In the last post I explained that mindfulness is often credited for a suspiciously long list of benefits, from better sleep to better marriages. But it’s hard to see quite how sitting on the floor does all that, if indeed it does.
Once you’ve established a regular mindfulness practice, you notice all sorts of happy side effects. I could list dozens in my life. They vary from person to person, but many can be reduced to three major, primary benefits that are probably universal among mindfulness practitioners.
I’ll explain what they are, and how they could possibly result from sitting on a cushion, noticing your breathing.
Everything changes when you open up
Mindfulness practice trains a quality we can call “openness to experience”: the ability to notice what’s happening in the present moment, without fighting it, squirming away from it, or judging it. This skill has tremendous practical value.
Basic mindfulness meditation is like this: you sit, and by using one technique or another, actively observe everything about what it’s like to be sitting there—the full physical and emotional experience of being a human being at an ordinary moment.
You quickly discover that your moment-to-moment experience—even the experience of sitting quietly—is layered and detailed, and is always in motion. Sounds, bodily feelings, emotional currents, thoughts, and everything else you can experience are continually flowing and changing, second by second.
Some of that experience is pleasant, some is unpleasant, some is neither. As you sit, you simply notice this stream of experiences move through you, doing your best not to judge or interfere. If you get distracted from this simple task of noticing, you just start doing it again.
It’s a little disorienting at first. We’re not used to observing without interfering, having spent our whole lives reflexively scrambling to grab the things we want and run from the things we don’t want. None of us are immediately great at being mindful.
In addition, we’re doing this while our thinking mind is constantly chattering, commenting, singing songs, scolding us, and replaying bits of TV shows. So we do it in short sessions at first, extending them as we get used to it.
Eventually something remarkable begins to happen. You start to become more comfortable with all of this coming and going.
You discover that you already have a small amount of an incredible power: you can experience passing sensations and emotions without being harmed by them, and without acting out. You aren’t a slave to reactivity.
Feelings, even “bad” ones, are eminently experienceable. They’re normal, and they happen to vary in pleasantness. They’re not always signalling emergencies, and most importantly, they pass.
This is the first of the big three benefits: You become less reactive.
You feel more and more relaxed about living in this rolling sea of thinking and feeling, which is fantastic, because you live in that rolling sea even if you aren’t aware of it. “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf,” as Jon Kabat-Zinn put it.
Because you’re less afraid of brushing against any particular experience, you start to feel quite differently towards the future—less apprehensive and more interested—including what might happen in the next few moments.
You start to notice this “unfolding” quality everywhere in life: how the air changes as you pass through a door, how a room’s mood shifts when you flip a light switch, how the scent of mushrooms finally reaches you as they heat up in the pan.
This is a rich and wonderful side-effect of having observed so many breaths, emotions and bodily tingles go through their life cycle during meditation. Everything in life is always unfolding, and it’s really satisfying to watch.
This is the second of the big three: ordinary moments become more poignant and beautiful.
We’ve all noticed these poignant little flourishes in our lives, but they can seem rare. That’s because we can only appreciate the unfolding of ordinary life when we’re (a) not lost in thought, and (b) receptive to the unfolding of present-moment experience. Mindfulness practice trains us to be both.
Whenever you’re aware that you’re in a live, unfolding moment, you feel a greater sense of choice, because you’re not swept up in neediness or aversion.
You can notice a craving as it unfolds, for example, without indulging it. It becomes easier to refrain from opening the fridge between meals, leaving dishes undone before bed, or putting a cigarette in your mouth after lunch.
This is the third major benefit of mindfulness practice: unhealthy patterns become easier to see, and break.
The urge is still there, but it’s now just that: an urge. You recognize it as only another passing experience, and you know you don’t have to crush or shoo away that passing experience by indulging in your usual habit.
So you decide to refrain this time. There’s a moment of disappointment, a slight sense of missing out. But you continue to notice this feeling too, and discover that it only lasts about 20 seconds. So you refrain again next time.
Soon you’re used to living in this new way, and there’s no longer any sense that you’re fighting anything. The new habit feels better and takes on its own momentum.
As a result, impulses and cravings in general become less compelling. We become freer to act in ways that actually benefit us, rather than simply feel good in the moment.
Mindfulness practice doesn’t instantly make us experts at any of this. Few of us are taught to cultivate openness to experience at all, let alone in the direct way mindfulness practice allows us to.
Thankfully, by doing a small amount of mindfulness practice consistently (even as a daily five-minute meditation) you gain the option of bringing it to moments throughout your day. Every time you exercise that option, it becomes more natural, bringing more wisdom and freedom to your routines, relationships, and thoughts. As it becomes more natural, it transforms everything.
The address link in the email is missing a colon between the http and the rest of the URL – which makes following the link impossible. Hope that helps.
Oh no! Thanks for the heads up DJ.
There are many benefits to meditation that you discuss. But the benefits were not the original purpose, as set out by Patanjali in the “Yoga Sutras.” I think one is missing the point without mentioning this purpose so I hope you cover this in an upcoming bog, and also honor the ancient ones who brought this form to us.
The purpose of meditation is to connect with the Absolute.
Hi Don. There are a lot of forms of meditation, and a lot of reasons to do them. I don’t know much about yoga or Hindu meditation, but I do know that there were traditions with meditation practices long before the Buddha, and the Buddha lived several centuries before Patanjali. Secular mindfulness meditation, which is what I’m referring to here, is derived from vipassana meditation, which is Buddhist in origin.
The question of why we should meditate is a good one and there’s a lot of debate about that. There are some Buddhists who are uneasy about the secularization of vipassana, and presumably that is true in every tradition. Personally I’m most concerned about convincing people to actually sit and do it, and once they discover how it can transform consciousness, each person can figure out where it fits in their lives and why they do it.
Thank you for this great explanation of the big three!
For those that live in places with seasonal changes, it’s wonderful how “ordinary moments become more poignant and beautiful” fits into this time of year.
Taking mindful nature walks in autumn is such a great way to connect with both beauty and impermanence.
Seasons are such a wonderful display of this ever-changing quality of experience. Our societies are built around these natural cycles, so it’s interesting to realize that it’s all due to the fact that earth’s spin is tilted relative to its orbit. The world would be extremely different if it were straight up and down.
Thanks for the great examples you gave as you shared three of the many benefits of mindfulness. This was the best explanation I’ve read so far! I’m an artist and I didn’t realize until recently that I’m actually exercising mindfulness as I look for (and paint!) beautiful, ordinary moments touched by sunlight. Makes me excited to get back to my easel :).
Thanks Sonia. I want to write an article about exactly that phenomenon — we all seek connection to the present moment, seeking experiences that take us out of our minds and into the sensory world, and making art is just one of those ways. Mindfulness practice does add another dimension to this direct connection to experience, however. It allows us to be aware of our awareness of those sense experiences, and that is what allows us to be less reactive. I’ll write more about that in future posts.
I like that — “aware of our awareness”. I can relate to that. Looking forward to hearing more!
Great article. I’ve been practising mindfulness pretty consistently for 18 months now. And whilst I definitely see the benefits, I also feel that I’ve reached a plateau where I am just going through the motions. I use the Headspace app and have really enjoyed the different packs – but I don’t feel like I am seeing much improvement in my ability to stay present outside of my practise.
Maybe I have too many expectations – I have definitely made progress. I just wondered whether you could offer any tips on taking things up a notch (without going on a retreat, which I’m sure would do the trick but I just don’t have time/finances for).
A couple of questions: What is your practice now? Do you do any self-directed practice or only guided meditations? How much time do you spend meditating, and how often do you do it?
In my experience the most helpful thing for moving past plateaus is to try a different form of meditation, or at least changing the conditions of it. When we have the same experience again and again, our minds fall into the same grooves and progress slows down. Simply starting again with “beginners mind”, using a different technique or a different perspective can be really helpful, and you don’t lose anything.
Thanks for the reply David. In response to your questions:
What is your practice now? 20/30 minutes each morning of guided Headspace, followed by as much ‘being present’ at moments throughout he day as I can find.
Do you do any self-directed practice or only guided meditations? Only guided currently
How much time do you spend meditating, and how often do you do it? Daily (pretty consistently) 20/30 mins max
I will maybe try switching to a different format, there are some Unguided packs on Headspace I can try.
Any other suggestions would be very welcome.
(BTW I wasn’t notified about your reply – I just checked back here. Not sure if that’s something you need to adjust from your end?)
Here are three things I’d try:
1) Sit longer sometimes. 40 minutes. The mind *tends* to start to settle significantly after 20-30 minutes, so that extra time could go a long way.
2) Sit a second time during the day, even if it’s just a few minutes. But make time now and then to see what happens when you sit two full 30+ minute sessions in a day. Mindfulness has a compounding effect, because the — sitting twice is four times better, IMO, and it can precipitate breakthroughs.
3) Start practicing without guidance at all, using a good book for instruction. The best, IMO, is Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Gunaratana. I think at a certain point guided meditations are really limiting.
I don’t have a plugin to allow notification for comment responses, because they tend to create a lot of spam complaints. Someone checks the box, then gets a flood of subsequent comments, reports spam, and it’s coming from my website so I get a warning from the host. There may be better ways though, but I had a bad experience in the past, haha
Great information and advice as always! Looking forward to the upcoming season at Camp Calm!
Glad to have you back Randy.
Simple but very real examples of how mindfulness changes us.
“Soon you’re used to living in this new way, and there’s no longer any sense that you’re fighting anything.”
This is actually where mindfulness has had the most noticeable effect on me. I do have fears and worries come up every now and then, but the way I interact with the world has changed into acceptance, trust and love. But it is not happy experiences all the time. Not even agreeing or fitting in. I realize days later how me going against conventional logic was actually a very loving and constructive move for everyone involved.
Yeah, it is a real shift in thinking, when you start to see the benefit of turning towards ALL present-moment experience, even if they’re not pleasant. They’re already there, after all. After the initial growing pains, it’s such a relief to be able to cultivate that one sensible attitude towards experience: openness.
True. A lot of unpleasant present moment experiences are actually gifts. They grow us and shape us. We do not see them as such while they are happening. It is almost like nature (or universe) itself has a way to teach us, and we (our ego) doesn’t like it, but it is the way life works.
Compassion is another things that helps in this process. Knowing that no one or nothing is perfect (as the ego wants it to be at that point in time) helps. We are all going through this mix of pain and happiness.