How do I mindfulness?
December 12, 2014 7:46 AM   Subscribe

The stock answer to everyone who's posted an Ask about being stressed or anxious lately has been "Mindfulness! Meditation!" But, um, what does that mean, exactly? Please share anecdotes, techniques, references. What - exactly - did you do, and how did it help? Walk me through this like I'm five.

I'm stressed. I'm anxious. I'm lonely. There are a lot of contributing environmental factors that are not going to change anytime soon. If I were asking how to cope with this, you'd all tell me to practice mindfulness and meditation. Except, I don't know how. Please describe in excruciating detail what I should be doing.
posted by telepanda to Grab Bag (42 answers total) 135 users marked this as a favorite
I started with 5 minutes a day, most days. At many points that was all I was able to squeeze in. Sit down in a quiet room. I sat on the floor but it's not essential. Take a deep breath. Close your eyes. Try to notice your body, your feelings, your sensations. However, to be in the moment and present, you also try not to think about these sensations or feelings. You notice them, then let them go. Imagine watching clouds drift slowly by overhead. You can't hold on to them or stop them. You see them, note them, and then they float away. This is how you can view your thoughts and sensations and emotions. You will keep having thoughts, your mind will start obsessing on various things. You don't have to punish yourself. Notice you are having thoughts, then let them go. Remember, this is a practice. The whole point is to practice noticing, so you will not be "good at it", especially right away. One technique I sometimes use is to count my breaths up to 10, then repeat.

Over time, consider sitting for longer periods - 20 minutes, 30 minutes. Consider a class or meditation group at a local buddhist center or mindfulness-centered healthcare or healing center.

Ultimately, I actually found mindfulness practice to be not as useful to me as exercise for centering and calming myself, but I may come back to it one day.
posted by latkes at 7:55 AM on December 12, 2014 [5 favorites]

Oh, also when you're first starting, consider listening to some guided meditations. They basically give you instructions in what to do. You can google to find some free online. These are a good start.
posted by latkes at 7:57 AM on December 12, 2014 [6 favorites]

Go outside and take a walk. Look at the trees and the light on the leaves. Feel the cold air in your nose. Smell the air. Notice things. When your mind starts to wander, pull it back to the present. "I am lonely." "That's interesting. Look at the way the street is cracked down the middle."

For me, being mindful is being present. It is about paying attention. It's about asking my brain to be fully present, rather than letting it polish worry-stones. I do that by checking in with my five senses. And I'm kind to myself about it because if you have a mind like mine - I ruminate. I think. I obsess. I distract myself. And those thoughts are just tumbling around in the rock tumbler that is my skull and they're not going anywhere or doing anything. But for some reason, getting mad at my brain for doing that - for pulling me out of the present and into the tumbler - just makes it run and go even faster. So when I am ruminating I like to say "hey there thought. I know you. See you later!" and I take a walk or just sit and observe things for a few minutes. I notice that my floor is dirty but that my house smells like the stew I have on the stove. The light looks so nice on the walls.

That, for me, is being mindful. Hope it helps.
posted by sockermom at 7:58 AM on December 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

OK - I've just started after years of wondering EXACTLY this. How do I "mindful" when I do everything pretty mindlessly?

Here's how I've started. Brushing my teeth. It's something I do every day. I've always done it completely mindlessly. I've started mindfully brushing my teeth. Noticing how the brush feels. Noticing where I'm brushing. Noticing how I'm brushing. Noticing how long I'm brushing. No judgment. No scolding for not brushing long enough. Just noticing how I'm brushing my teeth. I've started to do it with other mundane things now as well - like making my bed or walking the dog. Just noticing how my feet feel. How I tuck in the sheets rather than doing it while thinking about a thousand other things. Just be in the moment.

This may sound really weird, but after years of trying to meditate and it not being very useful, this has been the most mindful I've been in forever.
posted by Sophie1 at 7:59 AM on December 12, 2014 [8 favorites]

I would recommend reading The Miracle of Mindfulness, by Thich Nhat Hanh. It is an excellent book.
posted by sonic meat machine at 8:00 AM on December 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

Two of the best/most accessible references I have come across:

Wherever You Go, There You Are


Breath by Breath
posted by TheCavorter at 8:00 AM on December 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

I liked a book called Mindfulness in Plain English, which is really straightforward and helpful (and not too New Agey).
posted by three_red_balloons at 8:08 AM on December 12, 2014 [5 favorites]

I learned mindfulness from The Power of Now.

I had long struggled with 'getting it' and after a few chapters of this, it snapped into place.
posted by Setec Astronomy at 8:12 AM on December 12, 2014

I have a really hard time clearing my mind, but I find that looking at art, especially abstract art, helps. Something to focus on that won't lead down a path to intrusive thoughts.
posted by JoanArkham at 8:16 AM on December 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

Eating One Raisin was the first mindfulness exercise that clicked for me. The whole book* that exercise comes from really explains mindfulness in excruciating detail, and it comes with a CD of guided meditations. Highly recommend.

*The Mindful Way Through Depression - don't worry, it is about mindfulness generally, not just for those with a diagnosis of depression
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 8:16 AM on December 12, 2014

Quick exercise. Find something to smell. Anything. Food, a coat, a plant, anything. Close your eyes and *smell* it. Don't move to the next sentence until you do.

Okay - smelling something is an action that can only be done 'in the present'. You can't 'remember' a smell, you can't imagine the smell (sure, you can remember 'characteristics' of it - pungent, sweet, etc). Here's the kicker - remember what your brain was doing when you were actively smelling. The answer is: ...nothing. For a split second you weren't anxious, you weren't regretful... you just were.

This is the zone that you're shooting for, for a longer period than just using your nose. Totally in the present, focused on what you are doing, with the background 'thinking' quieted.
posted by Setec Astronomy at 8:23 AM on December 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

Set aside an hour for this talk Jon-Kabat Zinn gave at Google several years ago. It's amazing.
posted by jbickers at 8:24 AM on December 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

If you're willing to spend $3 on a smartphone app, you could try buddhify.
posted by Elementary Penguin at 8:25 AM on December 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

1. Find a ray of sun coming through the window.
2. Look for floating dust motes.
3. Watch dust motes.
posted by mochapickle at 8:25 AM on December 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

I've been working my way through How to Train a Wild Elephant, and I've found it really helpful. I don't find mindfulness easy, but I've liked how this book focuses on small, repeatable actions. It's one of those things where I practiced the act and hoped that meaning would come, and it has.
posted by punchtothehead at 8:33 AM on December 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

I really like the podcast Against the Stream for teaching me a lot about this stuff. I think the reason why people recommend mindfulness and meditation for stress and anxiety is that while they are caused by some things beyond our control, the brain also has a habit of excessively replicating the problem until we're surrounded by 100 copies of the problem which just makes us more stressed and we can't see the original problem anymore. You really can train your brain not to feel the need to comment on every little thing that happens and replicate stuff over and over. Once you train it to do that it gets a lot easier to actually understand problems as they are and not as the imaginary pile of shit your anxious brain knitted up. This is what meditation does.
posted by bleep at 8:33 AM on December 12, 2014 [5 favorites]

I was taught to meditate in a Hopkins study on meditation and psilocybin. The book I was given was by Eknath Easawaran. The passage I use is Lao Tsu's Finding Unity. You know the old trope of the guy sitting cross-legged and chanting "OHMMMM"? I use Finding Unity instead of saying ohm. The chanting (silently, in my head, ymmv) becomes a foundation on which my thoughts appear while I merely examine them rather than become ruled by them.

I find meditation helpful for anxiety and intrusive thoughts, but not a panacea. It's also helpful for my insomnia, but it doesn't help me sleep. It just helps me care less--beat myself up less--for being awake when I "should" be sleeping.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 8:39 AM on December 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

When I taught meditation, people had a lot of confusion about mindfulness and you're not alone in that respect.

The major question is: what do I pay attention to? what to be mindful about?

In mindfulness, you pay attention to your current experience. What am I thinking, feeling, saying or doing right now.

If you find yourself a very scattered person, then try a general breath meditation for a few weeks first. Just pay attention to the physical sensation of the breath at the nostrils, and push away any thoughts or sensations that are not the breath.

Mindfulness meditation is meditation level 2, and some people just aren't there yet because their minds jump around a lot. It's hard to meditate on the mind, when the mind itself is not still. So if you find paying attention to your experience is difficult, just try a beginner meditation first. That will help you calm your mind down a lot and you will definitely reap the benefits.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 8:47 AM on December 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

There's also an online version of Mindfulness in Plain English.
posted by mbrubeck at 8:48 AM on December 12, 2014

I want to second Elementary Penguin's rec for buddhify (or buddhify 2, anyway). The name is awful, but the app is really good, and just walks you through basic mindful meditations. It has a wheel of situations that you can select from (from "waiting" to "unwanted thoughts" to "trouble sleeping"). I like it a lot. I bought it with much skepticism after someone here recommended it, but it was totally worth it.
posted by wintersweet at 8:52 AM on December 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

I don't mindful. However, whenever I become aware that I'm terrified, I have learned a thing to do about it.

Say I'm trying to go to sleep or I'm driving somewhere and I'm screaming inside my head about something--or actually everything, usually--like this: "HE'S GOING TO DIE AND THEY WON'T HELP AND NOTHING I DO WORKS AAAAAAAAAA, BLEEEEEEEEEE, YAAAAAAAAAAA, PLUS I'M GOING TO GET FIRED BECAUSE I FORGOT TO YAAAAAAAAAA AND I HATE S. AND P. HATES ME, WHAT DID I EVER DO TO P. AND YET P. HATES ME, WHY DOESN'T P. HATE S. WHEN S. IS SUCH A MAAAAAAAHFAAAAAAAAAAAH AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA, JESUSCHRIST, TAXES ARE DUE TOMORROW, CRAPPITYGODDAMN, I FORGOT TO SEND THAT STUPID INVENTORY THING TO SHEILA!!!" I'll go through the list of everything two or three times getting louder with each repetition until finally I notice I'm doing it. Then I do what I think is called "square breathing." I came up with it all on my own but a few years ago I described it to a friend and she said it was a real thing and it's called "square breathing."

What you do, you pick the worst, scariest thing of all the things. Slowly inhale while thinking worst-case thoughts about the worst, scariest thing. Let the thoughts race faster and faster, louder and louder, until you can't possibly take in any more air. Then hold the breath for about three beats, all the while assuring yourself that yes, everything is much, much worse than you ever thought possible and that this particular worry, if it does not kill you, will surely destroy all that is good about your life forever. Then let the air out while thinking: "This worry is now gone. Go, thou, worry: I eject thee. Whoosh. Flush. Done with you. Gone." Then hold the no-breath for a slow count of three. There's no air in your lungs and there's nothing in your head except: "One... Two... Three." Then suck in the next breath and ramp up the drama and noise to 11 again while you tackle the next worry. Do this until you've worst-cased and then blown away each of the worries. I've never had to do it more than twice before either falling asleep or getting to my destination without crashing into a semi from driving like a terrified rabbit. It really works. It even works for public speaking. "I'M GONNA DIE UP THERE! THEY'RE GONNA HATE ME! MY PANTS ARE GOING TO FALL DOWN!" Whooooooosh-I-only-have-to-do-twenty-minutes-fukkit,Icandoit-ooooooosh... And then you do your speech and you're fine.

Square breathing: mindfulness for the mindless. Anybody can do it.
posted by Don Pepino at 8:53 AM on December 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

Just sit there, and think about what it feels like to just sit there. Think about how the couch cushion feels under your butt, and how the draft feels on your skin, and how your knee joints feel. Listen to the sound of your refrigerator running downstairs. Is your stomach rumbling? Is there an itch above your right shoulder blade?

If you find yourself thinking about other things, your doctor's appointment or the water bill or the work deadline, stop, and start thinking about that couch cushion again.
posted by MrMoonPie at 8:58 AM on December 12, 2014

I love Headspace. I started with the free app/series.
posted by trixie119 at 9:01 AM on December 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

The program I used was Real Happiness by Sharon Salzberg.
posted by capricorn at 9:12 AM on December 12, 2014

The experience many call mindfulness has come to me accidentally, through other pursuits.

Drawing classes have been very helpful in clearing distractions and focusing on the moment. What am I really seeing, not just the simplified impressions of what I think I see? What's the texture of the pencil on the paper? How is my body positioned, the angle of my arm, the strength of my grip?

The concept of flow is closely related. Endurance sports are the traditional way to achieve it. Distance cycling is the easiest way to get there for me. After an hour or two, the world opens up: I can focus on breathing, and just soaking in the world as I move through it. It's extremely relaxing.
posted by bonehead at 9:23 AM on December 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

I was taught to meditate in a Hopkins study on meditation and psilocybin.

Recreational drugs were helpful to me as far as really understanding mindfulness. When I'd take drugs I realized I felt JUST LIKE ME only with less anxiety. And it helped see the anxiety as a thing that maybe wasn't just a baked-in part of me.

What I use mindfulness for specifically is to dissociate my feelings about things from my actions that result from that feeling. So if a thing happens that I don't like, like an example like dropping and breaking a glass, my usual mode would be to get stressed and mad about the clean up, worry about the splinters, pissed off at my clumsiness, agitated by the noise, sad about the loss of the glass and all this stuff would pile up so something that is smallish turns into a THING and all those feelings build up and stay with me and it can wreck 30 min or so. Instead I sort of step outside myself and say "Wow that was a scary noise. We'll have to find a paper bag to put this in. Are you cut? No? Good. Too bad about the glass, you liked that. We'll get you another one..."

Writing this out, it sounds sort of pathological but to me it gives me agency over my feelings that 1) they are legitimate feelings to have (most feelings are) but also 2) it's okay to let them go and not hold on to them. Like it's not awesome to cut yourself on a broken glass, but it's better (for me) than being worried about cutting yourself for your entire life. Those worry and stress feelings are their own bad thing and are different from bad things that might actually happen, things you can probably handle if you're less of a bundle of nerves.

So I got a little less attached to my possessions. I got a little less sure I knew the "right" way to do anything. I got more compassionate about other people and their lives which were different from mine. I'm not awesome at meditation but I am good at asking myself "What attachments are helping to cause this bad feeling?" and working on untangling those things.
posted by jessamyn at 9:27 AM on December 12, 2014 [13 favorites]

Meditation can be a lot of things, from relaxing to taxing to religious. I do some of those, but that's not the basics. Here are some very basic basics:
Basic mindfulness meditation instructions

-Sit comfortably. You don’t have to twist yourself into a cross-legged position—unless you want to, of course. You can just sit in a chair. (You can also stand up or lie down, although the latter can sometimes result in an unintentional nap.) Whatever your position, you should keep your spine straight, but don’t strain.

-Feel your breath. Pick a spot: nose, belly, or chest. Really try to feel the in-breath and then the out-breath.

-This last step is the key: Every time you get lost in thought—which you will, thousands of times—gently return to the breath. I cannot stress strongly enough that starting over (and over… and over…) is the whole game. As my friend and meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg has written, “Beginning again and again is the actual practice, not a problem to overcome so that one day we can come to the ‘real’ meditation.”
These come via the Facebook page of Dan Harris (of ABC fame), who has written a book about his experience with mindfulness.
posted by Gilbert at 9:40 AM on December 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

Basic Meditation Instructions

A way to get started. First the short version and then some further description.

Sit comfortably with your back straight.

Let your eyes gently close.

Let your attention come to your breath.

Notice the direct experiential sensation as your breath enters and leaves your body.

When you notice that your attention has wandered from your breath, gently let it return to the breath.

Notice that thoughts arise and pass away.

Continue to turn your attention back to your breath. Gently and easily, without forcing.

That's it.


Now, here it is again with a little more explanation.

~~~Sit comfortably with your back straight.~~~
If you're sitting on the floor, a cushion under your buttocks will help your back straighten (as well as help your legs fold). If you're sitting in a chair, keep both feet on the floor and your arms uncrossed. Don't let your back touch the back of the chair or a wall, but sit up straight without a backrest. This is for a couple of reasons. One is that meditation is in some ways about sitting still and unsupported. Also, we're less likely to fall asleep if we're sitting at attention. I use a meditation bench, which allows me to meditate in something like a kneeling position.

But don't get stiff and uncomfortable. Find a balance. It may take a while. Also, realize that pain is likely to come. Everyone pretty much experiences some physical discomfort in meditation, at some point. For me it is generally shoulder pain, but a lot of people get knee pain or back pain. But it comes and goes, and at the moment I'm not getting any pain at all. But understand that it doesn't mean that you're doing something wrong if you feel pain.

~~~Let your eyes gently close.~~~
Some people need to keep their eyes open (and there are some meditation techniques in which the eyes are kept open) but in general the eyes are a doorway to so much sensory input that it is just a whole lot easier to keep from being distracted with the eyes closed. But don't squeeze 'em tight. Just let them close gently. Similarly, relax the jaw and the belly. So you're sitting straight, but you're not forcing anything.

~~~Let your attention come to your breath.~~~
Just as you're not forcing your eyes shut, just as you're not forcing anything, neither is this a practice of forcing attention on the breath, but rather it is a gentle resting of the attention on the breath as an anchor for the awareness. Very gently turn your attention to the place in your body where you feel the breath most clearly -- your nostrils, or the rising and falling of your chest or your belly. Don't control the breath, but just let it be as it is. The breath is a handy anchor for the attention, because it is always there, and it isn't volitional. And it is generally a neutral experience for us. We can feel the breath without a lot of charge on it one way or another. For the time being, pick one place (nostrils, chest, belly) that seems like a good focus and stay with it for a day or two before deciding for sure that a different place would be better. We're sometimes tempted to move our attention from one place to another if the sensation changes, but it's usually more helpful to just stick with one place and let yourself experience the variance in the sensations in that place, from dominant to very subtle.

~~~Notice the direct experiential sensation as your breath enters and leaves your body.~~~
From the very beginning of the in breath to the very end of the in breath; from the very beginning of the out breath to the very end of the out breath. Each tiny moment in each breath is unique. See if you can keep your attention directed to the direct sensation of the breath for an entire in breath, for an entire out breath. Sometimes the breath becomes very subtle, and it takes a lot of attention to notice it. Sometimes it is less difficult to notice it. What is it like then? Stay awake and really feel what the breath is like. Explore the sensation by being right with it in each moment.

There are moments in which we're neither breathing in nor breathing out. These moments can be used to expand the awareness slightly, to take in the sensation of the body in its sitting position. The buttocks on the chair, or the cushion or the bench. The hands resting in the lap. The direct physical sensation of these experiences. Without visualizing, without conceptualizing. Just feel what it feels like to be in the body. Then, the breath begins again and the attention goes back to the breath.

As the breath breathes itself, it is helpful, especially in the first ten or twenty years of practice, to make a very very soft mental note of the sensation, "in," "out," "in," "out," or "rising," "falling," "rising," "falling." Softly, softly, like a whisper in the mind. Just a gentle acknowledgement of what is.

~~~When you notice that your attention has wandered from your breath, gently let it return to the breath.~~~
Thoughts arise and distract the attention from the breath. Emotions arise and distract the attention from the breath. Sensations arise and distract the attention from the breath. But by far, the most common experience is that of thoughts arising. It is the nature of mind to produce thoughts. They come and they go. During the meditation, when a thought arises, make a mental note "thinking, thinking," and let it go its way. It will pass away pretty quickly. In fact, pretty much the moment that you notice that you're thinking and make the mental note of it, the thought will change. When you notice that you're lost in thought, turn your attention back again. It will happen over and over. But don't force it, and don't become discouraged. Simply turn your attention back to the anchor, the breath. Gently.

Don't set yourself a goal of keeping your attention unwavering on your breath for thirty minutes. It can't be done. Just decide that you'll watch one entire in breath without interruption. And then one entire out breath.

~~~Notice that thoughts arise and pass away.~~~
So too, emotions arise and pass away. Physical sensations arise and pass away. Inevitably, we get caught up in them. And at some point we see that we are thinking, and then we turn our attention back to our breath.
Ram Dass says that meditation is like sitting in your car at a railroad crossing, watching the train go by. And each of the boxcars has its doors open and inside each one is a diorama of a scene from your life. Here's that fight you had with your parents. Here's the first time you kissed your boyfriend/girlfriend. So there are all these pictures floating past. And some of 'em didn't even happen. Here's what you should have said. Here's what you'll say next time. Here's what you're going to wear to work today. Here's what you're going to eat next. Every one another boxcar. And they come past and you see them and you make the mental note, "thinking, thinking," and they go on down the road. And then there's the one that grabs you, that time your boss got angry with you, and it's like you jump out of the car and onto the boxcar and start the argument with him all over again. And then you wake up and realize that you're on the train instead of watching it go by. And the very moment, the very millisecond that you realize that you're on the train, at that moment you are back in your car, watching the train go by.

And as time goes by, the train and its boxcars keeps on coming, but the dioramas get less and less compelling. It's like, "there's the angry boss trick again." Or, "there's the fight with my mom again." And at some point, as we start to see that thoughts generate themselves and are only thoughts, they start to lose power, and we start to have more choice in our own lives, instead of letting random thoughts control us.

Obviously, I could go on about this point for a very long time.
One of my teachers says, "The thought of a person is not the person." Sometimes the simplicity and truth of this statement is just astonishing and world changing. The thought of a person is not the person. There's that angry boss trick again. The thought of the person is not the person.

~~~Continue to turn your attention back to your breath. Gently and easily, without forcing.~~~
The breath as the anchor for the awareness, just a place for it to rest, a neutral, constant experience that allows us to investigate the nature of mind and consciousness and awareness.


From Seeking the Heart of Wisdom, by Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield:

We begin with the breath, opening to the feeling or the sensation of each breath, each movement of the rise and fall or in and out, without any expectation of how any particular breath should be, not trying to force it into a particualr pattern, not thinking that there should be any one kind of sensation. It is a settling back into each moment, with a great deal of care and precision, and being open to what is revealed in that particular breath. What is the sensation of this rising, or this in-breath? What is the feeling of it? Is it long or short, is it rough or smooth, is it deep or shallow, is there heaviness or pressure or tingling?

There is no need to go through a checklist. Just by our being open and paying careful attention, the characteristics of each breath will show themselves. So we settle back and stay open, with a beginner's
mind for each rising, each falling, each in-breath, each out-breath.
posted by janey47 at 9:50 AM on December 12, 2014 [6 favorites]

(Disclaimer: I'm totally not an expert. This version of mindfulness does not involve sitting quietly with eyes closed, which for me almost always ends up with me taking an unintended nap and thus without getting the intended benefits.)

I used to struggle with the concept of mindfulness as well, until recently I realized that I've sort of been doing it all along in the form of riding horses. When you're on a horse (large, powerful prey animal with a strong flight instinct), you must pay attention to your surroundings, to any sights or sounds that might be scary, because your horse might react badly to those. You must also pay attention to the horse's movements, to the tension in their muscles and the way they're pricking their ears (or not), as this can tell you whether they're on the verge of shying or bolting. If you are carrying tension, anger, or worry, it WILL manifest in you physically, and your horse WILL sense it. And as soon as your horse feels your tension, they will likely believe that there is Danger, and that they too should be worried - which leads to a bad/dangerous ride. You have to learn to put everything else aside for the duration of your time around the animal, to let all thoughts of the outside world go for a while and simply be present, in your mind and in your senses.

Basically, I understand it as paying full attention to the world around me, to whatever I am with, and to my own physicality. I'm not "thoughtless," or "blank," as some meditations call for, but I take in information, process it and react accordingly, and move on. No mentally hitting "pause" or "rewind" to dwell on anything for longer than it is part of my experience. I do find that speech derails this mindset utterly, so best to do it alone or with an animal or silent human companion.

I'm not saying you need to take up riding, but if sitting quietly doesn't work for you, I'm pretty sure you could find other ways to facilitate mindfulness in a similar manner, as there are many activities which will be hindered by being distracted or tense (albeit perhaps not to such a punishing degree, heh). You might even already be practicing it in something you already do, and have just never given it enough thought to realize it and thereby hone and apply the skills in other situations. I think the key is really the dedication of time to practicing, regardless of how you're applying it. (Also I promise this is my last equestrian-centric answer for a while, honest!)
posted by po at 10:19 AM on December 12, 2014

I've also found the 7 Attitudinal Foundations of Mindfulness helpful (Jon Kabat-Zinn)

Non-judging - be an impartial witness
Patience - let it unfold in its own time
Beginner's mind - experience it new every time
Trust - trust yourself & your feelings
Non-striving - do not try to 'be' anything but what you are
Acceptance - accept how we are & what we feel, even if we don't like it
Letting go - experience is impermanent. watch it flow.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 10:31 AM on December 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

Thirding, fourthing and fifthing Mindfulness in Plain English - a book you can absolutely judge by its cover.
posted by flabdablet at 11:06 AM on December 12, 2014

Mindfulness is a notion/practice from Buddhist meditation tradition. I used to practice it (irregularly) years ago, and found it helpful. Here's what I did:

Find a quiet space, and assume a comfortable seating position. You can assume the lotus or half-lotus position, or not. You can use a special meditation cushion (such as a zafu), or not. Clasp your hands lightly and comfortably together, if you like (this is called the dhyana mudra). All of the ritual/religious trappings are entirely optional, but if you practice regularly, they can help cue your brain that "hey, it's meditation time now". Your body should be at rest, but not slouching – you need to be able to breathe. Your clothing should be loose and comfortable, if possible.

So, you're seated comfortably now. Close your eyes, and begin breathing in and out through your nose. You want to breathe fairly deeply, and fairly slowly, but naturally – don't force anything. Count each inhalation-exhalation silently to yourself, until you get to ten – and then start counting again from one. This is called "watching the breath", and that phrase gives a good sense of the aim: you're not here to do anything; you're just observing the natural, mostly involuntary process of breathing. The idea is to relieve your brain of its constant responsibilities, and allow it to just be.

Other thoughts and feelings will arise – probably a lot of them. Little noises or other distractions in your environment will nag for your attention. Don't fight or resist these thoughts – simply acknowledge them, and then turn your attention back to your breathing. It may take many minutes before your mind settles down, and you may be surprised to realize what a churning mess of almost-unconscious thoughts and feelings and distractions occupies your brain. This is okay. If you lose track of what number you're on, just start over from one.

Here's the best explanation I've heard for what this process is like: your mind is a restless puppy. You're sitting there calmly with a restless puppy. And it keeps trying to squirm away, or gnaw on the rug, or whatever. Whenever it does, you just gently pick it up and set it back down where it belongs (paying attention to your breath). As with all restless puppies, it'll be seconds before it tries to squirm away again. That's okay – every time it does, you just gently pick it up and set it back down where it belongs. And it'll try to squirm away again – and you'll pick it up and put it back down again.

Don't get impatient with the puppy, and don't get frustrated if you can't get it to stop squirming – you are not trying to achieve a goal. You are simply there to patiently, gently correct the puppy when it squirms. Performing this act is the goal. If you practice regularly, you will eventually get to a point where the puppy learns to stop squirming so much, and you'll just be sitting there in stillness, with your mind empty of everything except for your breath. But you don't get there by trying to get there, because trying is one of the very mental distractions that would prevent you from attaining stillness. You get there by patiently, consistently fulfilling your puppy-correcting duty, with no other aim in mind. It's a neat hack!

Do this for as long as you can – monks sit for hours, but ten or fifteen minutes is enough for a beginning layperson. It does take practice, so don't get discouraged if you don't get the hang of it at first. Just keep doing it regularly; it won't be long before you start to see benefits. Increase the duration of each session as you learn the knack of it.

Another term for "meditating" is "sitting" – because, with practice, that's what you'll be doing. You will learn to quiet the snarl of thoughts that usually occupies your mind, and just sit there.

If you think of your mind as a tangled ball of string, meditation is like untangling the string. Good luck!
posted by escape from the potato planet at 11:24 AM on December 12, 2014 [6 favorites]

One more thing that I thought of over lunch: when you do struggle with clearing your mind - instructions will say to 'let it go' and 'release it' and etc.

The idea that really taught me how to do that was "Don't criticize yourself for those little thoughts that pop up because that's just more thinking coming in the back door."

You truly do have to be prepared to drop the thought like a hot potato.
posted by Setec Astronomy at 12:47 PM on December 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

This all seems so complicated and hard and... gooey.

Headspace. Have you heard of headspace? Because that's totally what you are after.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:13 PM on December 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

Step 1: Watch this video of Jon Kabat-Zinn speaking about mindfulness in daily life. Participate in the brief guided meditation he leads. Consider carefully if mindfulness something you're willing to put some effort into for its own sake. Practicing mindfulness to achieve a particular outcome (fitter, happier, more productive…) doesn't really work. You need to be willing to practice unconditionally, without expectation.

Step 2: Google [your area] and "MBCT". Also google [your area] and "MBSR".

Step 3: Sign up for an eight-week course in either Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy or Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction. These are both evidence-based, secular mindfulness courses that have been shown in multiple studies to improve emotional wellbeing among participants. They are quite similar, but MBCT has a greater emphasis on preventing relapses of mental illness like depression or anxiety.

Step 4: Take the course. Mindfulness is MUCH easier to learn in the company of others with a face-to-face teacher. Like any skill, everyone makes similar mistakes when they first start out. Learning with others helps you be kinder to yourself as you stumble, and eventually you will learn to practice mindfulness with a healthy balance of attention, discipline and self-compassion. Often there will be an intensive "Day of Mindfulness" around week five of the course. It's optional, but try to go if you can.

Step 5: Find ways to integrate mindfulness practice into your daily life. This will probably involve making time for an intentional activity like sitting, walking or movement meditation. Simply admonishing yourself to "be more mindful" as you go about your day is like telling yourself to "just be more strong" without ever doing any exercise. To practice mindfulness, you really do need to "show up" and practice. Consider investing in things that support your practice - a comfortable meditation fusion or stool, for example - but don't confuse buying things with actually practicing mindfulness. The practice is more important.

Step 6: Remember that mindfulness is a lot like exercise - it's exercise for your brain, specifically for your capacity to shift and focus your attention. Sometimes people say, "Oh, I tried to meditate, but I'm no good at it - I can't stay focused, I keep getting distracted". This makes about as much sense as saying, "Oh, I tried lifting weights, but I'm no good at it - I can't hold the weights up in the air, I keep having to put them down". Just as weightlifting requires you to repeatedly lift and lower weights in order to get stronger, in mindfulness meditation, you repeatedly lose focus, and every time, you gently escort your brain back to the object of attention (often your breath). Over time, your attentional capacity strengthens and you get better at noticing where your mind is and gently focusing it where you want it to be. Getting distracted isn't a failure - it's an opportunity for practice.

Step 7: Seriously, do a course. I practiced on my own for years, thinking I "got it", but doing an MBCT course made everything click into place for me in a way it never did before. Good luck!
posted by embrangled at 5:35 PM on December 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

So many suggestions - I hope you don't feel overwhelmed by them all. It's worth picking one that appeals and sticking with it for a while.

My own recommendations for a simple way in have all been made above, but would be to start with the Jon Kabat Zinn Google video, then buy The Mindful Way Through Depression (which comes with a CD of guided meditations by Kabat Zinn, who has a lovely voice!).

As Jessamyn describes so well above, one of the ways mindfulness can really help with depression and anxiety is to help you gradually learn to see your anxious thoughts as symptoms of anxiety which you can let pass, rather than Real And Terrible Truths About Yourself And Your World Which You Must Cling Onto And Think And Think And Think And Never Let Drop.

So I'd recommend the Mindful Way Through Depression because it talks you through this side of things.

The Headspace App maybe too - I'm part-way through their "Anxiety Pack" and it's heading in the same direction in a really effective way. It's also pretty to look at, and good for encouraging you to meditate regularly.

If you're looking for a local group, one that's based on Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (aka MBSR) or on Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) are the things to look out for. They're usually offered as an eight-week course, I think.
posted by penguin pie at 5:38 PM on December 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

You've gotten lots of good responses, but I'll throw in one more. There's a Buddhist meditation teacher in California named Gil Fronsdal who is really great. He offers a 5-week intro to mindfulness course, and you can listen to it online. This might be more involved than what you're looking for, but he's really clear, and he teaches you how to pay attention to different aspects of your experience -- your breath, your body, your feelings, your thoughts. I'm a daily meditator, and it's made a big difference in my life.
posted by swheatie at 7:56 PM on December 12, 2014

If you intend to sit and observe yourself or observe life or whatever, don't sit in line of sight of a clock. I use a timer on my droid, I can set it for however many minutes, so it starts, and I know that I'll be alerted when the allotted amount of time is gone by. But if there is a clock I can see, I will still look at it, it becomes almost an obsession to see how long I've sat, how much longer til the bell rings. Or say maybe I don't look at the clock, but I'll spend thought cycles wanting to look at it, which might even be worse.

Any and all of that keeps from mindfulness. I'm thinking about a clock, or not thinking about a clock, or thinking about a clock but being determined to not think about it, which means of course that I am thinking of it, and it's just all a bunch of jive, and my head is nowhere near where my body is.

So I don't have a clock I can peek at, because I damn sure will, even as my timer is churning down the seconds. It seems that it's human nature. Sometimes I've been so caught up in waiting for the bell that I'm not present at all, it's just ridiculous. But common. Human.

But I do use a clock, one that I bought at a thrift shop, real simple quartz wall clock; it's maybe six foot from where I sit, on my couch, I can hear it thunk thunk thunk quietly as the seconds tick off. So I've got this clock, and I will look at it, but here's the deal -- I've removed the hour and minute hands, so it's only the second hand moving around that face.

It's really a great reminder, brings me right back Here, Now. Plus it's always right, it never needs to be reset. I always know exactly what time it is: Now. Now. Now. It's right next to my door, as I head out of my condo I'll look at it, hopefully I'll remember a bit more, as I go through my day, sometimes it helps me remember what time it really is, what time it always is -- Now.

I have a lot of friends that meditate, and I mentor four guys that meditate, I've spent some time this past month buying up thrift shop clocks and setting them up, second hands only, for holiday gifts. It'll be fun, at least it will be for me, and for those I'm going to give them to, I'm sure they'll be onto what I'm up to.

Sit. Just sit. Scratch your arm when it itches. Be still. Even if/when it feels completely torrential inside, and raging storms, you still reap the benefits.

posted by dancestoblue at 3:28 AM on December 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

Oh, and in response to your question of "how did it help?" -- there have been many benefits for me, over a number of years. Mindfulness helps you see that your thoughts are just thoughts. They're not real and they're not you. You can have all sorts of thoughts and you can choose which ones you want to act on, which ones you want to endorse and stand behind. You can have all sorts of weird, mean, selfish, judgmental, crazy thoughts and realize that the mind just churns them out but you don't have to believe them or hate yourself for them. Choice is one of the biggest gifts mindfulness bestows. And there are many others. I'm happy to talk more about this if you want to memail me. Good luck!
posted by swheatie at 7:52 AM on December 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Another voice for the Headspace app. Love it, love it, love it. It's free through the first ten cycles so you can get a feel for how it works before deciding if you want to buy in. Try it!
posted by AthenaPolias at 3:21 PM on December 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Until recently, I had become very, very, bad at not being “present”. When I showered, I didn’t notice the heat of the water, or the scent of the soap, or the echoing sounds, or the pleasant feeling of being clean.

I was too busy thinking about what Jane said yesterday, and isn’t that typical of people today, and here’s what I should have said to her, and wouldn’t that have been perfect, and then I would have told Fred what I said to Jane, and oh how he would have admired me for being so clever, and if Bill hadn’t been such a jerk I wouldn’t have been grouchy yesterday and snapped at my husband, and why do they call it snapping anyway, because that’s what turtles do, and Melissa saw turtles when she was in Mexico, and I wish I was in Mexico because it’s so damn cold here, and why do people live in such a cold place, and I need to get new winter boots because my boots have a hole in the heel but they’re nice boots, and I won’t find another pair as nice because now they’re all made out of vinyl, and nobody makes nice leather stuff anymore, and the quality of products in general has gone down, and we’re all going to hell in a handbasket, so what’s the point anyway…

… and that’s about 30 seconds worth of thoughts. And none of them had anything to do with what I was actually doing.

So now what I try to do is this: When I am walking, I just walk. I try to shut down the internal chatter, and just focus on the feeling of my legs moving, and the sights, sounds, and smells around me. When I am cooking supper, I focus on the colours, smells, and textures of the food. When I am typing, I enjoy the ability of my brain and fingers to form words. I try not to be in a hurry to go on to the next thing I should be doing.

I have found this Annie Dillard quote very useful: "How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing."

posted by LauraJ at 1:34 PM on December 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

This thread has gotten me to sign up for Headspace, which I really like, especially for its gentle introduction to meditation before it gets into more in-depth stuff. It's also a very non-religious introduction to meditation, if the religiosity is a turn-off for you.
posted by Elementary Penguin at 4:48 PM on December 29, 2014

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