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Harness Your Zen: A 5 Step Guide to Training a More Mindful Brain

Feb 15, 2022

Mindfulness is a really buzzy word and has been for about five or ten years now but the benefits of it have been known for a few millennia. We all see news stories and articles about the importance in mindfulness training in helping reduce stress and improve being present in your everyday life. Having heard these stories for so long, I tried and failed numerous times to create a mindfulness practice. It wasn't until the third straight New Year's resolution that I put together something that actually stuck for a significant period of time. 

There are so many different scientific benefits of mindfulness and people have done a tremendous job researching these topics. We won’t go into too much detail here, but it ranges from improved sleep, self-esteem, connection with others to reductions in pain, blood pressure and even GI dysfunction. Hit up a Google search and you’ll find no shortage of data

What I'd rather do is give you a practical guide for starting this practice. Knowing the benefits wasn’t enough for me to create a real habit. I enlisted the help of some technology initially. I tried the app Headspace, Calm, and Insight Timer, all with minimal success. I read a pretty good (too long) book called Why Buddhism is True by Robert Wright.

This book really rang true to my “evidence-based brain” and it made a lot of sense about why and how we have the thoughts that we do. It also gave me more permission to stop trying to control my thoughts but rather acknowledge them and move full move on. Combining that with some stoic philosophy that I've started practicing this year has bolstered my practice even more. (We'll talk about that more in a later blog post).

The primary reason why I started mindfulness was to be more patient and present. I cringe when I see a family sitting at a restaurant and all of them are staring at their screen rather than engaging each other as humans. I am also embarrassed at the things that fly out of my mouth if I am stressed or angry. I want more power over the reflexes my brain defaults to. 

Mindfulness isn't something that is separate from your everyday life. It isn’t just something you do for 10 minutes before bed or the first thing in the morning. When you become more adept at using these skills you can incorporate them into everyday life even if it's just for a moment. I come from a relatively hot-tempered family and have a relatively Type A personality. When I come across situations that are outside of my control or generally rub me the wrong way my first reaction or thought is typically negative. The things that I would blurt out to people I love are not typically things that I would prefer come out of my mouth. It felt ludicrous to me that I had more patience and understanding the strangers than I did with my children. That was one of the main reasons that I decided to start practicing was to have more patience in situations that I couldn't control or better yet STOP TRYING TO CONTROL EVERYTHING!

So after trying and failing for three years I started with a new approach. Here is where our guide starts...

If you read some of our other posts about habit formation, you know that you are not going to be good at ANYTHING at first, so start small just like you would do for a new exercise program. We know if you throw yourself headlong into training for a marathon and you've never run before the chances of your success are slim.

LESSON 1 - START SMALL

Initially, I started practicing for one minute a day for two weeks. It is not much and when you’re done you’re going to feel like it was a waste of time, but, honestly starting at 10 minutes initially would have seemed like too much. Over the next few weeks I gradually bumped it up to 2 minutes, then 3, then 5 and now I do about 10 minutes a day most of the time. If I miss a day, I don’t punish myself and agonize over it. I start again the next day. 

LESSON 2 - ENLIST THE HELP OF TECHNOLOGY. 

There are countless apps, timers, and other mechanisms that can help you with breathing, mindfulness, and stress reduction. Pick one that speaks to you and stick with it. You may have to try 10 of them to find the one you like. I've been using the Waking Up app for about 18 months because it makes the most sense to me. It can cut through a lot of the woo-woo philosophies that don't ring true to me. The important thing is you find something that works for you. 

LESSON 3 - EXPECT TO FAIL.

Here’s the rub. When forming a new habit, you will fail. It is not part of your default programming and will be resisted. That is what creating a habit is all about. Think of how much effort it takes to drive a car when you are first learning. Does it take you that much effort now? I sure as hell hope not. Why? The actions of driving have become habitual. You put these actions on autopilot. That is a habit. An action you perform on autopilot. It doesn’t get that way overnight. It takes practice. That is why it is called a practice. You won’t be good at it right away. I’m still not good at it, but I am better than I was before. Each time you fail at this new habit recognize that's part of the process and start again the next day. Habits do not form overnight. Even tremendously helpful ones. 

Want more insight into why you may have a hard time forming new habits? Check out Better than Before by Gretchen Ruben. It’s a fantastic resource. 

Lesson 4 - ASSOCIATE A POSITIVE FEELING OR SENSATION WITH THAT HABIT. 

That's what makes habit formation stick. If we think about eating a piece of cake, going for a run, or drinking alcohol. This action becomes a habit because we associate positive feelings with it. For mindfulness meditation to stick, associate a few positive feelings with it right after the practice. Take a few seconds to think of the benefits and positive things that you just did for your body. That may help you stick to the plan. 

Lesson 5 - PUT THIS THING TO WORK 

Try to be mindful during everyday life. That doesn't mean that you have to sit down and meditate during the day, but it may mean to take five seconds and check in with your body or your head and see what your emotions are. See how you're feeling and just acknowledge it. If you're mad, you're mad. If you're happy, you're happy. Just take that time and see how you're really feeling. Use transitions in your day like standing in line at the store or getting in-and-out of your car and spend a moment being really aware of the present situation you are in. 

This is what's helped me become slightly more patient with my kids. I now have a 50 millisecond buffer between what would fly out of my mouth automatically. That buffer is often enough for me to make a better decision on how I respond to that situation. Am I perfect at this? NO. Am I a Zen Buddhist monk when it comes to the situations around me? NO.  Am I better than I was before? Yes and that's all that you have to be. 

Have any experience practicing mindfulness? How did it go? Leave us a comment or give some suggestions of things that worked or didn’t work for you. Managing or stress is so vitally important. Good luck.