Wellbeing

7 tips to starting a successful mindfulness practice

Article outline:

So, you’ve read or heard about the benefits of meditation, and you want to give it a go? In this guide, I’ll run you through 7 steps to consider ahead of starting out your mindfulness practice. 

1. Be curious in your mindfulness practice

The way we go into a practice will influence what we get out of it. Mindfulness meditation is not about stopping thoughts or feelings. So, don’t go into it expecting anything – just be curious. 

Say to yourself before you start, “I’m going to be curious”. I’ve been meditating for years and it’s still helpful to come back to this attitude of curiosity.

2. Start small

Mindfulness can bring huge benefits from the regular, short practice of around 10-15 minutes per day. This isn’t much, but some people will find 10 minutes very long to begin with. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. 

The most important thing is aiming to establish the habit of sitting to meditate, even if to begin with that is only for 1-2 minutes a couple of times per day. You can then build this up gradually.

3. Be patient in your mindfulness practice

Whilst each person is different, research suggests that it takes several (i.e. more than 4) weeks to see significant improvements in things like emotional regulation, mood, attention and energy levels from meditation. 

Linking back to point 1 above, it’s important to set your expectations sensibly – enjoy the process of discovery and focus not on the outcome (“when will I get better sleep?!” or “when will I start to feel better?!”). This completely derails the whole process. 

4. Commit to your mindfulness practice

As with any new behaviour change, making a commitment to yourself that this will be a non-negotiable in your life is crucial. Set aside time in your day and schedule it in your diary, set an alarm on your phone, tell your partner and kids, do whatever you need to in order to fully commit to starting a practice. 

By starting small, you’re also more likely to stick with this commitment. That’s because if you give yourself permission to just sit for one minute, success is much easier and you’ll probably keep going.

5. Get comfortable (but not too comfortable).

It’s important to get into a comfortable position when meditating and sit somewhere where you will not be distracted. You want to stay alert yet relaxed when meditating, so allow your shoulders and arms to rest gently and relax, but keep the spine and head upright (though not stiff) so that you don’t fall asleep.

It can be helpful to sit in the same spot each day because your brain will start to form an association with this place and it will get easier to “drop into” meditation as you progress. However, this isn’t essential, the most important thing is that you do it (see points 2 and 4 above!)

Don’t get too hung up on this – you may have an injury that means you can’t sit cross legged, or your back may hurt if not supported well. There is no “right” way to sit during meditation, do what works for you as the main thing, for now, is getting started. This means you do not have to buy some special cushion or mat before you begin!

Set aside time in your day and schedule it in your diary, set an alarm on your phone, tell your partner and kids, do whatever you need to in order to fully commit to starting a mindfulness practice.

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6. Choose your “home”

You’ll be wondering by now how it actually works. Well, when we practice mindfulness, we choose what I like to call a “home” to focus on. This home is something we continually return to each time we get distracted by stuff going on in our minds. 

We ideally want home to be something stable and always available to us, like the sensation of our breathing, the sensation of sitting, or the sensation of our hands on our lap. 

We start at “home” noticing how these things feel, and then eventually our mind will wander off to other things. The aim is to then gently return home to your base and continue. This might happen a few or many times during your practice session. That’s mindfulness.

I like to use the metaphor of the wandering puppy: Imagine a little puppy who has walked out the door and is wandering off into the garden or down the street. Your job is to stay at home minding him, but as puppies do, every now and then he wanders off without you realising. When you notice he’s gone, you return him home gently. 

Mindfulness meditation is all about bringing the puppy home, over and over again. And just as we wouldn’t want to shout at or get annoyed with a cute little puppy for just being curious, we treat ourselves with the same level of non-judgment and kindness. 

When we notice our mind has gone for a walk, we can anchor ourselves back to our breathing, or the sensation of sitting by saying something like “home” in our mind to remind us to come back. 

7. WOW your mind

Mindfulness is somewhat strange because it is an active process, yet the aim isn’t to force anything. We can use different verbs as nice metaphors to describe the processes we want to avoid during our practice and also those we want to work towards.

During meditation, our mind will always conjure up a whole host of thoughts, images, memories, worries, plans, sensations, imagination. For simplicity, I’m just going to call these all “thoughts”.

Things we want to avoid doing are:

  • Following or chasing particular thoughts
  • Grasping at thoughts
  • Clinging to thoughts
  • Being lured in by thoughts
  • Being captured by thoughts
  • Being swept away by thoughts

If we find ourselves doing any of these (which is normal), we then become lost in our mind and leave “home”.

Just to be clear, thoughts aren’t bad. It’s just that they distract us from being in the here-and-now. They often take us into the past of future. When we return to our home, we return to being present.

Instead, we want to WOW our minds:

  • Witness
  • Observe 
  • Watch

These verbs are still active, but the difference is we are taking a step back to observe things as they unfold, rather than getting caught up in them. 

Before you start your practice, perhaps just prepare yourself by saying silently in your mind, “I’m going to practice witnessing/observing/watching my thoughts today”.

Get started with your mindfulness practice!

You can only do so much reading about meditation so the best thing to do is give it a try.

Get practicing with my free 14-day intro course: Mindfulness for nurses: Two-week beginner program (LINK).

Or, you can access a range of other more advanced meditations on the NPW website here. [LINK to meditations].

Article written by Nathan Illman. 

Nathan is a Clinical Psychologist. His mission is to give nurses access to high-quality psychological education and training to help them prepare for and heal from emotionally challenging work.

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