Your No-Nonsense Guide to Mindfulness

In a perfect world, we’d all be kind, caring, and live in the present. But it isn’t easy to accomplish.

Mindfulness is a concept that allows you to be aware and pay attention to what’s happening at the moment - without being judgemental. When people are mindful, they’re calm, focused, and their actions come from gut instinct rather than choice.

Mindfulness — both as meditation and a personal lifestyle — has multiple benefits for your health and peace of mind, including improved cognition, better sleep, lower stress, reduced anxiety and depression, and less implicit bias for decisions.

It’s clear that mindfulness is good for you. The question is how to make it part of your daily life. Let’s take a closer look.
What Exactly Is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness master and teacher Thich Nhat Hahn explains mindfulness using the metaphor of washing dishes. In his book The Miracle of Mindfulness, he points out that people don’t necessarily dislike the act of washing dishes. Taken on its own, it can be a pleasant experience.

The warm water feels nice. The process is calming and gratifying. When it’s over, you’ve done something for the people around you. There’s nothing inherently to dislike.

What people actually dislike is that while they’re washing dishes, they’re not doing something else. They’re missing out on after-dinner conversation, or they’re stressed about the tasks that must happen after the dishes are finished. As a result, they turn something enjoyable into something negative.

The core of mindfulness is focusing on what’s happening in the present, rather than splitting your attention. Meditation and prayer are forms of mindfulness meditation, but you can also practice mindfulness in every activity of your life.

Mindfulness Dos and Don’ts
1. DO Start Small

Mindfulness meditation is a good place to start because you train yourself to be mindful in small doses. No powerlifter started bench-pressing 500 pounds. They started small and increased the difficulty each day. Do the same with mindfulness.

Take a few minutes each day to practice mindfulness. Gradually increase it to 10 minutes. Then try two sessions a day, then three. Keep practicing and improving and expanding mindfulness into more moments of your life until you’re doing it unconsciously.

You can practice mindfulness at any time, such as waiting in the dentist’s office, jogging, driving your car, and talking with your children.

How to Start:

Focus on the process of showering instead of what’s on your plate for the rest of the day. Feel the temperature of the water on your skin. Smell the aroma of the soap. Enjoy the sound of the water falling.
Put your phone down during meals. Focus instead on the delicious food — its smell, taste, and texture — and interact with your loved ones.
2. DON’T Bring Any Expectations

This piece of advice applies in two areas. First, don’t come with expectations of what mindfulness will accomplish in your life. Yes, it will improve your mood, health, and relationships. But if you go into your sessions focused on that, then you’re not being mindful of the present.

Second, don’t enter into mindfulness with unrealistic expectations of yourself. Just let it happen, see it happen, and focus on what’s happening. Internal commentary on your performance is no more mindful than letting your mind drift to what you watched on Netflix last night.

How to Start:

When you “lose” mindfulness, don’t beat yourself up. Just notice it, refocus your attention, and move on.
Resist the temptation to track the benefits of mindfulness. Spend your energy on practice and let the results handle themselves.
3. DO Remember to Breathe

Breathing is essential to meditative practices, including mindfulness. It gives you something to focus your attention on whenever you’re having trouble. The rhythm of your breath is a constant metronome for your thoughts and body functions.

Breathing is an excellent way to bring yourself into a mindful state if your attention has wandered. Just count your breaths and feel your body respond.

How to Start:

Focus on your breathing when you have a free moment, like at a traffic light or waiting in line. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Notice the sensation of your lungs filling and emptying.
Try intentionally smiling as you breathe. You’ll be amazed by what this does for your mood.
4. DON’T Try Too Hard

Yoda was on to something when he said, “Do or do not; there is no try.” It’s no secret the Jedi philosophy drew heavily from Buddhism, a practice that includes deep mindfulness.

When you put too much effort into anything, your focus shifts from the task itself to the effort. You fixate on how hard the task is to complete or how well you’re doing it. Allow yourself to simply do the best you can at that moment, observing and accepting what’s happening.

How to Start:

When it occurs to you to practice mindfulness, do it right away, no matter what you’re doing at the time.
When mindfulness practice is too difficult, stop for the moment.
5. DO Move Around

You don’t have to practice mindfulness by sitting in a contorted position in an empty, silent room. You can practice mindfulness while taking a walk, playing a musical instrument, praying, dancing, eating, or talking with friends. The key is to do whatever you’re doing with full focus and consciousness.

In fact, the times your body is active but your mind wanders can be the best times to begin a mindfulness practice. That’s why so many martial arts use kata, the discipline of focusing only on the movement, as a meditative form. If you don’t practice martial arts, consider trying mindfulness during a routine chore, such as dusting.

How to Start:

Walk around the field at your kid’s sports practice instead of sitting still. Notice the sights, sounds, and smells of nature.
Practice mindfulness during your exercise sessions. Focus on each movement and how your body feels while doing it.
6. DON’T Wait for Perfect Conditions

Mindfulness is easier in a quiet room with a comfortable place to sit. But life doesn’t happen in perfect circumstances, so don’t limit this life-improving practice to ideal situations.

Instead, practice mindfulness when it occurs to you, when you’re feeling challenged, and especially when things seem bleak or overwhelming. You will find it builds your “mindfulness muscles” through practice while helping you cope with the challenges you face.

How to Start:

Try being mindful during the most stressful 10 minutes of your day, and see how much that improves those 10 minutes.
Try being mindful first thing in the morning, before things get busy.
7. DO Take a Break When You Need One

There will be days, weeks, and months when mindfulness just doesn’t happen. There will be sessions where it’s hard and frustrating and you want to give up. All of that is natural. Give yourself permission to take a break from your practice. Just be mindful about the break.

Don’t trail off your practice by default. Make a mindful decision not to practice for the morning or a day. Then, when your break is over, get right back to it with no judgment about what happened while you were away.

How to Start:

Cut your practice short if you find your mind wandering too much.
Try being mindful during activities where your mind tends to wander anyway, such as when you’re waiting in line.
8. DON’T Beat Yourself Up

Here’s a hard truth about mindfulness practice: you are going to fail. Lots of times. You’ll fail a lot at the beginning, then less for a while. Then you’ll start practicing under more challenging conditions and fail a lot more.

This is normal, unavoidable, and part of the process. Observe the results of your practice without blame, then observe what happens the next time. Focus on the practice itself and give yourself permission to try, fail, and try again.

How to Start:

Keep a journal or make marks in your planner to track how often you practice mindfulness. You’ll find it’s almost always more than you think.
Make yourself smile whenever you catch a mistake, then move right back into the present moment.
Final Thoughts

Aristotle once said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

The same can be said of mindfulness. It’s not a personality trait, but a series of intentional decisions made regularly throughout the day. Nobody is mindful by nature. Instead, people choose to act mindfully at any given moment.

Which choice will you make at this moment and the next?

Author's Bio: 

Victor Gulati lives in Colorado. After working 60-hour weeks in finance, he’s trying to become more mindful in his life. He does consulting work from home and hikes in his free time.