Learn Mindfulness Techniques
We at Deconstructing Yourself have spent decades learning and teaching mindfulness meditation. Here we have a huge variety of articles that can help you with your practice at all levels. If you want to learn mindfulness, this is a great place to start.
What is Mindfulness Meditation?
Mindfulness meditation means to observe your sensory experience clearly, moment by moment as it arises, without judgment. Usually the idea is to take one aspect of sensory experience, like the body sensations associated with the breathing process, and to feel them with great attention. That’s the whole idea of mindfulness. It seems simple, and in one way it really is. There are, however, many different mindfulness techniques, each of which has a particular focus and effect.
If you’re new to meditation, it’s important to realize that mindfulness refers to one particular style of meditation. (The traditional name of mindfulness, is vipassana, which we’ll talk about more later.) Meditation as a concept includes a broad set of styles and techniques, of which mindfulness is only one. Often you will hear of meditations that involve chanting one word over or over, or staring intently at a candle flame — these are different styles of meditation. There are literally thousands of styles of meditation, and mindfulness is just one—albeit major—form. Don’t worry if this sounds intimidating or overwhelming. In the next section, we explain exactly how to practice mindfulness meditation correctly.
How to Practice Mindfulness Meditation
If you want to learn mindfulness, the best way is to simply sit down and do it. Here is a basic description of the technique:
Sit down. Breathe normally. Pay very close attention to the feeling of breathing in your body. Every time you get distracted into thinking, come back to the feeling of breathing in your body.
That’s it! There’s nothing more to it. Now just do that for a half an hour a day for a year. Just kidding. Do at least five minutes a day if you want to begin to see some results. Some people find guided meditation to really help, in which case you can try out the Simple Habit app. (Both Michael Taft and Jessica Graham are featured teachers on the app.)
If you want to get into the details of posture (which some people do), the essence is to sit in a comfortable, relaxed position with your spine upright.
Labeling can be very helpful in order to stay focused. When you’re doing the Mindfulness of Breathing Sensations meditation described above, you can say to yourself (quietly, in your mind) “Breathing in” on the in-breath, and “Breathing out” on the out-breath. This is surprisingly helpful and is definitely recommended.
This is literally all you need to do. There is, however, a heck of a lot more you can do, if you want to. Mindfulness practice doesn’t have to mean focusing on breathing sensations. You can pay attention to other sensations in your body, which becomes quite interesting. If you want to go even further, you can learn to be mindful of your thoughts, emotions, and even the world all around you. In the “deep end” practices of mindfulness, you learn to deconstruct the sense of being a self, which has a lot of extremely positive benefits, but which takes a lot of time.
What to Sit On, How to Sit, and More
It’s fine to sit any way you want, on anything you want, and to practice mindfulness meditation. You can do it anytime, anywhere, under almost any conditions. That’s one of the great things about vipassana that distinguishes it from other forms of meditation, which often require a special quite room and other special conditions.
That being said, it does help to do your formal sitting period in a distraction free environment. One of the main goals is to stay focused on your meditation. Especially at first, people find staying focused to be the hardest part. So doing whatever it takes to make your meditation environment distraction free is helpful. Here is a whole post about how to do that.
Most mindfulness meditation traditions come from Asia, and in that culture sphere it’s normal to sit on a cushion on the floor. (You’ll notice all the names are in other languages, for that reason.) There are two main kinds of meditation cushions: zafus and gomdens. Zafus (the name is Japanese for “sitting pillow”) are circular pillows. They are usually filled with either beans or cotton stuffing. You can use a zafu on its own for sitting, but they often come together with a large square mat (called a zabuton) made of the same materials. You put the mat on the floor and the zafu on top of the mat, and that makes an extra cushy seat and also protects your knees from a hard floor.
A gomden is a rectangular cushion, like a hard, square zafu. It’s a modern creation made especially for Westerners who are used to sitting in chairs. Gomdens tend to be much firmer than zafus. You can use one on top of a zabuton, just like a zafu.
There is another option for sitting: the seiza meditation bench. This is a small wooden seat that allows your legs to go under you. It’s slightly hard to describe but very easy to understand once you see it.
You can buy these meditation cushions and benches online, or you can make your own.
It is of course perfectly fine to do mindfulness meditation sitting in a regular chair, also. There is nothing special or magical about sitting on the floor. It’s entirely up to you.
The important thing is to sit as comfortably and relaxed as possible, while sitting upright. You want to keep your back erect, but not stiff or tense.
Staying on Track
In the West, you have thousands of years of experience to draw on if you want to learn to be a long-distance runner or to lift weights, for example. Not all of the common sense notions surrounding those fields are right, but you still have a framework of ideas pushing or pulling you in the right direction. With mindfulness, our cultural memory is much, much shorter. We don’t have the same wealth of generations of experience to draw upon.
On top of that, many of the representations of meditation in our culture heavily overemphasize one aspect of meditation over others. You may easily get the sense that meditation should have some very specific characteristic, and that if it lacks that characteristic it’s not “really” meditation.
Both of these problems can bring with them distortions and confusions that hamper practice. Here are some of the common problems, and how to deal with them.
Trying to suppress your thoughts — People often believe that mindfulness meditation involves “clearing your mind” or “not thinking.” Or they simply figure that stopping thinking will make the meditation go better. First of all, mindfulness meditation doesn’t necessarily involve clearing your mind. It’s perfectly possible to have a deep meditation while having a continuous stream of thoughts. The trick is to keep bringing your attention back to the focus object (like the body sensations of breathing) over and over no matter how many times you get distracted.
The worst is trying not to think, or suppressing your thoughts. This is very hard to do, and actually detrimental. You are essentially ordering yourself not to think about a pink elephant – but replacing “pink elephant” with “literally anything.” Tricky. Instead, try working with a policy of non-interference. Just let the thought do its thing, without engaging. You’ll find that most thoughts are short-lived.
Aiming to have your meditation feel some particular way — In the start, it can be difficult to know how your meditation is supposed to feel. Should you have this deep sense of inner calm, or is it more about clear attention? Or is there some other “meditation-y” feeling you don’t know about?
In fact, meditation can have a very particular feel to it. But it can also be hopelessly dull. Like any other form of practice, you will have days where you strongly feel like you’re doing something and other days where nothing much happens. Don’t sweat it.
It can also be the case that meditation does not always feel good. One of the hallmarks of mindfulness meditation is that you are practicing with whatever comes up, even if what comes up is unpleasant or even painful. That’s one of the features that makes mindfulness so powerful and effective.
Just roll with it — When you’ve been meditating for a while, you may start to experience strange sensations during your practice. For example, you may start feeling unusually heavy, or unbearably light. You may feel that you are vibrating slightly, or trembling. You may have the sensation like waves of energy are moving through your body.
These effects can be quite unnerving, or quite mesmerizing. The best way to deal with them is to ignore them, or rather, to let them come and just observe them in a neutral manner. Letting them happen without getting too freaked out or too excited will let you continue on with your meditation.
Be patient with yourself — This is something that’s easier to understand in an exercise context. If you can do 25 pushups and want to learn to do 50, you don’t start practicing to get to 50 right away. You work on your 25 until you’re comfortable increasing to 30, then from 30 to 35 and so on…
Meditating “too much” doesn’t really exist in the same sense as overtraining does. You won’t damage your body by meditating above your limit. But if you can’t sit still for 5 minutes without getting restless, trying to go for 30 right away can only get frustrating. Better to advance minute by minute. It’s more sustainable in the long run.
Stick with one technique (or a small repertoire) — If you want to get better at running, it doesn’t make all that much sense to train your swimming skills, even though swimming also tests your strength and endurance. Likewise, riding a bike may also improve your endurance, but not in the same way.
Mindfulness is a particular style of meditation. You may find it easier to do if you are familiar with similar techniques, but if you want to make progress it’s generally better to pick a technique that seems to work and stick with it. You can add more mindfulness techniques to your practice (so long as you don’t add so many that you get confused), but try to keep going with the ones you have. That’s the easiest way to ensure you keep seeing results.
Benefits of Mindfulness Meditation
Meditation is a practice that is good for very many things—it sometimes seems that there is almost no area of life that meditation doesn’t improve or enhance in some way. When we look for some scientific backing for these anecdotal experiences, we find a huge number of studies available. What follows is just a smattering of the overwhelming research into the benefits of mindfulness meditation. Have a look:
Improve Your Focus — Focus is a trainable skill, and meditation systematically trains you to focus. What’s more, your focus isn’t just better when you’re meditating, but all day long as you go about your business. Mindfulness’s positive effect on concentration has been proven in this long-term study, and this study, and has even been shown to make a big difference in novice meditators after only ten days.
Reduce Your Stress — We’ve all heard that meditation can help you to relax and become less stressed out. It is a proven way to deeply relax. Science shows that it can even make very stressful situations easier to handle. It lowers your cortisol levels—the hormone most responsible for stress. A 2010 meta-analysis of 39 studies found that mindfulness is a useful intervention for treating anxiety and mood disorders.
Enhance Your Empathy — Mindfulness will help you connect to other people. One mindfulness practice is called “loving kindness” meditation, in which you focus on feelings of love and compassion. Experiments show that over time this can dramatically boost your empathy (sense of emotional connection) with other people. Medical students under intense stress report higher levels of empathy when they meditate.
Reduce Your Emotional Reactivity — How long does it take you to recover from an upsetting event? Mindfulness can reduce that time measurably, and get you back on your feet faster after emotional upheavals.
Increase Your Cognitive Flexibility — Tired of being stuck in the same old rut? Mindfulness has been shown to increase “cognitive flexibility,” which means it allows you to see the world in a new way, and behave differently than you have in the past. It helps you to respond to negative or stressful situations more skillfully.
Boost Your Memory — How many facts you can hold in your head at once, what scientists call “working memory” is a crucial aspect of effectiveness in learning, problem solving, and organization. A study of military personnel under stress showed that those who practiced mindfulness experienced a boost in working memory, as well as feeling better than those who didn’t practice. Another study shows that it not only improves memory, but boosts test scores, too. Even practicing mindfulness for as short as 4 days may improve memory and other cognitive skills.
Make You Less Sensitive to Pain — Mindfulness meditation changes your physical brain structure in many ways; one is that it actually increases the thickness of your cortex, which reduces your sensitivity to pain.
Give You a Better Brain — Mindfulness trains the prefrontal lobe area of your brain (it actually gets bigger!), as well as enhancing other areas which give the benefits of an entire package of related functions such as self-insight, morality, intuition, and fear modulation.
Obviously, mindfulness meditation is an important part of any ongoing wellbeing program. The secret to gaining the benefits of mindfulness is simple: do it everyday, ideally with the guidance of an experienced meditation mentor.
Three Aspects of Mindfulness
Mindfulness meditation has three main skills that you have to learn in order to get better at practicing it. They are concentration, sensory clarity, and acceptance.
Concentration means to pay attention to what you want, for as long as you want. If you can focus well, it makes doing mindfulness much easier. On the other hand, if you need help with your focus, mindfulness will actually work to build your power to pay attention over time. If you want to really nerd out on it, here are a bunch of articles about how to focus better.
Sensory Clarity means to have a “high resolution” view of any sensory experience as it unfolds in real time. Mindfulness meditation builds sensory clarity, so that over the months and years of practice, it’s as if your experience of any sensory event slowly goes from 360p to HD or high definition.
Acceptance means to have a matter of fact attitude towards all sensory experiences, no matter whether they are pleasant or unpleasant, positive or painful. You greet all experiences with the same “it is what it is” stance.
Building a Daily Mindfulness Practice
Mindfulness works best when you do it every day. It’s like working out or playing a musical instrument: the key is to practice, practice, practice. In one sense it’s even more like taking a shower or brushing your teeth — just because you did it yesterday doesn’t mean you don’t have to do it today. You have to clean your body everyday, and you also have to “clean” your mind every day with meditation.
So doing it everyday is paramount. Even if you only do it for one minute, do it every day. The recommended daily dose, for starting out, is 10 minutes daily. Do that for a month, and see how it affects your life. If you do well, and manage to do it every day, then increase to 20 minutes daily. Be careful not to get too gung-ho and end up crashing and burning. You want this to be sustainable over a very long period of time. It’s much better to do less, and to be able to sustain it for months and years, than to do more and burn out.
It’s true that making mindfulness a daily habit takes real effort. A few things you can do to help are:
- Get a practice partner. Find somebody to share your accountability with. You report to them about whether you’ve done your meditation or not. They do the same with you.
- Pair mindfulness with another habit you do daily. Remember how I said it was like brushing your teeth? You could, for example, always do mindfulness right after you brush your teeth. Or after a shower. Or first thing upon waking up in the morning. You get the idea: you’re attaching it to another habit that you already have and do every day. This is a great way to get going.
- Put it into your calendar. Literally schedule it in your calendar, every day.
- Think of it as a long-term strategy. It’s not something you’re going to do for a while. It’s something you’re probably going to be doing for your entire life. It’s about putting in the time. So don’t get high or low about how your practice went on any particular day. There are going to be a lot more days to meditate, and this is just one of many. This matter-of-fact attitude is very important in mindfulness (a feature I call “acceptance”).
- Get involved in a group. There is nothing better than being involved in a group of people who are all dedicated to mindfulness meditation. Sitting with the group once a week, talking about meditation, becoming friends with other people who have made meditation a big part of their lives—all of this is a tremendous help in your practice.
- Work with a qualified meditation teacher. Almost nothing is as conductive to building a solid and beneficial practice than learning and growing with somebody who knows what they are doing, is available, and also ethical. Finding a good teacher is super important, so here’s a full discussion of the issues, and what to look out for.
- Use a mindfulness meditation app.
Doing these things will go a long way towards making your daily practice viable. You could also learn 6 Ways to Be Mindful Right Now, Five Proven Ways to Get Your Meditation Practice on Track, and how to Go Deeper using the Meditation Induction. Lots of people start out and think they are not meditating correctly. This article will help to set your mind at ease. If you’ve been meditating for a little while, and you need some inspiration to keep it up, try our Slump Killers. Or just Meditate Now.
And there’s one more thing: try to practice in life.
Practice in Life
One of the interesting things about mindfulness is that you can do it all day long, not just when you’re sitting down. Practicing all day long as you go about the activities of your daily existence is called “Practice in life.” This is one of the most important mindfulness techniques.
Meditation is a set of skills, and—if you’re just a little bit clever—you can practice all of the skills as you go about your day. This will have a huge benefit, which is that you’ll be making progress on your meditation skills many hours a day, rather than just the 10-30 minutes you set aside for formal practice. Formal sitting practice is hugely important, but adding practice in life to it is a sure way to make rapid and solid progress.
The simplest way to do PIL is to be mindful of every activity. This means that you stay focused on what you’re doing right now, in the moment, as you’re doing it. Let’s say you’re driving your car. You stay mindful of the activities of driving the car. For example, you watch the other drivers on the road around you; you listen to the sounds of the traffic and your engine, you feel the body sensations of your feet on the pedals and your hands on the steering wheel, and so on. If you find yourself distracted into some memory, you bring yourself back to the present moment driving activities. If you find yourself planning something you’re going to in five minutes, you come back to the present moment driving activities. Over and over again, you bring yourself into the present moment like this.
As simple as that sounds, if you do it for a few days in a row, you’ll find yourself having a very different kind of life experience. You may even find yourself entering a flow state, i.e. being in the zone, with just daily things like washing the dishes, taking out the garbage, or sweeping the floor. And as science has shown, being in a flow state means that you will have a much happier experience of life. All of this and more can come from just the basic effort of practice in life.
Buddhist or Not Buddhist?
It’s a fact that virtually all mindfulness meditation taught in the world today is either Buddhist or is being taught by somebody who is or was a Buddhist. Other religions developed similar techniques (the human brain is the human brain, after all), but none of them cultivated this method with such dedication or with as great a variety. Meditation is so central to Buddhism that Buddhist teachers over time have explored every possible variation of this technique, and really get into the minutiae of how practice unfolds.
But do you actually have to be a Buddhist to get the benefits of mindfulness meditation? Certainly not. You don’t have to believe in reincarnation or karma. You don’t have to believe that the historical Buddha was special or even existed. As you progress in your practice, you are almost certainly going to become rather familiar with Buddhism, because almost all the teachers available who work at a deeper level are Buddhists. There are exceptions, such as Shinzen Young, who is about as non-Buddhist of a Buddhist it’s possible to be, while still having a very deep practice.
So you’re going to become familiar with Buddhism, and one of the first things you’ll run into is the fact that there are many Buddhisms. This can be pretty confusing, especially because they can seem to believe in completely opposite or contradictory things. Just understand the fact that Buddhism is 2500 years old, and changed over time and in different countries, so that there are a lot of different expressions. You can make sense of this giant mess by dividing traditions into three big piles:
- Theravada – Early Buddhism, and is extremely focused on mindfulness meditation practice.
- Mahayana – Middle Buddhism, and is focused on compassion and emptiness. Probably the most well-known Mahayana tradition in the West is Zen.
- Vajrayana – Late Buddhism. It’s focused on worship of deities, mantra practice, and esotericism (i.e. “magic”). Tibetan Buddhists (such as the Dalai Lama) are of the Vajrayana.
All three traditions practice mindfulness meditation, but they all practice other forms of meditation as well. If you want to do “strict” mindfulness practice, then Theravada centers/teachers are the place for you. Most mindfulness centers in the US (such as IMS in Massachussetts, Spirit Rock in California, and Goenka centers everywhere) are mainly Theravada. There are also tons of Zen centers and Tibetan Buddhist centers available if you’re up for something a little different from straight up mindfulness. Warning: all of these places are into religious Buddhism, and exist somewhere on the spectrum of what I would call “churchy.” So be prepared for that, and be prepared to accept that, at least outwardly.
We at Deconstructing Yourself specialize in non-religious mindfulness techniques and meditative forms that are not necessarily Buddhist. We feel that the benefits of mindfulness should be open to all people without regard to religion. Read Michael talking about meditation and religion.
The Word “Mindfulness”
What is taught as mindfulness meditation in the West is the practice traditionally known as “vipassana.” Vipassana is a word from the ancient Pali language, which means three things, all of which are interesting. The -passana part just means “to see.” The vi- part, however can me three different things, giving the word three different meanings.
The first meaning of vi- is “in”, which together with -passana means simply “insight.” And it’s not a coincidence that Vipassana is often called “insight meditation” in English.
The second meaning of vi- is “apart” or “separate”, which together with -passana means something like “separate seeing,” but which we would translate as “analysis.” Vipassana means to separate sensory experience into its component pieces. To analyze or deconstruct your experience of being a human being is both the method and goal of Vipassana.
The third meaning of vi- is “through,” which together with -passana means “to see through.” This describes the aspect of vipassana in which you see through sensory phenomena into the reality which underlies all such phenomena.
So, to put all three of these meanings together, we could say that Vipassana meditation means to analyze sensory experience in order to see through it and to gain insight into ourselves. This is what we are doing in mindfulness meditation.
But where does that word “mindfulness” come in? The Pali word that in English we call “mindfulness” is sati. Sati means to have remembrance, and it’s one of the main qualities of vipassana meditation. We want to be mindful of our experience all the time. Whether walking around, doing your work, or just hanging out, it’s important to be mindful in all of these situations of life. It’s just one of those accidents of language that in the West we have ended up calling vipassana meditation by the name of one of its qualities, mindfulness.
There are a handful of great books that you have to read. Or if you don’t have time to read, many of them are available in audiobook format, to listen to during your commute.
Read these books to get you going — they’ll introduce you to the basics of mindfulness meditation and more. They all pretty much agree about everything, with a little bit of variation. Five are timeless classics, and one is—you guessed it—my book. I admit to being biased. The sixth one, The Science of Enlightenment is fabulous. How do I know it’s so great? Well, it’s been out as an audio program for twenty years and is a timeless classic, and I was the editor of both the audio and the book. Trust me. Shinzen is a fabulous teacher, and the book is really good.
Mindfulness for Beginners, by Jon Kabat-Zinn
Meditation for Beginners, by Jack Kornfield
Mindfulness in Plain English, by Bhante Gunaratana
Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening, by Joseph Goldstein
Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life, by Thich Nhat Hanh
The Science of Enlightenment, by Shinzen Young
The Mindful Geek, by Michael W. Taft (A timeless classic, haha)
Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, by Shunryu Suzuki
Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness, by Sharon Salzberg
Awakening Lovingkindness, by Pema Chodron
When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, by Pema Chodron
A whole page about meditation books.
Just Do It
Reading books about meditation is great. Reading online magazines about meditation and mindfulness techniques (like this one!) is great. But at the end of the day you actually have to do it if you want the benefits. Just reading about meditation, but not practicing, is akin to just reading about piano, not actually touching the keys. You can’t play if you don’t practice.
Folks have all kinds of reasons why they can’t seem to meditate. The top reasons are; I don’t have the time and My mind is too busy. Well as far as not having enough time, that’s simply not true. We can all find 10 minutes a day. Yes, even you. As for your busy mind—welcome to being a human! Most of us have a lot going on in our noggins, and that’s not a reason not to meditate. Mindfulness meditation doesn’t ask you to quiet your mind, rather it invites you to cultivate a new relationship with your mind.
So don’t wait another minute. Meditate now. Here’s a video from Jessica to help get you started.
The Big “E”
The Big “E” – enlightenment. In short, mindfulness meditation can get you enlightened. That means to understand that there is no thing inside you called a self. There is no eternally-existing entity to whom your experience is happening. When you experience this yourself, that’s enlightenment—at least by one basic definition.
What They Don’t Tell You
Meditation will help you relax, sleep better, improve your sex life, provide pain relief and much more. What doesn’t get talked about as much is the challenging material that can arise when you start sitting silently with yourself. Everything that you’ve been avoiding, or pushing under the proverbial rug will start to come up. This is good news, it means you can heal and grow in new ways, but it might not be all that comfortable. It might even be quite difficult sometimes.
This journey of uncovering what’s beneath the surface can bring up sadness, anger, and even intense fear. These symptoms all go under the generic title of “the dark night.” With continued effort in your practice, these will pass with time, and that will make you a happier, healthier, more integrated person.
It’s important that you have support along the way, especially if you have a history of trauma or mental illness. A good therapist, a meditation teacher, and peers who meditate is highly recommended. Meditation is strong medicine and you don’t need to go at it alone. The great news is – you don’t have to.
Articles on DY about Mindfulness Meditation
There are dozens and dozens of articles about mindfulness meditation on this site. Here is a list of the ones you will probably enjoy the most:
Mindfulness Techniques, Hints, and Tips
Relaxation / Stress Reduction
Embodiment via Meditation
Emotional Intelligence / Relationships
Special Topics in Mindfulness Meditation
We hope these articles help you with your mindfulness practice.
This is just a portion of all the articles on the site. There are many more.
suns photo by Procsilas Moscas
buddha image by Ed Schipul