Mindfulness meditation for beginners: Everything you need to know

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I have always had a tendency to anxiety, no more so than the last few years with the chaos and uncertainty of this world. It may quieten at times, but it rears its ugly head at the most inopportune of times. Certainly, the chaos of the last two years of a global pandemic has led to heightened anxiety worldwide.

However, a while ago I learnt to integrate mindfulness into my everyday life, and it has transformed my relationship with anxiety.

Mindfulness is a practice that enables us to live with greater wisdom and compassion. It is a technique focussing on our mental attention and physical sensation in the present moment.

Practising mindfulness allows us to still our wandering thoughts and to fully experience the present.

Mindfulness is basically being in the present moment, being aware of your thoughts and feelings, both positive and negative and fully accepting them without judging them.

Mindfulness can either be formal or informal. Formal mindfulness is the regular practice of mindfulness meditation. It can be practised in just a few minutes or as long as you want. It is essentially ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’.

It is the intention of sitting or lying down and bringing your awareness to the present moment. It can be as simple as focusing on your breathing, simply registering the sensations of your breath or doing a scan of your body.

In order to integrate mindfulness into my life I needed to build a daily habit of mindfulness.

According to well-renowned Stanford- based behavioural expert BJ Fogg, motivation and willpower, although important, are not enough to successfully change habits. BJ Fogg developed a methodology for cultivating habits and it has proven to be successful over a number of years, with Fogg’s Stanford Behaviour Design Lab in the USA researching and improving this approach with over 40,000 people.

The methodology is simple.  Behaviour= MAP (M- Motivation, A- Ability, P- Prompt). We know we need to have the motivation otherwise why even bother? What we also need is the ability to perform the behaviour and finally a prompt to help us actually take the action.

When I started mindfulness meditation, I followed a similar process. My motivation was high. I had learnt a great deal about the benefits of meditation including the scientific evidence that was around at the time. I also wanted to reduce my anxiety, another great motivation!

I learnt how to meditate through reading and downloading a couple of free apps which had great tutorials. That covered my motivation and ability. How was I going to integrate this into my daily life which was far too busy and probably the reason for my increased anxiety?

I decided to start meditating just for 10 mins once a day and I did this first thing in the morning. My prompt here was that I would meditate before the warm lemon drink I had every morning on waking.

It worked. I started small and gradually increased it. As time went on, I also increased the number of times I meditated in the day. It soon became an important part of my life. Of course, we are all human and there are some days even now when I only manage to do one small meditation in the day. The important thing here though, is I don’t beat myself up about it. I am kind to myself, and this helps me immensely.

BJ Fogg advocates taking your desired goals and aspirations and breaking them down into manageable, bite-sized chunks. It is important to start small with simple and easy actions and not take on too much in one go. It is definitely easier to start with something that you can commit to.

For me it was the 10 minutes of meditation every morning. It was doable and it didn’t take too long for me to overcome the initial resistance and once I started, I just kept going.

Roberta Lewis in an article from the Pelouse Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Course explains the practice of mindfulness meditation well.

“In mindfulness meditation, you don’t ignore distracting thoughts, sensations or physical discomfort, rather, you focus on them.

An integral part of mindfulness practice is to look at, accept and actually welcome the tensions, stress and pain, as well as disturbing emotions that surface such as fear, anger, disappointment and feelings of insecurity and unworthiness.

This is done with the purpose of acknowledging present moment reality as it is found – whether it is pleasant or unpleasant – as the first step towards transforming that reality and one’s relationship to it.

In the practice of mindfulness meditation, one can cultivate the sense of oneself as a present moment awareness that observes the thoughts that arise in the mind and views them as something to be noted, perhaps responded to, but not to be identified with as “me.” 

As one begins to quiet the mind, this view of our thoughts in relation to ourselves can be cultivated more and more deeply, which can result in more clarity about who we really are. 

When we realize we are not our thoughts, we can explore them more deeply and begin to move into a greater stillness that offers us further information about who we may really be at our core.”

At the end of the day, mindfulness is about stilling your busy and, in many cases, frantic mind. You allow your thoughts to be there, but the aim is not to be hooked by them. Observe them and even be curious about them. The more you observe your thoughts the more you see that they are all just thoughts. They are not you.

Meditation, like any habit we cultivate, takes time. It does not matter if your busy mind takes over. Note what has taken your attention away and then return your mind to stillness or your breath. It does not matter how much this happens, it is the awareness that this is happening and returning to stillness that is key here.

The relaxation response, the state of equanimity after meditating, affects genes that are related to our immune system.

There is now scientific evidence to show that meditation changes the brain. It increases the prefrontal region of the brain and slows down the thinning process that occurs as we age.

The practices of meditation and mindfulness not only help with our physical health, they strengthen our resilience in dealing with stress and help us tap into our wisdom.

Mindfulness brings with it a sense of wellbeing and genuine happiness, irrespective of what is happening externally and what we derive from the world. Happiness lies within and practising mindfulness definitely helps with this.

Informal mindfulness is about giving our full attention to what we are doing and observing our thoughts about it but not getting caught up in them. It could be washing the dishes or sweeping the floor. There is a classic mindfulness experiment of eating a sultana while giving your full attention to each of your senses, one by one.

There are many forms of mindfulness meditation. Here are some links to free meditations by Associate Professor Judson Brewer (known as Dr Jud), an internationally known psychiatrist and expert in mindfulness training for habit change and anxiety.

The reality is those of us who suffer from anxiety cannot run away from it. It won’t magically disappear. It is the accepting of the anxiety we have and being mindful that makes all the difference and changes our relationship with it.

There is no question mindfulness has significantly helped me!