Mindfulness for Beginners: Easy Practices to Cultivate Calm and Focus

Mindfulness for Beginners: Easy Practices to Cultivate Calm and Focus

1. Introduction to Mindfulness

The great thing about mindfulness practices is that you actually have to do them and can experience the benefits for yourself, so I'm going to take you through three simple mindfulness practices. The first is a breathing space. When you find yourself under a lot of pressure, stressed out, and in an argument with someone, it's just a quick way of separating yourself from the situation. There is a tea or coffee break. This is a way of taking one step towards the life that is worth living, taking some time out for yourself. Then there is the alternation of breath. When you find yourself distracted by thoughts, you can use your breath to remind yourself they're there and bring them back into the present moment.

It's really worth taking the time to learn mindfulness. People tell me that they have begun to sleep better and are generally less anxious and more relaxed. As well as these small changes, I just think it is better to go through life being aware of what is happening in and around you. There is something beautiful about that and you experience moments more fully. People say that they feel much calmer and have a sense of being more present. It is present which comes with a certain amount of kindness and acceptance.

1.1. What is Mindfulness?

The concept of mindfulness is popular in the scientific literature, yet there does not exist, however, universal agreement upon the underlying task definitions and mechanisms. The most popular concept of mindfulness is derived from contemplative literature and equates mindfulness with the focused awareness of whatever is being experienced in physical, mental and emotional domains. This is represented by a task definition of mindfulness reflecting 'non-to-those observation of the ongoing stream of experiences - including bodily sensations, feelings, thoughts, perceptions, and consciousness itself'. In other words, when a person is engaged in this mode of mindfulness they are attending to and aware of whatever is happening, as it happens. It is also argued that this state of consciousness develops awareness through increased attention and, via this route, leads to changes in knowledge and skill of an object or task in focus.

I had recently been reading about mindfulness in management literature, where it was defined as conscious awareness of the present moment, and began to wonder whether this sense of conscious awareness, or state of mindfulness, could be cultivated more generally in a person or business. If so, might higher states of mindfulness be beneficial for an individual or an organization in terms of increased decision-making performance and reduced stress or illness? Recent theoretical and empirical investigations led to increased state of mindfulness resulting positive implications for improving the performance of management decision-making teams. More theoretical and empirical work on the possible implications of a mindful 'state' for individuals and teams in the workplace is clearly required, and I was intrigued.

1.2. Benefits of Practicing Mindfulness

2) A better understanding of oneself in the realization of one's goals. Mindfulness increases our capacity for self-awareness, which leads to a greater understanding of ourselves through the gradual glimpse of deeper and deeper layers of our psyche. This can lead us to redefine our potential, our skills, our motivations, and our values, and to make choices that are not only aimed at the external dimensions of our life but also in tune with our inner world. The self-awareness that is created helps us follow the path that corresponds to our essence and our needs and to turn on the personal power that is necessary.

1) Greater ease in managing the ups and downs of life. Mindfulness helps to train our stability, which allows us to better manage unexpected changes and to go through painful events or troubles with calm strength. We can maintain a positive and compassionate attitude towards life and refrain from pessimistic or negative thoughts and images. Consequently, we can avoid anger and anguish and develop self-confidence and emotional serenity. All these improvements lead to better inner well-being and a better quality of life.

2. Getting Started with Mindfulness

The vast spectrum of mindfulness practices has Buddhist and Vedic roots dating back thousands of years. You may be surprised to learn that virtually all cultures and religions have their own form of mindfulness practice, including Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Hindus. Mindfulness practices have held up to the test of time and now are taught by universities, mental health professionals, medical doctors, corporate leaders, celebrities such as Oprah and LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner, and successful coaches, including Phil Jackson, who used it to guide the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers to eleven NBA championships. Mindfulness fits the experience of these different practices. It is easy to learn and can be practiced at any place, any time.

Have you ever found yourself frantically checking email, running from one task to the next, ruminating about the past, or even preoccupied with the to-do list while clutching a coffee cup at your desk? We each spend so much time lost in rumination, unable to get our mental wheels unstuck from dwelling on the past or worrying about the future. In the words of Mark Twain, "I have been through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened." This habit of fretting about negative what-ifs creates stress. Practicing mindfulness enables us to live in the moment and focus on the present. It can help us gain insight into our thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations rather than being ruled by them.

2.1. Setting Up Your Practice Space

Don't get too fussy. Your practice space does not need to be picture-perfect or exactly the way someone else's is. What works for you is the main goal. If you find the gentle humming of a small fan comforting, place a fan nearby. If the scent of burning incense is appealing, then burn a small amount. If you like to hear a click-clacking sound to keep you focused, arrange a beautiful sounding wrist mala bracelet nearby. Remember, your surroundings are meant to help anchor you in mindfulness, not distract you. Feel free to experiment a bit as you go.

Set up a formal practice space. It is important to find a quiet, comfortable place in your home where you can keep your cushion or chair all the time without needing to set it up and put it away. When you are beginning your practice, you may have to fit it in between errands and chores, but over time it will become a special place solely for your practice.

2.2. Breathing Techniques

One of the most powerful but often unacknowledged tools available to help break the cycle of stress and distraction is also one of the most basic tools we have - our breath. Using our breath to anchor our thoughts in the present moment is wonderful as well as easy. And if practiced regularly, it not only helps with staying present, but also helps reduce stress and improve our mental and physical well-being. Thus, whenever you start to feel tense, worried, or find yourself carried away by your thoughts, gently bring your attention back to your breath.

Breathe in for four counts, hold your breath for another four counts - and then exhale fully for four counts. This practice activates your parasympathetic nervous system, essentially telling your body that you are safe and there is no reason to panic. It's the perfect antidote to everyday worries, a jolt of sleep-inducing goodness to your brain, or simply your first step toward mindfulness training. Our breath is always with us - all it takes is a moment to return to it.

3. Mindful Activities for Everyday Life

In these simple activities, you can engage thoughts as well. As a kind of nervous thinking, memories seem to come up automatically, "streaming" in as the day unfolds, "talking to yourself" as you devise inner plans. When you focus on what you are doing, "thinking" recedes to the background. Senses and thoughts both temporarily let go of their hold on each other. These activities are divided life in the same way that update moments are divided formal meditation. When we're noting our everyday experiences, who cares if we're doing it while also rehearsing a song inside our head? When you're flossing and starting a daydream, note daydreaming, not "stir." Let go of the daydream and return to the feeling of flossing. This keeps track of your conscious thoughts, and sometimes clears and occasionally resets it to keep your attention on the updated moment.

Since you do many of these activities every day, you have an opportunity to develop your understanding of mindfulness through them as well. This is a way to use things you already do as an anchor for being more present to what is happening now. Instead of feeling bored when you're washing dishes, think of boredom as a sign that you aren't fully using your senses or starting to fret over what you will do next. Let this be your reminder to bring a fuller awareness to the task at hand. This makes almost anything we do neutralize our nervous thoughts almost immediately.

3.1. Eating Mindfully

After the initial pause, begin your meal—paying attention primarily to the act of eating, but also to the appearance of the food and its smell. You can chew, swallow, and attend to all of the motions of eating. While you eat—like everyone—your mind will wander. When it wanders, notice where it goes, then bring it back to eating. Once in a while, see if you can realize who it is that's eating.

Then, for a moment, try to appreciate the beauty of what you have in front of you—what you are about to eat. The things you eat come from the earth, which is one reason it helps to think for a moment about what you are eating. The second reason to think about it is to appreciate what you go through every day just to survive. You need only to see and appreciate.

With the television turned off and the book you were reading closed, take two minutes before you start to eat to focus your attention. As you start, look at the food and actually see it. See the color, shape, and size of each piece, and notice the texture.

Another simple practice: Try eating just one meal each day in mindfulness. No meditation session is required; in fact, it's best to eat someplace other than where you usually sit or lie down to meditate. As often as you can, prepare the meal and eat it alone. Don't do anything else at the same time, including reading, watching TV, or talking.

3.2. Mindful Walking

Like a mirror, the left foot and left arm should also walk together and work in the same fashion. Step by step, notice the feeling of the earth beneath your feet, guided by your breath, the environment, the world around you. And when you feel ready, take a big stretch and turn around to take your time and be part of the world.

Stand up, close your eyes, and take a few moments to check in with your body and mind before you start. Feel your feet against the ground, your legs supporting you, and the rest of your body rising up from there. When you're ready, open your eyes. Feet parallel, toes slightly turned in. Lift your right heel off the ground first, breathing out, lift your left heel off the ground, breathing in. Lift your right toe up as you breathe out, bring your left foot back and breathe in. Once you have tried this, maintain hip-width distance between your feet. Walk with the right foot first, take a step, and as the right foot touches the ground, the right arm swings back. Hike the right hip back a little each time (if you want, you can fold the right leg and place it on a step stool).

4. Overcoming Common Challenges

Research by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the start of formal mindfulness in a clinical setting identified many areas of common experience. Furthermore, through extensive use with tens of thousands of patients, this approach also helped identify a number of responses that seemed to help neutralize these difficulties. What follows is an overview of many of these and some of the most common things that you can try out for yourself to see if they help you. If you are going to have a successful mindful practice and derive the benefits from this point of view, it is generally useful to have experienced practice free of significant discomfort or aversive content. Also bear in mind that your response to any given difficulty may change over time as your practice develops. Therefore, it is helpful to periodically review where you are at and renew your responses. You may also find out that as you experience more and more of the territory and are comfortable enough in your practice, these responses start to become wise-based actions instead of mere techniques. It is perhaps useful to remember that wisdom begins where cleverness ends. Mindfulness is really about an engagement with what is here for you moment to moment. It takes time and the juxtaposition of the new experience with ongoing practice. On the next page is a list of some of the most common places where practice seems to move forward for people at the end of the common challenges. Not every problem that arises for you will be listed there, but hopefully you will receive the essential oversight to put in perspective what is occurring for you in your meditation.

As I mentioned earlier, many people come with a variety of preconceived expectations about what they should be experiencing in mindfulness. Often these expectations get in the way of the practice evolving for them. This is why I try to stress that there are as many experiences of mindfulness as there are people who practice it, and that most of what is learned comes from direct experience. Not a small part of this is learning where the rough spots are and seeing what works best for you to address these areas. Of course, it is a dense situation that doesn't hold some hidden wisdom inside, and one thing I have discovered on my travels is that many of the most important things are also the most simple.

4.1. Dealing with Distractions

Most of us identify ourselves with our thoughts. It's a primary difference between the experience of being lost in thought and a more focused state of mind. Cultivating a "mindful observer" is simply a matter of getting a little distance from whatever you're thinking about or feeling. It inspires a different relationship with thoughts. Mindfulness is an expression of our freedom, free to choose a particular focus (as we do in meditation) or to let the mind out of its cage, to let it think thoughts we actually find pleasant, soothing, calming, intriguing or energizing.

Given that we're lost in mind wandering away from the breath a substantial part of the time, it sure does seem like the mind just wants to think about anything but the task at hand. So let's talk about mind wandering. What is it, really? And what's to be done about it?

One of the questions I'm asked most by students is how to deal with physical discomfort. The other is, "What do I do about distracting thoughts?"

4.2. Maintaining Consistency

Just as the first step of doing several minutes of heart-pumping exercises relaxes muscles and relaxes the mind and the body and makes necessary the deep relaxation of Yoga Nidra, also the practice of either Yoga Nidra or deep meditation also makes necessary the continuation of efforts of that state into our everyday awareness during activity. But this is not meant to infer that if we want to learn French we must speak it as well as study it and listen to it being spoken to lie immersed in it for continuous hours at a time. The best method of learning the language is to create the first communion with Bliss or the state of Self-realization and of feeling the way into the new perspectives.

The ultimate key to a successful meditation practice is constancy. Indulgence in deep periods of transcendental consciousness is conducive to maintaining unbroken progress, no doubt, but equally important is for the practice of mindfulness to flow from it. It must be remembered at all times that the aim of such deep periods of meditation is to cleanse the deep unconscious, and after sufficiently repeated flushing or scouring to keep the flow unsullied and propitious for repeating and amplifying the blissful experiences – and their reaction. It is as if one were to dig and remove the obstructions obstructing the flow of a stream and direct its course to irrigate the fields.

5. Conclusion and Next Steps

If you're interested in personal growth or psychotherapy, mindfulness skills can facilitate insight into personal issues and promote healthy change in behaviors. If you have challenging mental health questions, mindfulness skills can facilitate a psychological acceptance of symptoms that reduces suffering and the degree to which they control you. For high levels of distress or very long-standing problems, professional support is usually recommended. Because of the influence of formal mindfulness practices on my life, I have studied further and brought my practice to the level of Centering Prayer, which for me is a grounding practice that "involves less engagement with discursive thought and imagination, and a greater empowerment of the affective and contemplative dimensions of the person."

In time, as you develop your skills in mindfulness, you can apply these practices to longer durations of time, to your physical activity and even to your speech. Until you feel you need to practice more formally, consider planting reminders of mindful presence throughout your day. Some people use soft, ambient music as a signal to come back to their immediate experience. Others tie strings around their fingers or use Post-It notes placed in strategic locations. At work, practicing my mindful presence in conversation has helped me to be more in touch with my sensitivity and insight.

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