This was the question people most frequently asked during a recent customer survey. The answer is not straight forward as the experience is different for everyone and we all start in different places. However, I can share my own experience on what I have come to learn over the past few years both personally and through the work of the many experienced practitioners who have written about the subject.
When I started my daily practice as part of the mindfulness based stress reduction course (MBSR), part of its appeal for me was the attitude of non-striving. For this ½ hour of practice, being there following the guided meditation, was enough. It was all that was required of me at that point in time, I didn’t have to achieve anything or do anything. This attitude of allowing is a strong theme throughout the MBSR course but many authors and long term practitioners openly state that having a mindfulness goal or expectation is contrary to the general principles of the practice. In a world where competition is almost as strong as our DNA, being mindful without expectation, gives us time off and can be very freeing. That said, when people start to practice they want to know whether they are doing it right.
I was motivated to attend the MBSR course because my thoughts were literally wearing me out. As I progressed through the eight week course, I noticed after one of the practices, that I experienced a profound stillness in the mind. At the time it appeared that my mind was like a giant water mill constantly turning and for that few seconds someone had stopped turning the handle and there was just nothing. It was so calming and I remember an underlying fear that once I had a thought, it would wake up the wheel turner, and the mill wheel would begin once again.
I wanted to understand this and went on to study mindfulness with Aberdeen University and the Mindfulness Association. The course is taught by long term mindfulness practitioners and academics, so there is an excellent balance of experiential practice and theory.
So the starting point for practice is usually establishing a focal point or anchor. This can be an object, the rhythm of the breath or different parts of the body. As we turn our attention to the anchor the mind will wander off into thoughts, images, plan and stories. This is exactly what the mind does so when this happens it is completely normal. Following a guided meditation, each time the guide speaks, we notice that the mind has wandered off and are reminded to return to the anchor. There are two skills being developed in this practice. The first is training our mind to focus on an anchor and the second is the skill of noticing that the mind has wandered. The focusing skill is the one that might induce the state of calm, so understandably this state is highly sought after. This can lead to a misconception that mindfulness is simply relaxation or that having thoughts is negative. However, the noticing skill is an equally important part of the practice. Noticing that our mind has wandered off is initially triggered by the meditation guide speaking, but with practice we notice completely unprompted. Once we are able to notice our mind wandering, without the prompt of the guide, then we have begun to acquire the noticing skill.
So initially during practice, the windows of stillness may be narrow and the mind might be busy with a lot of thoughts. With practice the balance may shift so that we spend more of our time in the stillness mode. When we are resting in this way, the thoughts are always there but they simply drift past and we are not compelled to engage with them.
As our practice strengthens, the noticing skill becomes stronger and we are able to return to the resting space more quickly. When the noticing skill strengthens, we might find that we can access it during our daily life. There might be a particular thought pattern that we ruminate on and just as we are about to engage with this familiar pattern, we notice. That brief pause just before we react gives us the choice of whether to follow up the thought or not. Similarly if we are triggered to react in a given situation, just as we are about to react, we notice the process and area able to choose how to proceed. Some of these reactions are habits that we have formed over a long period of time so we cannot expect them to disappear overnight. With mindfulness we are not trying to address these automatic patterns, we are strengthening new patterns that we can choose to follow instead.
The practice of mindfulness is simple but it is a practice and our mental muscles are strengthened when we practice. Bringing an attitude of curiousity to the practice without striving is a good way to enable the practice to unfold at its own pace. Some of the literature linking mindfulness to emotional intelligence might promote mindfulness in a more goal driven way but my experience is that this can lead to more thinking or competitiveness and one of the great joys of mindfulness is that we allow it to be just as it is.
There are a few things that are worth pointing out – firstly when we start to practice, the mind might seem busier than ever. The chances are that the mind has always been this busy, but mindfulness is like shining a torch on something that is already there.
When we begin noticing our thoughts we might begin to observe thoughts that we don’t like. This is a completely natural part of the process but can be problematic for some. It always helps to have the support of a mindfulness teacher who has access to practices that are designed for this scenario.
Finally, mindfulness is not a linear journey. We might feel we are making great progress and noticing more in our daily lives. We might even feel that through mindfulness we are more often on an even keel or living life to the full. During our practice we might experience the lovely stillness that can arise in the mind. One day, we come to practice and our mind is as busy as ever. We feel like complete beginners! With mindfulness that’s just the way it goes, so we learn to work with this as best we can.