My clients often tell me that they would like to start a mindfulness practice, but that they get stuck. Perhaps the timing doesn’t quite feel right. Their schedule may get full, or they never feel like they can find the right space in the chaos of everyday life. Maybe they simply don’t know how to start. Sometimes they’re not even sure what it takes to begin.
This can be the case with any new habit we’re trying to cultivate. We sense that the possibility for something new, beneficial, or important in our life is there, but we get stuck on how exactly to make it happen. However, when it comes to mindfulness, the answers for getting started are often much more possible than people think. That’s because it really doesn’t take all that that much to practice.
What does it take to start a mindfulness practice? My top three criteria are surprisingly accessible. My guess is that you already have everything you need!
Here we go…
Yep, that’s right if you’re alive you can start a mindfulness practice. That’s because mindfulness is about bringing awareness to the moment just as it is – messy, complicated, frustrating, or filled with complete joy. When we practice bringing mindfulness into each moment – we find that our practice doesn’t have to happen on a special cushion, in the perfect place, while surrounded by sea breezes, herbal tea and gong sounds.
This quote from mindfulness teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn captures it all…
“The spirit of mindfulness is to practice for its own sake, and just to take each moment as it comes – pleasant or unpleasant, good, bad, or ugly – and then work with that because it is what is present now. With this attitude, life itself becomes practice.” From Wherever You Go There You Are
Now, to be fair, it likely feels easier to practice when you feel relaxed, calm, and focused. If mindfulness helps us pay attention to what is actually happening in the moment, it’s not surprising that it will feel “better” to notice what feels “good.” If what we’re experiencing is difficult or upsetting – and especially if we’re facing some sort of trauma or crisis – becoming mindful might even feel impossible.
I definitely don’t want to imply that being alive is all you need to start a mindfulness practice. What I mean is that if you’re breathing, you can start very, very small. And that’s sometimes exactly what you need!
For example, informal practices – like noticing just one breath, or bringing mindful awareness to a daily activity like brushing your teeth or drinking a cup of tea – can be a simple way to begin. Mindful walking or other forms of mindful movement like yoga or dancing can also be a nice way to create a practice that works for you.
Which brings me to the next criteria…
I love reminding people that their practice can be unique, individualized and completely flexible. No one should ever feel like there is only one way to practice mindfulness. Getting creative with your practice may help you find new and interesting ways to bring mindfulness into your life even when things are unpredictable.
Paying mindful attention to what’s happening as its happenings means that we are creating the space to observe our experiences. We notice our thoughts as thoughts. We cultivate awareness of our feelings and emotions. We practice turning our attention towards the sensations of our body, our heart rate, our breath. As we do this, we’re not trying to change what we notice, to stop it or push it away – we’re more like a scientist, noticing, without judgment what is in this moment.
Offering ourselves the opportunity to be creative in this process means we may find new ways to become flexible in our practice – bringing mindful awareness to moments we normally encounter with mindlessness. Here is an example. Reading a book is not, in and of itself, mindfulness. It may be relaxing, you may enjoy it, but it is not a mindfulness practice, per se. However, if reading (or sitting down to your computer, or pouring a cup of coffee, almost anything, really) is something you do every day – you can bring a little creative mindfulness into it. How?
Tune in to the sensations in your body by noticing the feeling of your body in the space where you are – standing, sitting, or lying down. Notice the feeling of the book in your hand, closing your eyes, turn your attention to the sounds, smells and sensations of the paper as it moves through your fingers when you turn the page. Before you begin reading, take a moment to pause, what does the anticipation of a good book feel like in your body? What thoughts do you notice? What emotions are present as you anticipate connecting with the characters on the page?
Taking small, mindful moments throughout the day is a wonderful way to bring creativity to your practice – even off the cushion or away from the mat. Think of it as the tiny burst of brain exercise you need to strengthen your body’s natural capacity for mindful awareness for the longer, more focused aspects of your practice.
My mom has one of those super-fancy, magnifying makeup mirrors. I look at my face every day, but I never look at it that closely, unless I’m at her house. When I do, I can’t resist thinking, “Wow! Look at all my freckles and stray eyebrows and wrinkles!” I must always remind myself that that’s just part of having a face in middle age.
Mindfulness practice is a bit like that – when we become more mindful of our thoughts, feeling, and physical sensations – we might find a natural tendency to be critical. I often hear clients say things like, “I know I shouldn’t think this, but…” or “It’s wrong to feel this way, however…” We judge ourselves so harshly for experiences that are completely normal and natural.
That means that one of the most important criteria for creating a sustainable mindfulness practice is learning to be kind to yourself. You may see things about yourself you find troubling. You may begin to realize you are quick to anger or judge. Perhaps you discover that there is grief, loss or envy hiding under the surface. But, your practice is not about being perfect. It is about seeing your full self, just as it is.
When we are kind to ourselves, we can begin to accept ourselves as perfect even in moments of imperfection. If we notice habits or behaviors that aren’t working well in our lives, we can lovingly offer ourselves the opportunity to make a shift and try something different.
We can return to the analogy of the magnifying mirror here too. While I might see that mirror as a (sometimes) frightening way to look more closely at my skin – seeing things I don’t normally notice – I also see it as a gift. I spent my childhood in the countryside, running around free in the 1980s – rarely wearing sun protection. The mirror provides the chance to see things that may need further attention or perhaps even a trip to the dermatologist. It is a gift to see clearly, even if it’s not always easy.
Most importantly, becoming mindfully aware of our experiences doesn’t have to turn into self-judgment. It is, on the contrary, one of the best methods of creating a caring and compassionate relationship with ourselves.
The criteria for starting a mindfulness practice often includes finding a quiet space, buying a meditation cushion, setting aside time in your day when you can get away. All of those things can help and there is value in setting your intentions for when and where you practice. However, don’t let that list of to-do’s stop you from beginning. Being alive, being creative and being kind are the most important criteria you need to start a mindfulness practice today.