Being a beginner in mindfulness is hard – because you’ve no idea what to aim for. It is a personal journey and it is hard to imitate someone, which is how we normally learn.
Many take up mindfulness to relax, to not judge one self as harshly or to get rid of some anxiety. It can be a double edged sword: if you are used to judging and getting anxious we will do so indiscriminately, even in relation to mindfulness. “It’s not working for me”, “Why can’t I do this right”, “I am never going to feel better”… This can be very upsetting. Here you are trying this wishy washy new age thing, feeling like a fool – and it’s making things worse.
In reality, it is about managing your expectations. It’s like doing a burpee, or learning to drive – entirely counterintuitive at the start, but also entirely achievable and useful. The first rule is to just show up. Don’t set a crazy standard like: I will get up earlier and meditate for 20 minutes every morning and 20 minutes right before bed. Start with 5 minutes a session. It’s much more achievable. Developing new habits is all about the small wins that allow you to build momentum.
The goal isn’t to sit there for 5 minutes with absolutely no thoughts. The goal is to bounce back from any thoughts as soon as they show up. Yes, that sounds strange, but it really is the truth. Your experience can be serene and enjoyable or it can be like a game of whack-a-mole. Both are entirely legitimate and valuable. Why? Because you are training that same pathway of staying centred on one thing.
It’s like going to the gym. Some days you feel like you have killed it, you’ve done your new personal record in 2 different things, you feel unstoppable. Other days, for no apparent reason at all, it feels like you’re hungover and your whole body seems to be resisting the gym session. While the first one feels like winning, it is probably facilitated by the second. The good days are made possible by the struggle of the tough days. And how do you feel at the end of a tough session on a tough day: kind of not great, but also kind of proud for showing up. That’s exactly how you should approach the whack-a-mole days in mindfulness practice.
So what does it actually feel like to do mindfulness? There’s nothing esoteric: you can hear the noises around you, smell the smells. You don’t levitate or enter parallel universes.
It is something like this:
- make a conscious effort to take a deep breath and feel it
- focus on feeling it wherever you feel it most: maybe in your chest or in your nostrils
- now the game of whack-a-mole begins: you hear some harmless noise – a car door closing in the distance
- you consciously acknowledge that this is a noise and rather than going down the rabbit hole of wondering who it is that’s getting into the car, where they are going and where you should be going – and God know what else – you say to yourself: back to the breath
- phew, breathing again and focusing on it
- now a memory comes in
- you consciously acknowledge the memory. You try really hard to not concentrate on it, but it just seems to unfold and carry you with it. You feel tempted to relive the memory. You even feel like it could be a better use of time to think about that memory. However, you remind yourself that you made a commitment to focus on your breath for 5 minutes. After all, you can always come back to that memory after the 5 minutes are done. You direct everything you’ve got to the breath and the memory fades
- again, you’re breathing and focusing on the sensation in your nostrils. All is going well
- until you suddenly find yourself amid your to-do list. You didn’t even notice how it snuck up on you and now you are figuring out whether it is best to collect the kids first and then go to pick up the new photographs, or do it in reverse. You may feel kind of disappointed that you’ve been duped by your own mind – here you are trying to do mindfulness and drawing a to-do list instead without knowing it. You may be even judging yourself for not being strong enough to sustain the focus. Still, you find the perseverance to go back to the breath
- and just as you are calmly resting in a state of awareness, your chime goes off – it’s been 5 minutes already
There are plenty of reasons to give out to yourself for not being perfect. The point is though that mindfulness is like an audit: it shows you how well you are able to focus. I guess it’s better than an audit because it teaches you to focus better. But the point remains. Even if you become frustrated with mindfulness and just go on about your daily life without practicing mindfulness, all of these processes that you were able to observe insightfully will continue. Mindfulness is our chance to get insight and make change. To diagnose and treat. To strengthen to the good habits and weaken the bad ones. It gets better over time, or rather – you get better over time with practice. The trick is to acknowledge reality before judging. There is this expression in psychology: the tyranny of the shoulds. It really is a tyranny. It doesn’t mean that you can’t set goals and aspire to be better. It means that you need to take stock of what’s going on before you decide what you should do. Observe what happens while you are practicing mindfulness, acknowledge it – and work to change it if that’s what you want. Judging as a first step only clouds our ability to think clearly. In order to change something, to learn something or to get better, we need to first acknowledge our realities.