You’ve been telling yourself forever that you can’t meditate or develop a mindfulness practice. As soon as you begin, your mind starts wandering, you get frustrated and quit. Little did you know that up until the time you quit, you were flawlessly executing a mindfulness practice.
This post is the exciting conclusion of a series of posts surreptitiously engineered to encourage you to try again.
How We Got To This Point – Metabolism
In the first post of the series, we discussed your body’s metabolism. Increasing one’s metabolism is the holy grail to a fit and healthy life during which you’re constantly burning fat while eating bacon-and-ranch-chocolate-covered-cheese-puffs with reckless abandon.
The health media is brimming with hacks on how to “rev your metabolism” and every one of those hacks is a lie because simple tricks to increase your metabolism in the long term don’t exist. There’s just no way to get around the fact that raising your metabolism is a painful process. The only ways to stoke that metabolic fire over long periods of time are:
- Getting seriously sick or injured which causes your body to go into a metabolism-boosting repair mode.
- Entering puberty because growing up takes lots of energy. At least that’s what I’ve heard about growing up. I have no personal experience.
- Running around naked in the winter or some such simulation of this activity. This is something I do have experience with as the people who witnessed my antics in college will attest. They’ll also use that same series of events to attest to my never reaching puberty.
- Micromanaging your diet and physical activity so you can achieve muscle hypertrophy (which is a smartypants way of saying “grow muscle.” “Hypertrophy” is not, as I once thought, the prize given to each of the participants in the seven and under bodybuilding competition. Yes, everyone gets a trophy).
I think we can agree, all of those can be painful. Well, hypertrophy doesn’t have to be painful but the process of achieving it, even with performance enhancing drugs, requires a commitment of time many of us can’t afford. To get into the dirty details, read the post “Metabolism – Is It ‘Rev-able?‘”
How We Got To This Point – Mindfulness
In the second post of the series, we discussed why you should not let your inability to spike your metabolism discourage you. Because while there are few physical tricks you can perform to budge your metabolism, there is a mental trick you can apply to encourage your metabolism’s intractability in your favor. In that post, we examined how a mindfulness practice diverts the fixed amount of energy your body sends to the brain towards its awesome regions and away from the scardy-pants parts.
That post also includes colorful pictures and barely relevant Lord of the Rings references so you should check it out.
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Karma Sense Mindfulness – Now What?
If you’re still reading at this point, you’re probably interested in improving the way your brain functions and wondering how you, the person whose previous attempts at developing a meditation or mindfulness practice was a #fail, can make it work this time. Either that or you just like to, once again experience the trainwreck that my blog posts can sometimes be.
In the Executive Summary of this post, I claimed you were actually better at practicing mindfulness than you thought.
It’s true. In your previous attempts, the moment you caught yourself doing something other than focusing on your breathing (e.g., obsessing over that duckwad in accounting or that nitwit with the Maryland license plates who cut you off in traffic), you executed a perfect 10.0 performance of a mindfulness practice.
The rest of this post explains why and gives tips on how you can get even better. But first, let’s clear the air on the differences between meditation and mindfulness because it makes a difference.
The Difference Between Meditation and Mindfulness
Who gives a crap? There really is no difference.
Now, experts and academics on the two will gladly argue with me on this point. In fact, if ever you want to troll meditation/mindfulness snobs, tell them meditation and mindfulness are the same thing and watch them blow their tops minutes after lecturing you on how their personal practice calms their mind.
You, however, have Karma Sense. You don’t care what the thing is called. You just want the benefit. The bottom line on the differences between various forms of meditation and mindfulness is that focusing on which one better aligns your Qi, assuming that’s a thing anyone wants to do, is majoring in the minor. Like exercise and diets, the best mindfulness practice is the one you stick to.
A Mindfulness Practice You Can Stick To
Okay, enough with the Hellmansplaining,* you’re on board. How do you develop a mindfulness practice that works and that you can stick to? Let’s walk through a mindfulness exercise almost anyone can do and see how we build from there.
- Set a timer for one minute. One minute, that’s it! Surely you can spare one minute.
- Take a deep breath and while you’re taking that deep breath, set an intention that you’re going to complete this exercise.
- Set your gaze gently at some nondistracting place in front of you. If you prefer, you can close your eyes but if you do, it may be difficult to read step four.
- Set your mental attention on one of your big toes. It doesn’t matter if it’s your left or right, just choose one.
- Apply tension to that toe by pressing it towards the floor or the sole of your shoe. If you don’t have a big toe, choose a different toe, a finger, an eyelid or your lips. Select some small part of your body you can control and apply tension to.
- Mentally explore what this feels life. On what regions of your toe do you feel pressure? How does the rest of the toe feel? As the seconds progress, are you getting tired? What else do you notice going on with your toe (e.g. discomfort, numbness, toe cramps)?
- If you find your mind wandering when you should be thinking about your toe, that’s cool. Just let the distraction go and return your focus to your toe.
- When the timer goes off, relax your toe.
- Take another deep breath and give yourself a mental pat on the back for completing the exercise. You have now taken your first step towards your mindfulness practice.
See if you can run through this exercise five out of seven days of the week. The object during this first week is not to stop your mind from wandering away from your toe. Instead, you’re learning how to focus your mind on what’s happening right now. And, you’re learning that if your mind does wander from what’s happening now, that you can cut yourself a break and return to your practice.
Buddha described the human mind as being filled with drunken monkeys, jumping around, screeching, chattering, carrying on endlessly. If you can watch the monkey mind unfold during your one minute practice and calmly adjust your attention back to your toe, you’ll be training yourself to tamp down the monkey mind before it snowballs into an all-consuming drain on your mental energy.
I’m not saying this is easy. Who among us doesn’t find the concept of monkeys and snowballs more entertaining than thinking about a toe?
Once you’ve practiced this one-minute mindfulness exercise for a week, it’s time to progressively kick it up a notch. Here’s my recommendation of sequential notch-upping kicks.
Notch 1 – Transition your focus away from your toe and towards your breath.
Just like you did with your toe, be curious about how you breathe. Notice how the air moves in and out of your body. Feel the air as it works it’s way through your nose, mouth, throat, trachea, lungs and abdomen. Notice the contrast between the temperature of the air and your body. Observe the pace. Just breathe naturally. Don’t force anything.
As you did before, if you find the monkey mind kicking in, gently kick it back to your breath with no judgments. Just let it go.
By transitioning your focus from the very physical toe to the less tangible breath, you’re strengthening your brain’s “mindfulness muscle.” You’re moving from concentrating on something you completely control (i.e., the position of your toe) to something that straddles the conscious and subconscious. You CAN control your breath but unless you do something unnatural, you’re breathing is going to happen whether you agree to it or not. Attention to your breath helps you better link the connection between your body and mind.
Notch 2 – Lengthen the time of your practice.
Add a minute to your practice. One minute, that’s all. Double its effect.
After a satisfying number of swipes at two minutes, go to three. Then four and then five.
Once at five, keep incrementing but increase those increments by five minutes. In less than three months, you’ll have a regular thirty-minute mindfulness practice.
Why This Proposed Progression Works For Most Anyone
If you’ve tried to adopt a mindfulness practice before and failed, the most likely reasons for failure were:
- You just couldn’t focus on “nothing” for more than a few seconds.
- You don’t have the five or fifteen or thirty minutes to spare.
- You don’t believe the benefits are real or you never felt you achieved those benefits.
The process I propose works around those problems.
Failure Reason 1 – Inability To Focus
By following this process, you’re not worried about clearing the mind. You’re not worried at all. You’re just focusing on your breath and if you catch yourself thinking about something else, you’re returning your focus on your breath. The goal is to not allow whatever hot mess is going on in your brain to interfere with whatever’s happening in the present moment.
Failure Reason 2 – Lack of Time
Time isn’t really an issue either, at least not at first. You know you have one minute. Are two minutes really that much harder? Are five?
You might be saying to yourself, “But Davey H, sure five minutes is possible. But there’s a big difference between five and fifteen. And thirty? Fuhgettaboutit!”
And to this, I say, “No, you!” Because nowhere in this practice do I say you have to find a quiet place to get this done. You can practice mindfulness just about anywhere at just about anytime when you don’t need to have your attention on something other than your breath.
When I lived my life as an overscheduled corporate drone, I’d often practice on airplanes. Is it easy focusing on your breath when you’re wedged into the middle seat of coach class and the kid in the row behind you is screaming and kicking your seat? No! But that sure is a great time to practice the “returning your attention” part. And, if ever you actually NEEDED to reap the benefits of a mindfulness practice, it’s in situations like those.
You can practice mindfulness while walking, while doing chores or while eating. I’ve traveled the country delivering seminars on how to eat mindfully.
Failure Reason 3 – Lack of Faith
I’m with you here my nonbelieving sister and brother in arms. All I can tell you is here’s what happened to me. At first, I thought all this mindfulness stuff was a bunch of hooey. Then, I read some of the research, learned the potential benefits and decided it couldn’t hurt. There are thousands of studies demonstrating the short and long-term effects mindfulness has on the brain. Most of these studies confirm benefits. Some suggest there are no benefits. None of them demonstrate harm.
So, what have you got to lose? Three months is a finite period. If you follow the progression I suggest, it consumes 1% of your life during the ten or so weeks you practice. Is the prospect of being healthier, happier and smarter worth a 1% investment of your time?
Try this progression and at the end of it decide whether you’ve picked up a new lifelong healthy habit or you wasted a very small part of your life.
And let me know how it worked out for you by contacting me here.
*Hellmansplaining – a particularly detailed and longwinded form of mansplaining that becomes so painful and tiresome with its self-deprecation and random pop culture references, it makes you wish you’ve died and gone to Hell.