Mindfulness is a paradox. It’s the easiest thing in the world and the hardest thing in the world. Let me explain.
Look at your right hand. See the shades of color in your skin? Notice the lines on your palm and the lines that separate the segments of your fingers? Easy to see, right? You just brought mindfulness to your right hand in this moment.
Now, consider the task of facing your deepest grief and sorrow. Or reflect on how it might be for you to bring your attention to extreme physical pain, hour after hour. Much more difficult to bring your curious and open mindfulness to deep and real suffering, isn’t it?
But, you can cultivate your mindfulness. Here are 5 tips to find success with your mindfulness practice, whether you are new to mindfulness or someone who has been experiencing some hiccups in your practice.
Tip #1: Start with the easy stuff.
In order to boost your motivation and self-efficacy, build your mindfulness “muscle” by more closely sensing the natural warmth in your chest, the coolness of one sip of water, and the weight of your left foot when you take a step. At your next meal, pay attention to the flavors of not only your first few bites (the easiest parts of a meal to be mindful of) but several bites later.
Tip #2: Don’t meditate for 1 hour a day.
The traditional meditation lore has sometimes implored people to commit to 45 minutes to 1 hour of mindful sitting per day. This is wonderful for those who have high self-regulation and prudence, but as these are the least common character strengths around the globe, many people are excluded. There are now a large number of studies that show people benefit from brief mindfulness practices. And, neuroscience is revealing that brief meditation practice can cause important changes in our brains.
In terms of time, there is no magic number. Instead, start with what you are willing to do to establish a routine — perhaps 5 minutes a day? Carve out the time, no matter how little, by linking it with something that will help you remember to do it — with a meal, as you get out of bed each morning, or before you start your car. Be consistent.
Tip #3: Practice ANY type of mindfulness you wish.
Go where your motivation is highest. I once created a regular mindfulness practice out of watching one of my sons play in the sandbox. Every day after he came home from school, we would go outside. He would sit in the sandbox and play and I would sit in a chair, alongside of him, quietly following my breathing and giving him undivided mindful attention. Actually, playing in a sandbox has been shown to be very hypnotic and absorbing in itself so perhaps my son was meditating while I was mindfully meditating as well!
The point here is don’t feel your practice MUST be a sitting meditation. Remember that the word “mindful” is an adverb that can describe any action you are taking. What are you most motivated to make a regular habit? Mindful walking each morning? Mindful eating of a snack in the evening? Or, mindful breathing outside as you overlook your backyard? Follow your motivation. But, do make note that there is a big difference between “going for a walk” and “mindful walking.”
Tip #4: Forgive yourself, repeatedly.
There’s a lot to be said about being compassionate and forgiving with yourself, especially when it comes to building in a new self-care practice like mindfulness. And, researchers in self-compassion have been having a field-day around the many benefits that come from self-compassion. Here’s the gist of it applied here:
- When you forget to practice, forgive yourself.
- When you get lost in busy-ness, forgive yourself.
- When you are inconsistent with your daily practice, forgive yourself.
- When your mind wanders incessantly, forgive yourself.
- Spend MORE time thinking about what you did do than ruminating about what you didn’t do.
Tip #5: Use your natural energy sources.
When difficulties arise in your mindfulness practice, why not see them as par for the course? Since every person experiencing obstacles to meditation, why not view these as normal? Might you see them as opportunities to learn and grow from?
Your highest strengths of character (called “signature strengths” by scientists) are likely to be your best and most energizing parts of you. Why not use these to your advantage?
Whatever character strength you are high in, consider how you can use it to overcome what is getting in your way. For example, use your strength in gratitude when your mind starts to wander a lot (expressing gratitude that you have a mind and that you’re able to be aware when it wanders off!) Use your prudence strength to plan out a schedule. Use your humility when discomfort arises in your body and curiosity when your mind continues to wrap around a worry. Here’s an article offering examples for each of the 24 strengths and how you can bring them to your mindfulness practice ("24 ways to make mindfulness stickier").
Niemiec, R. M. (2014). Mindfulness and character strengths: A practical guide to flourishing. Cambridge, MA: Hogrefe.