So that’s mindfulness in a nutshell, the next question is how you start using it.
One option is to use online ‘guided meditations’. These are simply recordings that instruct you on what to do as you try meditating. For example, they might tell you to close your eyes and breathe in and out through the nose, then they might tell you to think about your body. One particularly good tool that does this is the Headspace App which can be downloaded for Android or iOS but which is also available to use through the web. This will talk you through numerous guided meditations but only the first 10 are free. Still, you can learn enough from those 10 sessions in order to then thrive without the app.
Generally though, most mindfulness meditations will take a very similar procedure and you can go through the steps then without necessarily needing to be talked through it. And in fact, if you can do your meditation without guidance, then you should find that you’re actually more effective at it because you won’t be continuously interrupted by someone’s voice.
Let’s go over what the steps will generally be for a mindfulness meditation session…
Step 1: Breathing
The first thing to do is to start breathing. You can do this using something called ‘equal breathing’ from yoga. Here, you breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth. As you do, you hold each inhalation and exhalation for 3 seconds (hence the ‘equal’ bit). These long draws in and long exhalations will allow you to completely fill the lungs with fresh oxygen and expel all the CO2.
But to be honest, you can use any kind of breathing so long as it is slow, deliberate and full. The guidance they give on the Headspace App for instance is simply to ‘breathe loud enough so that the person next to you would be able to hear’.
Why the breathing? Essentially, breathing slowly is the best way to indicate to the body that the coast is clear and you’re safe. We breathe quickly when we’re stressed to get more oxygen around our bodies and we can breathe more slowly when we are relaxed. Thus, breathing deeply and slowly will help us to exit the ‘fight or flight’ state and to instead enter the ‘rest and digest’ state. This should fix our heartrate variance, reduce cortisol and get us ready to enter a relaxed state.
Step 2: Senses
Next, you are often told to focus on your physical senses. This means noticing the smells, sounds and even the temperature around the room. Your eyes will normally be closed, so sight is rule out of this one.
The objective here is not to ‘look’ for sounds or strain to hear them. Instead, just notice the sounds that you don’t normally. You might find that you can hear creaking in the house, maybe you can hear the neighbors, maybe you can hear the rain outside or the wind. There are probably far off birds and/or traffic.
This is always a fantastic example of just how little we normally pay attention to and how much richer our experience becomes when we practice mindfulness. It’s also a great way to get into that habit and to start relaxing the body even more.
Step 3: Body Scan
Body scan meditation is sometimes described as being its own thing but it can be used as part of any meditation session. The idea here is simply to become more aware of your own body as we described earlier but to do this by systematically starting at the top of the head and then moving gradually through to the toes, noticing how you feel at each stage.
If you want to use this process to get to sleep, then it can be a great tool for that purpose too. The best way to do this though is to try completely relaxing the muscles by first tensing and then releasing each part of your body as you move through it. What you’ll find is that you carry large amounts of tension everywhere from your face muscles, to your neck, to your arms and legs. Once you recognize this and let it go, you’ll feel far more relaxed and eventually this can enable you to fall into a deep and restful sleep.
For now though, we’re just scanning the body and using this as a way to become more mindful of ourselves and to begin the process of introspection and self-directed attention.
Step 4: Focus on Breathing
After noticing each part of the body, return to the chest and pay particular attention to the way it rises and falls. As you do this, you can also take this opportunity to fix your breathing.
Chances are, that when you first notice your own breathing, you’ll find that you are breathing in so that your chest expands first. But in fact, it should be your abdomen that moves first and this should then be followed by your chest. Correct breathing (called abdominal breathing) should start by allowing the stomach to relax and protrude and then filling the lungs.
This is effective because the process opens up space in your abdominal cavity. This then allows the lungs to expand into that space, which is then followed by them expanding upwards through your chest as well.
This type of breathing allows you to take in more oxygen and to thus trigger even more relaxation hormones. Most of us don’t use this kind of breathing though because we have hunched postures which fold our stomach and prevent us from being able to breathe from there. The result is that we end up breathing with much shallower and faster breaths, which actually increases stress and cortisol.
But don’t worry about that if you don’t want to. For now, just notice your own breath and take this opportunity to count your breaths as they come in and out. This is the part that is going to work a little like transcendental meditation by quietening down a lot of the activity throughout the brain.
Step 5: Let Your Mind Wander
Once you’ve done this for a little while and you’re feeling particularly still, it’s time to just let go of your mind and let it do whatever it wants. Now your aim is not to try and control or silence your thoughts. Instead, you simply let your mind wander naturally – or stay completely still if it wants to.
The description that is often used is that you’re ‘watching thoughts go by like clouds’. Headspace describes your thoughts in these cases as being more like cars in the road. It emphasizes the importance of watching the ‘cars’ go past but not running out into the road to chase the traffic. This is all about detached observation.
After you have done this for a while, you can simply allow your mind to gradually return to normal and gently open your eyes.
A lot of people try to start meditating but they end up failing. Why is this?
One problem is that too many of us want to get immediate results and expect to feel instantly different. When this doesn’t happen, we end up frustrated and stressed. This is the worst attitude you can possibly take to mindfulness meditation. The whole point is that you are to let your mind do whatever it wants. As soon as you start forcing it in one direction or another, you will lose that all-important freedom and start producing stress hormones.
Likewise, try not to get too upset with yourself if you try this and your mind keeps wandering or you keep getting distracted. If you get itchy, it’s fine to scratch your face. If you need a glass of water, get up and get one. Don’t try and force anything, just let yourself ‘be’ as you are.
If you really want help jump-starting your progress though, then you should consider ‘priming’ yourself. Priming is a term used in psychology that simply refers to preparing the brain in a certain way. Sometimes that means influencing the answers we give to questions by showing certain stimulus. But in other cases, it means changing our emotions. In this case, it pays to do something calming but that nevertheless requires focus just before you try meditating. So for example, you might try relaxing in a beautiful but novel location. Novel scenery increase neurotransmitters and hormones associated with focus, while being in natural environments has been shown to make us more relaxed and to encourage slower brainwaves.
Finally, don’t be too ambitious in regards to how often you intend to meditate. Another classic mistake is to set out with the idea that you’re going to meditate for 30 minutes every day. This is destined for failure unless you currently spend 30 minutes of every day bored out of your mind. Start with something small – even just 5 minutes before you wake up – and then you can build on this habit.