To Cultivate a Mindfulness Practice, You Need to Do Just That: Practice

When mindfulness is covered in the media, what do you see? Blissed-out, slender models meditating on the cover of magazines? That’s what I saw last week, in the checkout line of the grocery store. On the cover of a magazine sat a beautiful, blond woman meditating. She had a blissful expression on her face; underneath, a headline extolled the benefits of mindfulness.

I’m steeped in research on mindfulness, and this cover got me wondering: what do people think when they see this? Do they think mindfulness is a wonder drug—a magical cure for stress and general unhappiness?

More and more evidence is showing the benefits of mindfulness practice for both adults and youth; however, the media portrayal of mindfulness is misleading and has me feeling conflicted.

On the one hand, I feel optimistic. The message about mindfulness is extending beyond the research community to reach a new audience, possibly leading to a more aware and conscious society. On the other hand, I am wary of the myths that this mass-media explosion seems to propagate.

Images of fast-tracked happiness or bliss, only attainable by a few, are illusory. In fact, we feel the effects of a mindfulness practice if we do just that: practice.

For one, it sends the deceiving message that mindfulness practices should always feel relaxing. Two, it paints a picture of mindfulness as a silver bullet—a fast acting way to achieve happiness and relieve stress, neglecting the importance of time and practice. And three, it gives the idea that the capacity to be truly mindful is reserved for people who can afford expensive yoga clothes, or maybe for ascetic monks meditating in faraway temples.

These images of fast-tracked happiness or bliss, only attainable by a few, are illusory. In fact, we feel the effects of a mindfulness practice if we do just that: practice.

Practice is part of learning anything new: tennis, the violin, baking. If you thought you could start out performing at a high level without practicing, you’d likely be disappointed. It takes people hours of intentional, deliberate practice to reach a point of expertise and high performance. Like the skills listed above, the capacity to be mindful is something that you learn and grow into. Don’t let the sitting and the silence fool you. These practices are participatory, not passive.

Those interested in mindfulness will often tell me that they want to get into the habit of practicing daily. Take, for instance, my friend who recently downloaded a meditation app. The app would remind her when to meditate, but when the reminder popped up on her phone, she would guiltily ignore it. Now, it’s a source of frustration, just one more thing that she fails to accomplish each day. Not quite what she was hoping for.

Other people, as they begin practicing mindfulness, will say things like, “I think I’m doing something wrong.” They don’t feel anything special. I try to assure them that there is no “right” experience. Whatever you experience is what you experience. That is the point. Most mindfulness practices are simply about becoming aware and observing the thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations that arise within you, without being overtaken by them. It’s perfectly normal to feel bored, anxious, or frustrated—you may be tapping into feelings that you experience unconsciously all the time. It may not be entirely pleasant. And it’s in moments like these that people new to these practices might find it too difficult to continue on a daily basis, or stop altogether.

Don’t let the sitting and the silence fool you. These practices are participatory, not passive.

What is needed is a reframing of mindfulness—one that brings practice to the foreground, recognizing that even with intentional practice it can take many months and even many years to experience profound effects. Fortunately, there are benefits along the way. Much like sport. I won’t ever be as good as Serena Williams at tennis, but I can enjoy the feeling of my forehand improving, friendly competition, and being outside.

A few years back, observations about the practice side of mindfulness sparked my colleagues’ and my interests. We decided to research strategies that would promote practice in an eight-week mindfulness-based stress-management program. Our goal was to understand if planning when and where to meditate would boost participants’ out-of-class practice time, and in turn bring about greater benefits. We drew upon action planning strategies that have been shown to help people put personal commitments into practice.

To test these strategies, we randomized program participants into one of two conditions—an action plan or control condition. Participants in the action plan condition were guided through a brief action plan activity, which involved identifying a challenging yet attainable practice goal and specifying the time and/or place for carrying out this goal. The participants in the other condition were guided through a brief review exercise of the material covered in the first two weeks of class.

We found that those in the action plan condition who had a strong personal commitment to practicing mindfulness techniques ended up doing more days of practice each week than those who in the control condition. We also found that when participants were personally committed to their practice, creating an action plan led to higher emotional well-being at the end of the program. In sum, when there is a personal commitment to engaging in mindfulness practice, making action plans leads to more practice and better outcomes in terms of emotional well-being.

What is needed is a reframing of mindfulness—one that brings practice to the foreground.

Our study shows that one way to boost mindfulness practice is to develop a simple, strategic plan of where and when you will practice each day. This is most helpful for those deeply committed to developing a regular mindfulness practice (e.g., they feel it’s important to incorporate into their lives). A limitation of the study is that we were unable to follow up with participants after the study ended, so we are unsure how long they kept up their practices. My hunch would be that in order to sustain high levels of practice through the changes life can throw at us, you would need to form new practice goals and plans monthly or even weekly.

For those not as committed to engaging in regular mindfulness practice, making a simple plan will probably not make that much of a difference; at least that is what bore out in our own study. Mindfulness practices are not necessarily for everyone. It may be that there is a different practice or approach that helps you to become grounded and makes sense in your life (e.g., sports, journaling).

Engaging in intensive residential meditation retreats may be another promising avenue for deepening and promoting a long-term practice. In the same study mentioned above, we examined the effects of strategic action planning strategies on practice among teenagers participating in a 5-day intensive residential meditation retreat with Inward Bound Mindfulness Education. We found the same effects. Among the teenagers who were highly committed to practicing, those who made strong action plans practiced more days per week and experienced higher levels of emotional well-being three months after the retreat. Retreats may be particularly conducive settings for forming strong practice habits that you can take back to your daily routine.

Regardless of how you enter into these practices, it’s important to know that cultivating awareness and higher states of well-being follow from hard, intentional practice and don’t come easy. This may not be what you want to hear, but by understanding this reality from the beginning and using smart practice strategies, you stand a better chance of sticking with the practice and experiencing the benefits that it can unlock along the way.