Mindfulness Reality Check; eight tips, one warning and one booster

Reality Check on Mindfulness


I was delighted to do a guest podcast with Wendy Haylett on her new series Everyday Buddhism, already top-ranked in iTunes. You can listen to the podcast, Episode 8 in the series, here. These Reality Check tips are a summary of  how to bring mindfulness into your everyday life

Mindfulness has become mainstream, encouraged by companies such as Google and athletes such as Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant.  But it can still be confusing or unreachable for some who try to begin or sustain a mindfulness practice. By setting realistic expectations and knowing what to expect, you’ll be able to turn your good intentions into a sustainable practice, which can slowly but surely transform your life.

As an Executive Coach and Mindfulness Coach,here are the top FAQ’s I get on mindfulness. Use these as a mindfulness reality check to avoid misconceptions and confusions, enabling you to take mindfulness from an interesting theory to a powerful, doable core skill in your life.

Mindfulness Reality Check #1: What is mindfulness … really?

Mindfulness means learning to pay attention to what’s happening in the present moment in the mind, body and external environment, with an attitude of curiosity and kindness. It sounds simple, doesn’t it? At later stages, it is. But at first, it may not be easy. In my experience, and that of many mindfulness teachers, about one in ten people who takes a mindfulness course continues practicing on a regular basis.

Mindfulness often gets compared to exercise. With physical exercise, you do specific workouts so that you can be more fit throughout the rest of your day. With mindfulness, you do specific practices to improve your muscles of attention, transform your mental health, by tapping into a resource you didn’t know you had.

Like any exercise, you need to learn certain techniques and practice them consistently over time.

Mindfulness is a skill you build, not a pill you swallow.Click To Tweet

Mindfulness Reality Check #2: Am I doing it right?

Now you know it’s a skill you practice, you want to do it right. Right?

There are many mindfulness practices that help you build your attentional muscles. Most have a core instruction set, such as, “Direct your attention to xxx [Called ‘the object of meditation, this could be your breath, your body sensations, etc.] Whenever you notice that your attention has wandered away from this, gently bring it back.

You are doing the practice correctly if you are following the instructions to the best of your ability.

Following the instructions correctly doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re good at it yet, or that you have amazing outcomes. When you first go to the gym, you might lift a 5 lb weight, not 20 lb. When you first practice mindfulness, your attentional muscles are still wobbly. With persistent practice you will get better.

Don’t confuse the practice of mindfulness with its outcomes.Click To Tweet

Mindfulness Reality Check #3: I can’t find the time

Everyone is busy and has multiple demands on their time, so finding room for one more item in your to-do list can be a real challenge. If you think you need long stretches of time in a quiet environment to practice, then maybe you can’t find that kind of time. But if you know how to work smart throughout the day, then I guarantee you can find 30 minutes a day—easily!

The key is to mindfulness practice is to integrate it throughout your day, from the get-go.Click To Tweet

Again, exercise provide a good analogy. You might have a short workout routine in the morning or evening, and you add to this by doing little things extra during the day, like climbing the stairs rather than taking the elevator, or parking a little further away from the mall entrance than usual.

A robust mindfulness practice is multi-faceted, including at least three components

  • practice in stillness (at least 10 minutes, on a chair or cushion)
  • practice in motion (e.g. during exercise, walking or eating)
  • mindful moments interspersed during your day (e.g. just before a difficult meeting).

Mindfulness Reality Check #4: I can’t stop my thoughts

“I can’t meditate because I can’t stop my thoughts” is probably the #1 complaint I hear. There are at least three reasons you shouldn’t let this put you off.

  1. If you think the goal of meditation is to have a blank mind, then see #1 above. The purpose is to develop your attentional muscles, so that you can optimize all of your life. Part of developing this attentional capacity means becoming aware of your thoughts. [After much practice, you may experience inner quiet in the mind, but don’t expect this right away.]
  2. You may accept that awareness of your thinking is normal, but you find it annoying. The thinking you are experiencing comes from the part of your brain that is active when you are not intentionally thinking about anything in particular. Called the default mode network, (I like the term default attentional network, or “DAN” for short), this is like a default setting humming along quietly in the background.Studies have shown that DAN is typically associated with being less happy, ruminating or worrying about the past or future. So, every time you become aware of thinking or rumination and re-direct your attention elsewhere, be happy that you are loosening the unconscious grip of DAN!
  3. You find that the stream of thinking so strong and constant that it’s really difficult to focus as you intended. No problem! Pick another object of focus. For example, in the Focus In technique (chapter 8 of Mind Your Life)thinking is not a distraction but the very object of your focus.

Mindfulness Reality Check #5: I feel uncomfortable, restless or agitated

You take up mindfulness practice hoping to become more calm or relaxed, less irritable and stressed out. If during practice your body feels uncomfortable or fidgety, you may take it as a bad sign. If so, you would be wrong. In physical exercise, you would expect to feel the effects of a good workout. The same can occur in the mental-emotional exercise called mindfulness practice.

If you are feeling uncomfortable, restless or agitated during practice, it can mean any of:

  • Your body may not be used to sitting up straight. Get as comfortable as possible (on a chair or cushion), learn about correct posture, and with practice your body will adapt and become stronger.
  • Your body may not like being still. There are many ways to practice mindfulness, both sitting still and in motion (see #2). My book Mind Your Lifeincludes practices like Focus Out that you can implement during your commute, walking the dog or with the kids. To enjoy your practice, customize it to suit your style, schedule and personal demands.
  • Your body is releasing stored stresses. This happened to me when I first started meditating. I had an ‘itchy-crawly, ants-in-the-pants’ feeling for several months. Physical and emotional stresses that have been long stored in the body have a chance to release naturally during the relative calm of mindfulness practice. This is a natural if sometimes uncomfortable healing process. You can take it as a sign of progress and trust that it will eventually go away. (Learn more about kriya’s and agitation here.

Mindfulness Reality Check #6: How do I know if it’s working?

Intuitively, you might assess whether mindfulness is working by the experiences you have while practicing. You might think a calm, relaxed state means you are doing it right, while a fidgety body and busy mind means you are doing it wrong. I want to warn you right now: Don’t go there! You judge the efficacy of mindfulness NOT by your immediate experiences but by the long-term effects in your life. It takes time to build a skill, so it will take some time (say a few months) for the impact to show up in your life.

You know your practice is working when you behave, think or feel that you previously could not haveClick To Tweet. (One recent client found he could say No at work, staying firm but remaining friendly and connected to colleagues. A friend found she could handle the other hockey moms-and-dads’ way better than before!)

Over the longer term, you can expect positive changes in one or more of;

  • more effective functioning in daily life
  • general relief in personal suffering
  • a general increase in personal fulfillment
  • self-awareness, more aware of your hidden assumptions or blind spots.
  • more present, caring and connected with others

One general tip here. You will find that positive changes are like looking in the rear-view mirror. You notice the absence of a negative, more than the presence of a magical-wow positive.You become a slightly better version of yourself!

Mindfulness Reality Check #7: What about apps?

Many people ask me about the value of using apps. I think they are a great way to learn about mindfulness and develop a steady practice.

Apps are a great 21stcentury continuation of teaching and support techniques. There are lots to choose from, so compare and find out what works for you. I use the timer function on Insight Timer. My mother likes Buddhify. Brightmind gives detailed instruction based on the same Unified Mindfulness that I describe in my book, Mind Your Life.

But like training wheels on a bicycle, eventually you have to internalize the learning and practice on your own. If someone is yelling at you or cutting you off in traffic, you have to know what to do right then, not open up your app!

Mindfulness Reality Check #8: Do I need a teacher?

With great apps, inspiring books and online training, do you need a live human teacher? You can do a lot on your own, particularly if you’re a self-starter. Some people are motivated by the camaraderie of classes and personal touch of a teacher. But mindfulness can be a lonely business, in which it can be easy to kid yourself about progress.

At some point, your practice will definitely benefit from periodic check-ins with a qualified teacher. Find someone with appropriate credentials that you can relate to, and who can teach you methods, guide you in applications in your life and challenge you in your blind spots. (Full disclosure. I offer mindfulness coaching,from one-off consultations to teaching sessions. You can book a free 20-minute consultif you’re curious.)

One warning and one booster

WARNING: Mindfulness is a powerful. With regular practice, your brain will be re-wired and your life slowly transformed. But like anything powerful, it should come with risk warnings. Mindfulness  may not be suitable for everyone at every time. Psychologist colleagues of mine think that mindfulness may not be appropriate for those who are already psychologically vulnerable. New studies are documenting a range of challenging meditation experiences.  Meditation retreats are designed to be intensive experiences, which comes with their own risk. (See 7 points to check out before a meditation retreat.)

BOOSTER: My Executive Coaching clients may start their coaching program wanting tips and tricks to become more effective. Over time, they recognize that this involves behaviour change and mental-emotional change. This involves developing situational awareness, or situationally specific mindfulness;how they are perceived by others, their leadership presence, emotional triggers, assumptions that are no longer helpful, or ways of speaking that don’t communicate as intended.  You can boost your practice by applying your mindfulness skills to specific situations that trip you up, freak you out or are a low-grade but persistent annoyance. Oh yes, you can use mindfulness to boost your pleasures too!

I hope that these 8 Mindfulness Reality Checks will inspire you, guide you, ground you, and above all help you enjoy mindfulness. Because when you mind your life, life minds you back!


3 thoughts on “Mindfulness Reality Check; eight tips, one warning and one booster

  1. Hey, Meg. Just shared this and recommended the book to a friend asking me about meditation. Hope you’re well!

    1. Thanks for the recommendation Lee. Yes all well here – and I hope you too.

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