For many people, starting out with a mindfulness practice can be very challenging. I know it was for me.
Does mindfulness become easier with practice? Rest assured, mindfulness definitely becomes easier. There is interesting research in neuroscience suggesting that mindfulness can actually become our default mode of being. With continued, correct practice, mindfulness can (and should) become essentially effortless.
In this article, you’ll learn why mindfulness becomes easier over time, you’ll see research in neuroscience suggesting it can become our default mode of being, and you’ll learn simple steps to making the practice easier now and in the future.
Mindfulness Becomes Easier with Continued, Correct Practice
Most people don’t remember this, but there was a time when walking seemed like an impossible task. Any parent observing her baby is reminded of this as the baby first starts attempting to pull himself up and take his first steps.
Of course, for most adults who are able to walk, walking is now something that can be done completely unconsciously (although I recommend walking mindfully as often as possible).
This happens because the more often a task is executed, the easier it becomes for the brain to execute that task. The network of neurons responsible for executing the task become stronger and stronger each time they are used.
This appears to be true for every task you engage in, including the effort to practice mindfulness. There is a growing body research in neuroscience suggesting that the brain is significantly changed over time by mindfulness training.
Assuming that you’re practicing mindfulness correctly, it will be become easier and easier over time.
With enough time practicing correctly, the practice can (and actually should) become easier than walking. Instead of feeling like you are doing mindfulness, it will feel like mindfulness is simply happening.
The Brains of Highly-Experienced Mindfulness Practitioners Are Different
There are countless first-hand accounts of people describing how the practice of mindfulness becomes effortless, including my own account. After many years of struggling, being free from my mind when I choose to be is now essentially effortless much of the time.
By nature, though, I’m a neurotic, highly-anxious mess who thinks obsessively, non-stop, about almost everything. Thus, if mindfulness can become essentially effortless for me, I’m very confident it can become essentially effortless for anyone.
There is also a growing body of research in neuroscience demonstrating that the brains of experienced mindfulness practitioners are significantly different than the brains of beginners. The brains of experienced practitioners seem to allow them to experience mindfulness as their default mode of being.
For instance, in this study that analyzed brain imaging from a variety of other studies, it was noted that when beginners attempt to regulate emotion with mindfulness, there is a lot of effort. The activity in the brain tends to be very “top down”.
Researchers note lots of activity in the pre-frontal cortex (the area of the brain that manages the rest of the brain), which then reduces activity in the amygdala (an area of the brain largely responsible for unpleasant “fight-or-flight” emotions). This suggests that practitioners are intentionally trying to regulate emotion.
However, when researchers observe the brains of experienced practitioners as they experience unpleasant emotions, the process is “bottom up”. The amygdala activity quiets down prior to any activity in the pre-frontal cortex.
This suggests that, for experienced practitioners, the regulation of unpleasant emotions is happening without any intentional effort.
Mindfulness As Our Default Mode of Being
Gamma brain waves are associated with many positive attributes such as happiness, compassion, being “in the zone,” and a sense of spacious awareness that is “ready for anything.” That sense of spacious awareness that’s “ready for anything” is actually a perfect description of mindfulness.
Most people experience gamma waves from time to time, for very brief periods. Mindfulness practice can induce gamma wave activity as well. For most people, though, this only happens while they’re actively “practicing” mindfulness.
Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin, has found that long-time practitioners of mindfulness who practice in the context of developing wisdom have high levels of gamma brain waves as their default state.
Here’s a video on Youtube of Daniel Goleman, the co-author of Davidson’s book, Altered Traits, discussing the incredible differences in gamma wave activity between highly-experienced practitioners and others.
How To Make Mindfulness Easier Right Now By Correcting Common Mistakes
Most people I meet who have recently begun practicing mindfulness say it’s extremely difficult. When I ask, “Why?”, they usually say things like, “I have too many thoughts going through my head,” or, “I just can’t clear my mind,” or, “I can’t focus on my breath.”
Each of these statements reflect common misconceptions about mindfulness practice.
Below is a list of common misconceptions people have, and mistakes people make, when first beginning mindfulness training, and how to correct those misconceptions and mistakes:
I Can’t Stay Focused On My Breath
Every time I hear this, I cringe.
Unless you have consistent one-on-one guidance from a very experienced teacher who consistently embodies the traits you aspire to have, I recommend that you do not practice “focusing on the breath.” That is not mindfulness training. It’s focus training.
In the right context, focus training has its place. But it’s very limited in terms of what it can do and, as you’re probably already aware if you try to focus on your breath, it can be extremely frustrating.
The effort alone can create a lot of anxiety, which doesn’t outweigh the short-term benefit that arises if you can actually maintain focus on your breath for more than a brief moment or two.
Mindfulness is very different from focus training. Although concentration develops quite naturally with correct practice, it’s not the result of trying to focus.
Being mindful of something simply means being aware that it’s happening.
Generally speaking, mindfulness means being aware of whatever is arising in consciousness – including our own thoughts – in the present moment. Mindfulness training refers to the practices that help us experience mindfulness more often.
When one of the greatest teachers of mindfulness of all time was asked by a king what he and his students practiced, he responded, “We practice sitting, walking, breathing, etc.”
The king then said, “But everyone sits. Everyone walks. Everyone breathes.”
The teacher replied, “True. But when we sit, we know we’re sitting. When we walk, we know we’re walking. When we breath, we know that we’re breathing.”
This simple “knowing” is really the heart of mindfulness.
For instance, if you’re practicing mindfulness of breathing while sitting still, your effort should be very minimal. Your only job is to be aware that breathing is happening.
You should not be “focusing” on the breath to the point of trying to exclude other things from your awareness. If other sensations arise, that’s fine. If thoughts arise, that’s fine, too.
You should simply allow these things to arise and pass away on their own. When they do pass away, you should simply inquire with curiosity, “Am I aware that breathing is happening?” Then just notice.
If you find yourself so distracted by thinking that you’re no longer aware that you’re breathing, or anything other than thinking, that’s okay too.
As soon as you notice that you were distracted, you’re awake! In fact, you’re actually as mindful as you’ll ever be right in that moment.
At that point, you’ll notice that you don’t have to “do” anything. Mindfulness is just happening.
The trick is letting go of the very, very strong habit that compels us to go right back to identifying with our thinking and feeling as though we are the thoughts in our heads.
Instead of trying to “focus” and maintain that awakened state, just relax and simply notice what it’s like to be mindful. As you notice your breath again, you can continue being aware of it, and whatever else is arising and passing away in your awareness.
Practicing in this way will make mindfulness easier now, and it will set you up well for advanced practices in the future, which require an increasingly relaxed response to what’s arising in awareness.
I Can’t Clear My Mind
Trying to clear your mind is one of the surest ways to ensure that your mind will stay cluttered with thinking, and that you’ll be distracted by them continuously.
Mindfulness is not an effort to clear the mind of thinking. The key “effort” of mindfulness training is to remember to notice whether or not thinking is happening.
As soon you notice whether or not thinking is happening, you’re actually totally free right there. Most people just don’t notice how nice this freedom is, for two reasons:
- This freedom from thinking doesn’t last very long before they’re once again identified with thinking
- Unless there’s a lot of energy in the mind, this freedom is a very “plain” experience. Being free from thinking, which means you’re also free from suffering, doesn’t necessarily mean that experience is instantly amazing. It just means that suffering is absent. Its just a subtle sense that everything is perfect just as it is. It’s complete satisfaction.
If this freedom from thinking is experienced during a moment of intense suffering, or if it’s experienced for extended periods of time, it can be amazing. But in ordinary moments, it’s very easy to not notice it.
In fact, part of mindfulness training is developing the ability to notice the subtle difference between being identified with thought and simply being aware of whether or not thought is happening.
Ironically, the practice of simply noticing whether or not there is thinking happening is actually a much quicker and more effective way to allow the mind to become less cluttered with thinking.
It’s kind of like dealing with a snow globe.
If your goal is to get all the snow to settle at the bottom of the snow globe, the worst thing you can do is “try” to get the snow to settle down. The more you “try,” the more you’ll just continue mixing the snow into the water.
If you want the snow to settle, all you need to do is hold the snow globe in front of your face and observe it. If you do that, the snow will just gradually settle all on its own.
The mind works the same way. If you just observe it, it will gradually settle down all on its own.
A word of caution here, though. It can be very difficult to just observe the mind without being sucked into it.
This is why most teachers, including me, suggest using awareness of the body sitting and breathing as a foundation until you have a lot of experience. During sitting still practice, you’re only job is to be aware of what’s it like to sit and breathe.
You’re not excluding anything. Just noticing what it’s like to sit and breathe, and anything else that arises, including thoughts.
I recommend using the breath as a timer. So your only goal is to be aware of what’s happening now for one in-breath. Then you do it again for one out-breath.
When thoughts arise, you can simply notice that there is thinking, and continue being aware of what’s happening now for one in-breath. Then again for one-out breath.
I Can’t Achieve My Goal During Mindfulness Practice
Most people I talk to who are struggling with mindfulness say that they are not getting the results they expect. This is one of the biggest obstacles to realizing the benefits of mindfulness.
Setting goals and aspiring to become a better person are wonderful practices.
Ironically, though, the best way to achieve your goals and become who you aspire to be is to stop trying, at least during intentional periods of mindfulness training.
To realize the many benefits of mindfulness training, you need to let go of any effort to change anything while you’re practicing.
Most people’s daily lives are filled with efforts to control the situation they’re in, make experience more comfortable, or “get things done.”
Thus, I feel very confident that taking a few minutes here and there to let go of all that and just “be,” will not adversely affect you in any way. In fact, I know it will improve your life in almost every way.
In any moment that we decide we’d like to practice mindfulness, and/or remember to do it, it is absolutely essential that we don’t try to get anything, achieve anything, or change anything.
The practice is to simply notice the way things actually are.
We just notice what is arising now, then now, then now, then now. You get the point.
Any time there is rumination about what we just noticed, we notice that. It’s fine.
You could even mentally note, “There is thinking about this or that.”
This where true freedom is discovered. When we can simply see (or listen to) our thinking with complete objectivity, suffering disappears.
Why? Because our problems are not a result of what happens to us. They’re the result of what we think about what happens to us.
This is why two people can experience the same thing and one suffers while the other isn’t bothered at all.
In any moment that you can simply notice what’s arising, even if it’s your inner voice judging what’s arising, you’re free. The thoughts won’t affect you.
Mindfulness training is about developing that ability to be perfectly at ease no matter what happens to us or arises in the mind.
While this may seem like a lofty goal if we think of it as a permanent, everlasting ability, it is actually possible.
However, the first (and last), and most important step, is to remember to simply know what is arising in awareness now, then now, then now.
Anytime you forget, it’s okay. Now is a perfect time to remember again.
Each time you do, you’ll notice mindfulness becomes easier and easier.
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Matt Tenney is the Chief People Officer of The Generous Group, and the co-author of the book The Mindfulness Edge: How to Rewire Your Brain for Leadership and Personal Excellence Without Adding to Your Schedule. He is frequently invited to provide keynotes and training on leadership by Fortune 500 companies and other recognized brands.