We all know that mindfulness is “good for us” and that we should be doing it; you’ve probably read articles about its benefits for creativity, focus, blood pressure, sleep, and so much more. (There’s even “mindful networking” now!) But if you’ve been meaning to start meditating for a while and putting it off, now’s the time! Between the covid situation, the movement for (and resistance to) racial justice, working from home, sudden unemployment, or long hours at essential jobs, now’s the time for us all to benefit from mindfulness practice, which can be easy, simple, and quick to start.
To begin with, let’s identify three basic skills that are foundational to mindfulness and other forms of contemplative practice: attention, connection, and clarity. Here are some short summaries of what they are and how to cultivate them. At the bottom of this post, you’ll find a link to a free online meditation mini-course I created to help folks sample these states of mind.
Attention is our natural ability to focus the mind on an object, and we can talk about two types. The first is passive attention, in which the mind gets drawn to whatever object is newest, shiniest, or loudest in our awareness. (Sound familiar?) Passive attention is what keeps us doomscrolling through the news or our social media feeds even after it’s no longer useful – if it ever was. When we’re in a passive mode, we’re not intentionally choosing our objects of attention, and even if we’re interested in something, we’ll be pulled away the next moment if something new catches our attention.
And then there's active attention, which is what we train through meditative practice: the ability to choose an object of meditation, rest the mind on it, and notice when the mind has strayed. We all experience this kind of attention, too, but often folks don't realize that it can be trained through meditative or contemplative practices. (If you read “intentionally choosing our objects of attention” above and wondered what that even means, that’s what we do when we’re reading, listening to a loved one describe their day, or focusing the mind on the breath.)
Active attention exercise: For three breaths, see if you can focus your mind on the sensations in the palms of your hands. Are they warm, cool, touching something, feeling the breeze? Try simply noticing and bringing your attention back when it wanders.
Connection is our ability to tune into ourselves and others with caring, non-judgmental active attention. This category of contemplative skills includes traditional loving-kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity meditations – and more modern ways of reconnecting with ourselves and others, like practicing self-care and reading self-help books to understand ourselves (and others) better. Judgment is a connection-killer, and a large part of a contemplative practice is simply pulling up the weeds of judgment over and over again.
For a lot of people, it’s easier to think of connection with others than with themselves, especially when the terms “compassion” and “loving-kindness” are thrown in. But growing this skill actually starts with ourselves and our ability to be present to our own experience, whether it’s what we want or not. Many people (OK, maybe all of us) would like the mind just to quiet the heck down when we sit and meditate, but that rarely happens. Connection – with as little judgment as possible – with ourselves and our own experiences helps us notice thoughts and let them go instead of triggering a shame storm in which we feel like a terrible meditator and want to quit.
Connection exercise: When you notice yourself getting flustered, take a deep breath and imagine that a friend was experiencing your difficulty. What would you tell them? Can you tell that to yourself?
Clarity refers to our mind's natural ability to recognize the thoughts, feelings, physical sensations, even energetic sensations that arise in our awareness and not get hypnotized into believing that any of them is the whole story of our experience. As the mind becomes more focused and less hooked by our internal monologue, we begin to notice the space around our thoughts and feelings, and we find ourselves identifying less with the contents of the mind and more able to rest in the natural clarity of the mind instead.
There’s a certain clarity that comes with cultivating active attention, but techniques specifically designed to cultivate clarity often use that baseline ability to attend to one object and then direct it like a microscope to notice what’s going on in our minds. As we start noticing thoughts rather than getting swept away by them, we’ll notice what we’ve been telling ourselves about who we are, and most important of all we’ll notice when those thoughts are wildly out of line with reality. If our self-talk were mostly accurate, that would be one thing, but in fact we’re often telling ourselves that we’re useless, incompetent, and generally bad – or that we’re amazing, the most brilliant being ever to walk the earth. Clarity comes from the habit of waking up out of these trances.
Clarity exercise: Take a one-minute pause and try to count the thoughts you have during that time. See if you can just notice each one without trying not to have it or falling into it.
To learn more about these skills and get free guided meditations to download, click here.