drawn to mindfulness practice for many different reasons. Like Charlotte, some of our participants start mindfulness to manage a period of anxiety, pain, stress or low mood. Another participant, George, wanted a more fulfilling way to live with his hectic and antisocial working hours as a chef. Others simply want to feel better: to move towards improved wellbeing and flourishing. Others have learnt about mindfulness through friends or something that they have read, and have no additional agenda other than curiosity.
Many mindfulness teachers, ourselves included, have seen participants experience profound and lasting changes following mindfulness training. This is supported by research studies: mindfulness can reduce suffering or distress caused by, for example, pain, cancer and depression. This is because, in the face of difficulties, mindfulness opens a space in which to respond thoughtfully rather than react on impulse. We can detect our ‘autopilot’ setting – our ‘driven-doing mind’ – before it triggers an impulsive reaction or feeds an unhelpful cycle of thoughts.
As Charlotte waited for her scan results, it would have been easy for her to ruminate or catastrophise about what the future might hold. She could have let her thoughts feed her anxiety. But with mindful awareness, there was space to discover that her actual experience, while doubtless challenging, was not as unmanageable as she thought.
It’s not just about negative emotions: when you experience moments of happiness or joy, mindfulness can help you savour that experience rather than passing over it lightly. If you can loosen the compulsive power of thought, you don’t need to get lost in thinking about how to hold on to happiness or make it last longer. You can just enjoy the moment as it happens.
As with many other people, this mindful awareness could benefit you – but it can be difficult to know where to start. There are many options available: mindfulness skills can be self-taught with books, online resources or apps, or learnt in a group with the support of a mindfulness teacher. As with any practice, whether physical training, learning a musical instrument or painting, there are different ways to learn – and it takes time.
Mindfulness practice is more than just sitting still or slowing down our actions. It doesn’t have to be a choice between meditating for an hour every day or not being mindful at all; one size does not fit all. Knowing your reasons for engaging with a mindfulness practice will steer you towards something that works for you.
We describe some ways to try mindfulness below. Some of them are informal – embedded into everyday life – and some of them are formal, requiring a set time and place, and often recorded audio guidance. They all train the key awareness skills of steadying attention, recognising experience through sensing and being, and responding skilfully.
Start the day mindfully. Before you fall asleep at night, set the intention to be aware of your experience as soon as you open your eyes in the morning, before you even leave the cosiness of your bed. You might feel the bedclothes in contact with your skin, or notice smells or sounds. Check how your body feels (is it refreshed or tired?) and what’s going on in your mind (do you feel alert or leaden?)
You might notice your mind catapulting itself straight into thinking about and planning the day ahead. Experiment with pausing and tuning into the rise and fall of your chest or belly as you breathe. Simply feel the direct sensations of your body: the expanding and contracting, the movement of the air. You might discover something new about your breath, body or mind as you do this. You might find your day unfolds differently if you start off your day in this way – treat it like an experiment, and see what you find out.
Pay attention to daily tasks. You can be curious about all the things you do during the day, paying attention with gentle interest. You can feel the softness of your clothing against your skin as you get dressed, or the froth of toothpaste as you brush your teeth. You can pause to take in how your breakfast looks and savour the aroma before you eat it. As you eat, experiment with really smelling, tasting and savouring your food. You can get a sense of your bodily sensations, thoughts and moods as they change throughout the day.
Use cues as reminders. Often, the hardest part of being mindful is remembering to experience things with fresh eyes. It can be helpful to renew your intention often, perhaps ‘piggybacking’ your reminders on to ordinary activities, for example, every time a notification arrives on your phone, or every time you wash your hands. Or you can simply pause occasionally during the day. With careful intention, notice the sun on your skin, feel the way your shoulders have tensed up, or savour the taste of your coffee – these can all be moments of mindfulness.
Be prepared for some difficulty. Sometimes, you might not like what you observe. This is not a mistake but the reality of our lives. Mindfulness doesn’t increase challenging thoughts, moods or physical pain, but you might notice some distress as you become more attentive to your experience. If this happens, it’s helpful to bring a little lightness and humour when you try again. If it is overwhelming, you can always choose to move away or to stop the practice, perhaps returning when you feel more resilient. In time, you can come to understand these experiences are quite normal and nothing to be afraid of. You can start intentionally choosing what you do and don’t attend to.
These informal practices give you the chance to practise paying attention in a particular way without the extra burden of ‘finding time to be mindful’. Mindfulness is not onerous or mystical. Going for a walk, being with friends or family, eating a meal or showering can all become mindfulness practices if you remember to do it, which in this case stands for:
Formal sitting practice
Formal practices require a commitment to set aside some time to develop mindfulness through meditation. Meditation helps you to stabilise your attention, find a different mode to operate in, and respond skilfully to your experience. You can meditate in silence or follow an audio guide (see the Links and books section below for resources).
We find that practising for 10 minutes can be a useful place to start, but this period can be as short as one minute or as long as several hours. Ultimately, the best length of time for a practice will be the one that you can actually do.
Bring your attention to your experience. Set a timer for 10 minutes (or whatever works for you). It might be helpful to shift into a more alert, upright position; or you might choose to shift to a more alert mental gear. Close your eyes or lower your gaze, if that helps you concentrate. Approach the next few moments with even-handed kindness, and sense what’s there. What can you experience through touch, hearing, sight, smell and taste? Take a few minutes to recognise the physical sensations in the body, and how they shift and change. There might be hardness or softness, coolness or warmth, nothing at all – or something completely different.
Don’t fight your thoughts. You might find your mind is distracted or racing with thoughts about the past or the future; they might be regrets, worries or dreams. If this happens, try to simply observe thoughts as thoughts, without adding anything extra to them. Despite common misconceptions, there is no need to resist distractions. Rather, try to rest your attention on your moment-to-moment experience, letting thoughts come and go without chasing after them or pushing them away.
Observe what else is happening. You might notice that thoughts are only part of your experience. Maybe you’re also aware of your mood – it might be anxious, sad, happy or something else. Observe those feelings, then move attention back to the whole body and become aware of any physical sensations. Perhaps you can feel tense shoulders, a tight jaw or a smile playing on the lips? These sensations are also part of your immediate experience. Take a few minutes to really explore them.
Become aware of your breath. Let go of all these bodily sensations, moods and thoughts, and become aware of the natural movement of the breath in the body. Notice the flow of air at the tip of your nose or throat, or the rise and fall of your chest or belly. Pay attention to the breath in this way for three to five minutes. If observing your breath exacerbates your anxiety or low mood, you could try focusing on sensations in your feet or hands.
Practise often. Try to meditate regularly if you can – as often as feels right for you – as the benefits increase with regular practice.
Try different meditations. There are many formal mindfulness practices that you can explore – some of which we suggest in the Links and books section below. They each have their own unique purpose (for example, training attentional focus on the body, or self-compassion and kindness). You might find it helpful to experiment with different practices to discern which is right for you at any given moment.
Whatever your reasons for engaging in a mindfulness practice, there is some evidence that more regular practice for longer periods of time means that you will see more benefits. But keeping a mindfulness practice going can be hard. Sometimes you might be too tired or busy to bother, or feel too fearful to pay attention to your immediate experience, or too distracted with thoughts to notice what else is going on. If you started a mindfulness practice to meet one of life’s challenges, maintaining it might seem less important once the difficulty has passed.
When our course participant George started mindfulness, he found that scheduling a regular time to practise helped him commit to doing it every day. The novelty of learning something new meant it was easy to stick to the routine. However, as the months passed, his schedule became part of his ‘to do list’ and slowly compounded a sense of obligation to ‘be more mindful’. His guilt increased when the time slot passed without practice… again.
If this happens to you, you could find it useful to remind yourself why you started mindfulness in the first place, and reflect on the benefits that you experienced. Try writing it down if that’s helpful. You might remember how mindfulness helped you feel stable and capable. Recall the sense of wellbeing that you experienced when you were actively being mindful.
Charlotte – the course participant we introduced at the start – was sometimes fearful of what she might find if she paid attention to her experience. She was wary of the pain in her body, as well as the inevitable explosion of thoughts and ‘what-ifs’ when she stopped distracting herself. If this happens, it’s important to recognise the fear or resistance to your experience, which can help to steady you a little. In time, you should find that you can hold more of your experience with compassion and less reactivity. Charlotte was surprised by her increased capacity to hold both the emotions and the physical pain in her awareness as ‘just experience’.
The key to persisting with mindfulness is to pay attention to your experience over and over, in whatever way suits you. Repetition is required to build new neural pathways. This means that mindfulness can actively influence your wellbeing and perhaps even change your brain architecture: for example, the brain regions associated with emotion regulation, memory and learning and perspective-taking. You aren’t stuck with your ‘factory settings’; you can train a more mindful awareness.
As science starts to understand how mindfulness affects the brain, you can become a scientist in the laboratory of your own mind. You can become your own researcher – not to ‘navel-gaze’, but to understand the workings of your own mind and the way you interact with the world.
The Centre for Mindfulness Research and Practice at Bangor University in Wales offers free guided meditations to listen to, including those focusing on the breath, the body, walking and movement.
The Mindfulness Centre at Brown University in Rhode Island offers online mindfulness sessions as well as a range of other courses and resources.
The Mindful Directory website has an international Find a Mindfulness Professional directory where you can find mindfulness teachers; these guidelines might be helpful if you are looking to learn via this method.
The US-based nonprofit behind the Mindful Directory also provides a list of free mindfulness apps, for example Plum Village, which is a free app from the monastic community in France founded by the Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay).
Meanwhile, the Headspace app is a good paid option; a free trial is available before subscription charges begin.