How to cultivate mindfulness
Mindfulness expert Jon Kabat-Zinn says that mindfulness is the hardest work in the world but also the most important. It’s about being present for our lives rather than watching them slip away before our eyes, but it’s not something we should approach with fear and self-criticism:
“It is far too serious to take too seriously – and I say this in all seriousness! – if for no other reason than because it really is about our entire life. It makes sense for a lightness of being and playfulness to be key elements of the practice of mindfulness, because they are key elements of well-being,” he writes.
So let’s have some fun as we learn to become more mindful this week. Below, you’ll have the opportunity to choose one of four mindfulness practices: meditation, mindful eating, STOP, or RAIN.
How mindful are you?
How do we know if we’re being mindful or not? Self improvement examples often involve paying attention to our attention, focus, and judgments. Right now, the main way that scientists measure mindfulness is by asking us a variety of questions about our attention, focus, and judgments. As the science evolves, we may see more and different ways to measure mindfulness, like ratings by third parties or activity in the brain.
Try one of these quizzes to test your mindfulness:
- The Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire: This questionnaire gives you an overall mindfulness score as well as scores for observation, describing, acting with awareness, nonjudgment, and nonreactivity.
- The Greater Good Science Center’s Mindfulness Quiz: This quiz tells you how well you fare on dimensions of awareness and acceptance.
- The Mindful Attention Awareness Scale: The simplest of the bunch, this test will give you a general idea of whether you’re more or less mindful.
Mindfulness vs. meditation
Mindfulness may be synonymous with meditation in your mind, but meditation is only one way of being mindful. Mindfulness is something you can do throughout the day, while you’re working or exercising or eating. Meditation is just a popular way to help cultivate more mindfulness.
“Meditation is a tool to achieve post-meditative mindfulness,” writes Harvard professor Ellen Langer. Ideally, as you practice meditation regularly, you’ll find yourself being more mindful, aware, and focused throughout the day.
There are many different types of mindfulness techniques, including breathing, sitting, and walking meditations; loving-kindness meditation; the body scan; and yoga. During meditation, you often have an anchor or focus, whether it’s the breath, sounds, an image, a candle flame, a body part, or a mantra.
6 types of meditation
Meditation only takes a few minutes a day, but it’s not easy. One study found that people prefer to get an electric shock rather than be alone with their thoughts – ouch.
If you’ve never meditated before, start simple with 5 minutes a day. If you’re an intermediate, maybe try 10-20 minutes. Advanced meditators might even find themselves meditating for up to an hour.
With so many types of meditation, you may find that some are more doable than others. If you have trouble, commit to trying a few and not giving up if you start longing for that electric shock. It may take time, but the benefits – which we’ll discuss next week – can be life-changing.
To try the meditations below, find a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed and sit on a chair or cushion, eyes closed (or gently open and looking downward):
- Breathing meditation: Focus on the feeling of the breath going in and out of your body. You may even count the breaths if you want, from 1-10 and then starting again. If thoughts or feelings come up, notice them and gently return to the breath. For a simple breathing meditation, try this one from UCLA’s Mindfulness Awareness Research Center (5 minutes) or Headspace.com’s Take 10 (which also includes a body scan component; 10 minutes*).
- Body scan meditation: Start at your head or your feet and scan through your body, being aware of how each part feels – from your nose and chin to your fingers and ankles. For a simple body scan meditation, try Calm.com (2-10 minutes) or Headspace.com’s Take 10 (which also includes a breathing component; 10 minutes*)
- Walking meditation: Focus on how walking feels: the pressure on each foot, the transfer of weight from one leg to another, the tensing in your calf muscles. You might try walking in slow motion so it’s easier to distinguish each sensation. You can walk back and forth over a short distance, or do this on a regular walk. If your thoughts wander, return to the physical sensations of walking. You can learn the technique here.
- Lovingkindness meditation: In this meditation, you begin by calling up the warm feelings you have toward another person – a spouse or child, for example – and then gradually extending those feelings to yourself, to strangers, and to all beings. Try this one from UCLA’s Mindfulness Awareness Research Center (9 minutes) or this one from New Mindful Life (12 minutes, only extending feelings to the self).
- Hearing meditation: In this meditation, you stay aware of the sounds around you, letting them wash over your ears without naming or judging any particular one. Find one here by Mirabai Bush (10 minutes).
- Pure awareness meditation: Advanced meditators might like to try this meditation, where you don’t focus on anything in particular – not even the breath. Notice and let go of whatever comes into your mind. You can learn the technique here.
(*Headspace.com has a handful of free meditations, as well as a subscription program that gives you access to 20-minute meditations for stress, health, love, creativity, and more. These are primarily breathing meditations but also include body scan, visualization, and sound awareness. Highly recommended!)
Outside of meditation, mindfulness is something you can apply to any aspect of your life. To make it a habit, it helps to pick something that you do every day and try to do it a bit more mindfully. Eating is a great candidate.
We often eat food automatically, not pausing to taste or savor it, eating too much because we don’t realize we’re full, or feeling disappointed that a great meal is over. Instead, try to eat breakfast mindfully each day this month. Before you even take a bite, take a look at your food – what do you see and smell? Colors, steam, motion? Can you feel your mouth watering, anticipating the first bite? As you take each bite, feel the texture in your mouth and the taste of each ingredient. Is it cool or hot? Strong or subtle? Continue to be mindful as you take another bite.
This video by the Mindfulness Clinic shows you how to eat mindfully, using the example of an orange:
You can pick a different meal, or a different activity altogether, but mindful breakfast is a great place to start.
STOP throughout the day
One of the most famous mindfulness programs is the eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), developed by Kabat-Zinn in 1979 at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. MBSR has a practice called STOP, a quick check-in to halt the frantic flow of your day and inject a bit of mindfulness. It goes something like this:
- S: Stop whatever you’re doing now.
- T: Take a breath and reconnect to the body.
- O: Observe what’s happening now in your body, what thoughts and feelings you’re having, what sounds you hear around you.
- P: Proceed with what you were doing.
In MBSR, participants are encouraged to stop multiple times throughout the day. For this month, start with once a day – maybe set your phone alarm for 3:30 pm and bring a bit more awareness to a mind-numbing afternoon. You might feel more alert, alive, and present for the rest of the day.
Author Elisha Goldstein explains the practice and guides you through it in this video:
If you don’t like the idea of setting an alarm, you can take a cue from the Happiness Project’s Gretchen Rubin. She reminds herself to take these little moments of mindfulness with sticky notes that say “quiet mind” or “enthusiastic,” depending on which room they’re in and what her intention is in that room. You can try something similar.
If you struggle with lots of negative emotions, RAIN might be a good way to inject mindfulness into your experience throughout the day. Similar to STOP, RAIN is a Buddhist practice that can help create some distance and calm in the face of unwanted feelings:
- R: Recognize what is going on.
- A: Accept it as it is. We often have the tendency to fight it, make it go away, or ignore it.
- I: Investigate the physical sensations, thoughts, and feelings. Investigation is not analysis, not figuring out why this is going on. It’s more like the observation in STOP.
- N: Non-identification. This process as a whole should bring you some distance from whatever is going on, an understanding that you are more than this single feeling or experience.
Christiane Wolf, who teaches mindfulness to veterans, explains RAIN in this video:
As you go about your day trying to cultivate mindfulness, follow these tips to help you be more accepting and stop creating suffering for yourself:
- Recognize that things are okay. Often, we suffer because we’re reliving trauma from the past or imagining a horrific future. Authors Susan Smalley and Diana Winston encourage you to pause for a moment and notice that, in this instant, you’re okay. “Stop right now, take a breath, and pay close attention to the present. Exactly in this moment, are things, for the most part, okay? The future has not happened, the past is over, and right now, well, it just is,” they write in Fully Present.
- Notice things changing. Buddhists call this impermanence: the fact that nothing is eternal and everything is in motion, ebbing and flowing, coming and going. This can be particularly helpful in the case of emotions. We might see ourselves as an “anxious person” or a “depressed person,” but noticing the moments when those feelings subside – when we feel relaxed or happy – can change our self-image.
- Don’t believe everything you think. Thoughts are thoughts, not unbiased revelations of reality from on high. Sometimes they’re wrong, often they’re detrimental, and the key is to create a bit of distance. Label something as an “angry thought” or a “worried thought.”
- Make friends with the observer in your head. It’s an odd question, but Kabat-Zinn asks people: is the part of you that’s observing your anxiety anxious? Is the part of you that’s observing your fear afraid? As strange as it may sound, in those moments when it’s easy to get caught up in an emotion, we can side with the observer instead – who is much calmer. Perhaps that’s what Buddhists mean when they say that calm is always within us. If this doesn’t make sense now, try it the next time you’re suffering.
- Drop the narrative. In other words, don’t turn one bad event into a whole story about how your life is going down the drain. Remember in our optimism month, when we talked about pessimistic explanations of events? Pessimists stub their toe and it becomes evidence of their utter incompetence at life. That’s the kind of narrative you want to avoid – instead, feel the pain in your toe and hobble along.
Choose a mindfulness practice
Now it’s time for you to have that indescribable experience of mindfulness for yourself. Pick one of the four options below to try in March:
- Meditation: Choose one of the meditation types above, and commit to meditating for 5-20 minutes every day. Pick a time of day when you feel alert, and try to stick to that time.
- Mindful eating: Pick one meal of the day, preferably when you’re alone and don’t have to make conversation, and try to eat mindfully. It might help to set an alarm to remind you.
- STOP: Pick a time each day to STOP, and set an alarm or put up a sticky note. This one can easily be done multiple times a day, if you’re so inclined.
- RAIN: Try to go through the RAIN process whenever a strong feeling comes up and you feel yourself getting pulled into it or trying to fight it.