🎯 What Is Mindfulness Training?
- Traditionally, the concept of mindfulness is associated with various spiritual and meditation practices. More recently, it has come to mean a way of relaxing or coping with stress and anxiety. Here, the term is used differently…
- Mindfulness training is an exercise for strengthening attentional control. More specifically, mindfulness training strengthens two key mental abilities: 1) awareness of the contents of your mind, especially thoughts and emotions; 2) The ability to shift and focus your attention onto a desired object—and by extension, resist your attention being “pulled” toward unhelpful objects.
- Attentional control is foundational to nearly every aspect of emotional health. And mindfulness training is one of the best ways to cultivate it.
👀 What Mindfulness Training Looks Like
- Sit. Sit down, close your eyes, and set a timer for your chosen practice duration. 10-20 minutes is ideal for beginners, but even five minutes is fine.
- Breathe. Focus your attention on your breath—specifically, the physical sensation of breathing. Breathe normally. Don’t think about your breathing, and instead, try to simply feel and observe it.
- Return. When you notice that you’ve become distracted by a thought or feeling, gently and without judgment or criticism, acknowledge that you are distracted and then return your focus back to your breath.
- Practice. Initially, mindfulness training is best done daily for at least 30 days. After 30 days, experiment with different session durations and frequencies.
😬 Problems Associated with Poor Attentional Control
- Worry and Anxiety. Worry causes anxiety. And while you can’t control whether worries enter your mind, you can improve your ability to let go of the ones that do and resist elaborating on them or getting lost in them. The better you get at this, the less the overall anxiety and stress you will experience as a result. Mindfulness training strengthens your ability to do this well.
- Anger and Rumination. Excessive rumination on past wrongs and injustices leads to chronically elevated and excessive amounts of anger, resentment, and irritability. In turn, this elevated anger can negatively influence everything from your day-to-day mood and happiness to the quality of your most important relationships. The ability to be aware of and let go of unhelpful rumination depends on strong attentional control—the ability to keep your attention and thinking off of unhelpful objects.
- Impulsive Behavior. Mindlessness, or a lack of awareness about your own mind, is often a core cause of many forms of impulsive behavior from stress eating and procrastination to aggression and self-sabotage.
- Distraction and Lack of Focus. Mindfulness training, and the attentional control that comes from it, allows you to focus deeply and consistently for extended periods of time, which is often critical for high-level performance and top-tier work in any area from business and athletics to art and spirituality.
💡 Key Insights About Mindfulness Training
- Mindfulness training is not a coping skill, relaxation strategy, or means of emotion regulation. It is an exercise meant to build your mental muscles of awareness and focus. It is not meant to be calming or relaxing. On the contrary, it will frequently feel frustrating, difficult, and uncomfortable. But that’s the point… Just like with exercise or practice of any kind—from lifting weights to playing guitar— discomfort is a prerequisite for growth.
- It’s difficult but not complicated. One of the biggest obstacles to successful mindfulness training is overthinking the process itself. It’s really as simple as focusing on your breath, noticing when you’re distracted, and returning your focus to the breath. That’s it. If you find yourself wanting to know more before you get started, ask yourself whether you really need to know more or whether you are unconsciously looking for an excuse to procrastinate on just doing it.
- You don’t need an app. Many people are terrified of mindfulness training because they never allow themselves to be truly alone with their own minds. If that’s the case, it can be scary at first, hence the pull for a reassuring structure like an app. Rather than relying on apps—almost all of which are based around the idea of mindfulness as a relaxation technique—simply experiment with shorter session durations.
🛠️ Tips for Getting Started with Mindfulness Training
- Start Small. The beneficial effects of mindfulness training come from cumulative practice over time. As a result, the most important thing is that you stick to it. Start small and focus initially on building the habit. 5-10 minutes a day is sufficient.
- Lower your expectations. Like exercise, mindfulness training is not meant to make you feel better in the moment. It’s work. And the beneficial effects only come after the fact. So don’t judge the quality of your practice sessions by how you feel during or immediately after—what matters is that you showed up and trained.
- Getting distracted is okay. Resist getting judgmental with yourself for being distracted and having a hard time staying focused on your breath. The whole point of mindfulness training is to practice noticing when you’re distracted and to bring your attention back. If you weren’t getting distracted you wouldn’t be improving!
- Track your training sessions. Progress is the most powerful motivator. Get in the habit of tracking your practice sessions so that you can see your progress and how much you’ve accomplished over time. Also, keep James Clear’s advice about building habits in mind: “Never miss twice.” You can be both strict and gentle with yourself when it comes to sticking with your training.
💬 Quotes Relevant to Mindfulness Training
- Rather than being your thoughts and emotions, be the awareness behind them. — Eckhart Tolle
- Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. — Viktor Frankl
- To get good at something, you first have to be willing to be bad. — Austin Kleon
- The greatest loneliness is not being disconnected from others, but being disconnected from yourself. — Cory Muscara
- We make the road by walking. — Antonio Machado
🔬 Selected Research on Mindfulness for Psychological and Physical Health
- Mindfulness-based interventions for psychiatric disorders: A systematic review and meta-analysis. This meta-analysis found that mindfulness-based interventions were effective for a range of psychiatric conditions, including depression, anxiety, and substance abuse.
- Mindfulness mediates the physiological markers of stress: Systematic review and meta-analysis. Meta-analysis showing that mindfulness-based interventions are associated with reduced inflammation, cortisol levels, and blood pressure.
- Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, Fear Conditioning, and The Uncinate Fasciculus. Interesting study showing that one of the mechanisms by which mindfulness works is through a reversal of fear conditioning.
- Mindfulness training reduces loneliness and increases social contact. Study showing that mindfulness training could improve social health and possibly impact physical health outcomes related to social isolation.
- Positive Associations of Dispositional Mindfulness with Cardiovascular Health. Study showing that higher levels of dispositional mindfulness were associated with better cardiovascular health, indicating a potential role for mindfulness in heart disease prevention.
Note that this research encompasses a wide-range of mindfulness interventions, none of which are specific to the mindfulness training approach described here.
📚 Recommended Reading and Resources for Mindfulness
- Wherever You Go There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn. This book captures the spirit of mindfulness perhaps better than anything else I’ve read.
- Sit Like a Buddha: A Pocket Guide to Meditation by Lord Rinzler. A very brief book about mindfulness meditation from a Buddhist perspective.
- The Mindful Way Through Depression by Williams, Teasdale, Segal, and Kabat-Zinn. A summary of mindfulness based cognitive therapy and how it can be used to manage emotional struggles, especially depression.