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So it turns out that you want to know more about this mindfulness stuff. For those who haven’t been following my monthly series, mindfulness is all about taking a break to spend some time in the present moment. That can look like a lot of different things, including deep breathing, meditation, or just paying closer attention to yourself and your surroundings.

Worry not; it’s perfectly OK to be a little confused and even skeptical about making mindfulness a thing in your life. This month, I’m taking on the most commonly asked student questions, and I’m not afraid to dig into the good, the not-so-good, and the…itchy? Read on to find out about dealing with distraction, bodily sensations, evidence-based benefits, and more. 

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“What are some of the best ways to incorporate mindfulness into an already packed daily schedule?”

Meghan M., second-year graduate student, Temple University Maurice H. Kornberg School of Dentistry, Pennsylvania

The struggle is real. When your day is bananas (as mine often is), you often don’t have the luxury of sitting down to meditate. Even if you do, your mind might be too revved up for you to transition into a formal practice. Luckily, there are some bite-sized or lightweight mindfulness methods that do fit into a busy day. They can help inject some calm and clarity, especially if you use them a few times over the course of your day. It’s like planting little flags of mindfulness so that there’s never too much time that passes without having a peaceful, grounding moment. Here are some of those lightweight strategies:

Try the Mindful Pause, which works as a “spot remedy” for moments of anxiety by helping you turn toward and accept unpleasant feelings rather than fighting them. It’s a 30-second practice with four steps:

  1. Take a long, slow breath in and out.
  2. Bring attention to the sensations in your body for a few moments, without evaluating those sensations as good or bad.
  3. Ground your attention for a few moments in the sensations of breath at the nostrils.
  4. Go on to whatever’s next in your day, but in an unhurried way.

Infuse more mindfulness into your day

Here’s a key skill: Learn to recognize thoughts as the mental stories they are instead of getting carried off by distracting thoughts or automatically believing negative thoughts.

Here’s a lightweight way to practice this skill: Whenever you notice you’ve gotten lost in thought, apply the mental label “thinking,” then bring your attention to the sensations of the breath in your nostrils, your feet on the floor, or some other sensory experience. Before too long, you’ll probably notice you’ve gotten lost again. Just repeat the process.

Check out my other “Mind Your Mind” posts for more mindfulness strategies that fit into a busy day.

Two pairs of legs laying down near a field of flowers, relaxingQuestion mark

“What are the benefits of mindfulness and meditation?”

—Ethan P.*, third-year graduate student, Virginia Commonwealth University

Like most serious meditators, I’m happy to talk people’s ears off about the benefits I’ve gotten from my practice. But I’m biased, so take it from my mom instead. She says I’ve become less impulsive, more considerate of other people, and way less stressed. In fact, she was once very skeptical about mindfulness, but she’s seen enough positive changes in me that she recently started meditating herself.

If the heartfelt testimonials of the Krop family don’t move the needle for you, it’s worth noting the growing body of scientific research confirming that meditation and mindfulness practice can reduce stress, pain, anxiety, and depression; improve focus; and make us happier, healthier, and even more creative.

For example, one meta-analysis, published in JAMA Internal Medicine in 2014, reviewed 47 studies of meditation programs and found that mindfulness routines helped with anxiety, depression, and pain. Another study, published in Psychosomatic Medicine in 2013, found that a mindfulness-based program significantly lowered blood pressure for individuals with prehypertension, or higher-than-normal blood pressure.

In short, the science is very encouraging. Really, though, you should just listen to my mom.

Question mark

“I’ve tried short sessions of meditations, but I just can’t get through them. How can I meditate if I can’t empty my mind?”

—Sarah S., first-year student, NorQuest College, Alberta

Here’s the thing about clearing your mind: It’s impossible. Straight up, you cannot do it. In old Tibet, some meditation masters instructed their new students to sit for hours without having any thoughts, just so the students would try and try until eventually they recognized the futility of it.

Unfortunately, it’s a common misconception that meditation is all about clearing the mind. Then, when people try and inevitably fail, they decide they must be “bad meditators.”

Luckily, clearing your mind isn’t just impossible; it’s also unnecessary. When you meditate, there will be a ton of things going on: sounds in the background, sensations in your body, and thoughts moving through the mind. All of that is perfect. You don’t need to block, “clear,” or interfere with any of that. You don’t need to create some sort of artificial inner silence. Just let all those sounds, sensations, and thoughts unfold in the background and rest your attention on your breath (or whatever meditation object you’re using) in the midst of all that activity.

I’m what you might call an over-thinker myself. As a new meditator, when I sat down to practice, I’d get frustrated because my mind was so crammed with thoughts.  My error was in believing that all those thoughts were a problem. Luckily, a more advanced meditator kindly pointed out my misunderstanding. Once I stopped resenting the presence of thoughts and just let them come and go on their own, my meditation clicked.

Question mark

“Is there an ideal amount of time one should spend meditating (or practicing mindfulness)?”

—Jenna O., second-year graduate student, University of New Brunswick

It’s hard to say—progress varies from person to person and situation to situation. I wish I had a more specific answer, but I can tell you some of the factors that affect how quickly the benefits arise and increase:

How consistently you meditate. This is, in my experience, the biggest factor. It’s ideal to meditate every day and try to keep your missed days to a minimum.

How long you meditate each day. In my opinion, consistency is way more important than length of session. I also don’t want meditation to become an unpleasant competition with yourself where you strain to do ever-longer sessions. If you meditate two minutes a day, that’s fantastic. You can always lengthen your sessions down the line. That said, I can’t deny that you’ll progress faster if you meditate for longer, all else being equal.

How mindful you are in your daily life. Are you meditating in the morning, then spending the rest of the day lost in distraction? If so, that’s a bit like hitting the treadmill in the morning, then eating junk food for every meal. Instead, try to notice when you’ve become distracted during the day and bring the mind back to the present moment. Take breaks now and then from your digital devices. When you find yourself with idle time on public transit or waiting in line, watch the sensations of your breath for a minute or quietly take in your surroundings instead of pulling out your phone. Weave your mindfulness practice into the fabric of your life.

Question mark

“How do you get past the hump of meditation being torture? Meaning, whenever I’m meditating, I’m struggling not to move, swallow, scratch an itch, etc. It’s almost torture—how do you get past that to actually reap the benefits of meditation?”

—Sam A.*, recent graduate, Lahainaluna High School, Hawaii

I love this question because it lets me deliver some good news: Moving during meditation is perfectly okay. If you have an itch, scratch it! If you have to fidget, fidget! It won’t stop you from experiencing the benefits of meditation.

Meditation involves sitting fairly still, but it’s not the Mannequin Challenge, and it doesn’t need to feel like torture. Here’s what I suggest: If you feel a strong urge to move, don’t grit your teeth and battle it. Go ahead and move, but do it slowly and see if you can pay mindful attention to the sensations of movement. That way, the movement becomes a part of the meditation rather than an interruption. Then settle back into physical stillness and continue with your practice.

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Article sources

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Colzato L. S., Ozturk A., & Hommel B. (2012). Meditate to create: The impact of focused-attention and open-monitoring training on convergent and divergent thinking. Frontiers in Psychology, 3, 116.

Friese, M., Messner, C., & Schaffner, Y. (2012). Mindfulness meditation counteracts self-control depletion. Consciousness and Cognition, 21(2), 1016–1022.

Goyal, M., Singh, S., Sibinga, E. M., Gould, N. F., et al. (2014). Meditation programs for psychological stress and well-being: A systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA Internal Medicine174(3), 357–368.

Greenberg, J., Reiner, K., & Meiran, N. (2012). “Mind the Trap”: Mindfulness practice reduces cognitive rigidity. PLoS ONE7(5), e36206. http://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0036206

Hofmann, S. G., Sawyer, A. T., Witt, A. A., & Oh, D. (2010). The effect of mindfulness-based therapy on anxiety and depression: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology78(2), 169.

Hughes, J. W., Fresco, D. M., Myerscough, R., van Dulmen, M., et al. (2013). Randomized controlled trial of mindfulness-based stress reduction for prehypertension. Psychosomatic Medicine75(8), 10.1097/PSY.0b013e3182a3e4e5. http://doi.org/10.1097/PSY.0b013e3182a3e4e5

Klimecki, O. M., Leiberg, S., Lamm, C., & Singer, T. (2012). Functional neural plasticity and associated changes in positive affect after compassion training. Cerebral Cortex, bhs142.

Stahl, J. E., Dossett, M. L., LaJoie, A. S., Denninger, et al. (2015). Relaxation response and resiliency training and its effect on healthcare resource utilization. PLoS ONE, 10(10), e0140212. http://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0140212

Zeidan, F., Johnson, S. K., Diamond, B. J., David, Z., et al. (2010). Mindfulness meditation improves cognition: Evidence of brief mental training. Consciousness and Cognition, 19(2), 597–605.