What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is all about remembering what we are doing, as we are doing it. It’s about being present, and at the most simple level that is achieved by being connected to the senses. The senses cannot be experienced in the past or future, i.e. you cannot see three seconds from now or hear five seconds ago. The senses are a first-foundation practice of mindfulness. It is not enough, however, just to tune in every now and then. Cultivating mindfulness is all about learning to maintain a continuity of awareness and attention over time. This produces insight, wisdom and all the wonderful brain, self-regulation and health benefits associated with mindfulness.

The opposite of mindfulness is forgetting what we are doing and what is happening to us, and so becoming lost in our habitual thoughts and reactions. In a sense we are not all there. This is unfortunately very common and normal, and is referred to as the default brain state, which is associated with anxiety, depression, premature ageing, etc. There is also a critical element of using mindfulness with emotions. To be present emotionally requires an open, generous and compassionate heart. The best forms of mindfulness training therefore also work with the heart to cultivate “heartfulness”. Mindfulness leads to better decision making, stronger empathy, deeper relationships, improved focus and if practised over time, a profound sense of wellbeing and happiness.

What does mindfulness have to do with leadership?

Apart from the most obvious element of helping leaders with stress, mindfulness supports leaders to access the prefrontal cortex, thereby enhancing their capacity to self-regulate. In essence mindfulness is self-awareness and EQ in action – two critical elements of great leadership. We have asked thousands of leaders to answer this question: “How does one practise self-awareness, or practise emotional intelligence?” The technically obvious answer is mindfulness. There are also another six key leadership elements that mindfulness supports, from innovation, to empowerment, to motivation and connection, to clarity of vision, etc. These are described in detail in my book – The Mindful Leader.

What is meditation?

Meditation is the systematic training of attention to stay in the present moment. It is not trying to empty or calm the mind. The mind (and heart) may, however, become calm and open as a result of systematically paying attention to what is happening in the present. Usually the meditator uses some kind of anchor or focus point of attention as a means of keeping the mind in the present. The most common anchor or focus point in meditation is the breath – paying attention to the movements of the breath. Meditation is typically associated with sitting down with eyes closed and just paying attention to the anchor. It can also be done standing or lying or even in a slow and deliberate walk. It is not associated with daily activities, but please note mindfulness still remains a very important element of daily activities (see informal versus formal practice below).

What is mindfulness meditation?

Mindfulness meditation is any form of attention training that emphasises the role of mindfulness. As mindfulness is the act of remembering what we are doing as we are doing it, mindfulness meditation is concerned with the continuity of awareness and attention over time. This means that mindfulness meditation is designed to spill over from limited periods of specialised training to include our ordinary, everyday activities. (See the question regarding “formal” and “informal” meditation below.)

How long does meditation take to learn?

This is rather like asking how long it takes to learn to play the guitar. You can make a sound immediately, but it will take time and practice before you reach the point where the music really becomes easy and natural to play (and sounds beautiful). In other words, the more time and space you make for the practice, the easier it becomes, and the more skilful you become. The good news, however, is that even a very basic beginner practice has proven to be immediately beneficial in a whole range of areas (health, brain, intelligence, etc.).

How does meditation benefit my life?

The research on this subject is fascinating. Here are five key highlights on just how beneficial meditation and mindfulness is:

  • It can reduce your genetic age
    Telomeres – the protective caps at the end of our chromosomes – are the new frontier of anti-ageing science. Longer telomeres mean that you’re also likely to live longer. Telomerase is the enzyme that helps build telomeres. Meditators have significantly higher telomerase activity that non-meditators. This is Nobel-Prize-winning medical research.
  • It increases grey matter and happiness
    The practice of mindful meditation has proven to change the structure of no less than eight regions of the brain. Meditation has also been demonstrated to increase happiness by helping us “live in the moment” by deactivating the default brain network in order to reduce our tendency to mind-wander and think negatively.
  • It makes you smarter
    Short-term mindful meditation has also been demonstrated to improve cognitive function.4 And a review of 23 studies investigating the effect of long-term mindful meditation on cognitive performance suggests that it does.5
  • Strong benefits around health
    There is more than sufficient data to say that meditation will improve anxiety, depression and reports of pain.1 And beyond mental health, there is also evidence that mindful meditation boosts immune function. Mindful meditation has also been linked to improved outcomes for clinical conditions including cancer and heart disease.
  • As good as drugs without the side effects
    Some studies have shown Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) to be three times more effective than anti-depressants. An overall meta-analysis of the subject suggests mindfulness is at least as effective as anti-depressants.

Do I need a teacher?

Meditation is a practical activity, and over time it provides many surprises. So although just using the self-help approach of books, recordings, etc. is a great start and can really make a difference, sooner or later you will need to seek out someone who can support you with advice and coaching. I know for me personally this has been an essential part of deepening my practice over time. Please be sure to seek out someone who has a minimum of five years of practice experience. In order for myself to feel qualified to teach mindfulness I practised for over a decade and attended many long and intense retreats. Finding people who have a serious practice is a good idea – and it’s certainly the criteria I have used. Poor advice can actually be harmful, so please be discerning with whom you choose.

Are there different kinds of meditation?

There are countless forms of meditation and meditation traditions. In the mindfulness meditation tradition, however, we classify meditation according to purpose. There are two basic types: meditation for calming and meditation for insight. Calming meditation aims to relax the body and mind, by encouraging the mind to become still. Insight meditation aims to both relax the body and mind in order to allow us to see more clearly what is happening within us and to us. You will find that techniques that aim at calming will have a different emphasis to those that aim at cultivating insight. Generally speaking, meditation for insight will be strongly focused on developing mindfulness, because insight comes from the continuity of awareness through all the different circumstances of life. This is a critical element for beginners and long-term practitioners alike.

What posture do I use for meditation?

Typically people sit for meditation with a straight back and eyes closed. You can sit in a chair, cross-legged on a cushion or just against a wall. It does not really matter. Any posture that allows the body to be still and at ease is good. When the body is still, the mind can become still. In our book, we talk more technically about posture and the various kinds of meditation postures, and in the premium section of this site we have a video showing you exactly how to work with posture.

What is the best time of day to meditate?

This depends on both the individual’s personality and life circumstances. Some people, for example, are slow to wake up in the morning but are more energetic later in the day. They often find it better to meditate in the afternoon or evening. Others are alert in the morning but tired in the evening. They find it better to meditate in the morning. Some people find the only time they have to themselves, without the likelihood of being interrupted, is the early morning, so this may be the best time even if they are feeling dull. Others might find the period before going to bed at night to be the best opportunity to drop their responsibilities and focus on themselves.

Where should I meditate?

No special place is essential, but it can be very useful to have a space set aside where you can feel peaceful and centred. It’s rather like having one’s favourite space to sit and read or watch TV. Except that your meditation space needs to be out of the way of normal domestic noise and traffic.

Should I meditate with my eyes open or with my eyes closed?

Both work. When your eyes are closed you find that you can shut off distractions from the visible world, but the inner world of thought and fantasy may become even more real and compelling. When your eyes are open you find that you are subjected to the distractions of the visible world, but the inner world of thought and fantasy is less vivid. Experiment with both, and see what works best for you. And you might find that sometimes it’s best to close your eyes, and sometimes it’s best to keep them open.

How long should a meditation session last?

There is no “best” time, but an optional time would be long enough to get settled into the practice but not so long that it turns into a test of endurance. Start with a brief time, one you know you can manage – 10 or 15 minutes, for example. Once you set your time, stick to it. If it is too difficult to stay with this time, then reduce it. But do not break your agreement with yourself to practise for a certain time. What is important here is the agreement, not the time on the clock. As time goes by you will naturally find you want to go on longer. Let yourself do so. But remember, it’s not a competition, not even with yourself.

Is it useful to have a timer?

Many people, especially early in their practice, find it useful to have a timer. I have designed a mindfulness app called Mindful Minutes. It has a wonderful meditation timer, as well as a host of other features. You can find it on the Google or Apple app store.

What can I expect when I meditate?

Almost anything. Do not assume that your meditation session will necessarily be peaceful and pleasant. If you have a pressure cooker that has been cooking for some time and you suddenly release the lid, you would naturally expect that something dramatic could happen. The same can occur when people begin their meditation practice. But really, anything can happen. Be ready to be surprised.

What is the best attitude for learning meditation?

The best attitude is to be focused on the path, and not the destination. In other words, learning mindfulness meditation involves learning a skill, a craft. Naturally when we begin we tend to be impatient for a result. Especially when the activity itself is so simple – just sit there and be aware of your breathing. Meditation is simple, but it is simple like golf is simple. It is very simple, and very difficult. So patience, and the willingness to accept repeated failures, is important. One teacher remarked that an essential qualification for success in meditation practice is a willingness to live with failure; and one famous Zen master commented, “A Zen master’s life is one long mistake.” So be gentle, be patient and treat meditation like a game. When we play, we are not concerned with what we can get out of this; we just play. We are interested in the activity of this moment for the sake of this moment. This attitude of play characterises all advanced meditation practitioners.

What is the worst attitude for learning meditation?

Seeing the response to the previous question, this one is not hard to guess. Looking for a result, and especially looking for a quick result, is possibly the worst attitude for learning meditation. Don’t look for results; just refine the practice. And over time, you will find life improving.

How do I work with a racing, distracted mind?

The most important thing is to notice the busy mind. When you notice it you are not involved in it, so you can feel good when you notice your mind is racing – you are being mindful of a racing mind. Don’t struggle or fight your mind; this is a guarantee for suffering. Rather commit to coming back to your breath as much as you can, whenever you can, and just be easy on any judgments. Even after more than two decades of meditating I can still have some pretty “racing mind” meditation sessions. It’s quite normal, so just relax and remember every moment you are present is fantastic. Take a glass-half-full attitude.

How do I work with physical pain?

The key thing is to relax. What is pain? It is strong sensation mixed with an attitude of rejection – “I don’t like this! I want it to end!” There are two types of physical pain any meditator encounters. The first is the pain that comes from sustained awareness of the body, which will reveal the discomfort inherent within it. To work with this kind of pain, begin by setting your posture up very carefully, and then relaxing into the discomfort. Settle into your pain in the same way that you would settle into your favourite easy chair. Don’t let yourself be caught up in thinking and worrying. Just relax, until the session ends.

The second type of physical pain is the body’s signal that you are straining something that should not be strained. This kind of pain is telling you to move, and it is best to respect it. But how can you tell if this message is really the body’s defence mechanism, or just a way of avoiding discomfort? Only time will give you the experience to tell the difference. As a rough guide, be particularly careful of pain in joints. Muscles relax, but joints do not.

How do I work with emotional pain?

Like physical pain, emotional pain can arise at any time. This question cannot be separated from our next question, because emotional pain is normally wrapped up in a story we are telling ourselves about the difficulties of our life. The first thing is to ignore whatever story we are telling ourselves. Then identify the emotion that is dominating your session, and see if you can locate it in the body. If no location appears, then settle your awareness in the area of the heart. Then surrender into the pain. Don’t believe the story you are telling yourself about the pain; just allow yourself to feel the emotion. You will find that the emotion will swell up, peak, and then gradually or suddenly die down again. Nothing lasts forever.

When should I end a meditation practice period?

This question has an objective and a subjective aspect to it. Objectively, we give ourselves a period of time within which to practise mindfulness. It is best not to make the period so long that it becomes unattainable, but not so short that it contains no challenge. Begin by setting your target close enough to hit. Early in our practice we might decide to practise for 10 minutes, or 15, or 20. Research has shown that it can take 20 minutes for body and mind to settle to the point where changes in the brain begin to occur. But once we set a time and begin the period, then stick to it. If you feel the time is too long, you can always shorten it. And if you think the time is too brief, you can always lengthen it.

Subjectively, if you are practising, feeling discomfort, and want to end the period, then first allow yourself the freedom to simply feel the discomfort, in the body and the mind. Surrender to it. Breathe into your discomfort, and relax. You may find this solves the problem and you can complete your period. But if you still want to end the period, then do so, but do not move quickly. Mentally resolve to end the period early, move out of your posture slowly and mindfully, and review your experience. Do you have to change your practice time? Or was this a unique situation?

What is the difference between “formal” and “informal” mindful meditation practice?

Formal meditation practice refers to the times that you set aside to do a mindfulness technique, such as mindfulness of breathing, without letting anything else get in the way. Creating a lifestyle that includes time for formal practice is essential for cultivating mindfulness to any depth.

Informal mindful meditation practice refers to bringing your mindfulness to bear on whatever activity you may be doing, i.e. being present and engaged with whatever you are doing in your life. This allows your mindfulness to permeate every aspect of your waking day. Engaging in this practice develops your skill as a mindfulness practitioner, as you come to the point where you can apply mindfulness to any aspect of your life.

What kinds of activities could I try as informal meditation practices?

Informal meditation practice can be applied in particular to any kind of routine physical activity. If you have some routine tasks that you don’t have to think about, such as domestic chores, then pick one or two and make it a point to do it mindfully. Don’t use any electronic devices during your activity, and bring all your focus on the task. Each time you realise your mind has slipped away from what you are doing, drop your thinking and return to the task. And try to do it unhurriedly, and as well as possible.

Driving is an excellent opportunity for informal mindfulness practice. We have to focus on our driving in order to do it safely, so make a practice of it. Turn off the devices and focus fully on driving. Feel your body in your seat, and in particular your hands on the wheel and your feet on the pedals. Scan your environment continuously. Every time you realise your mind has slipped off from your driving, drop your thinking and return to your driving.