There has been quite a bit of talk over the last few years about mindful meditation, and much of it can give you the impression that the practice is a magic elixir for being able to perform better. A quick search of any social media feed using the hashtag #mindfulness can result in hundreds of hits and posts all within the last 24 hours (and, yes, I’m likely one of them). And while I advocate the practice, and teach it to my own clients, I do think there remains too much mystery as to what it is and why it is helpful. So today I wanted to take a little time to give a layman’s understanding, as well as present a simple technique I often find useful.
Perhaps the best place to start is by describing mindfulness in simple terms. In its most basic form, mindfulness meditation is a nonsecular (non-religious) method of meditative focus. (And yes, that sounds ridiculously redundant each time I proof read the sentence) So in other words, it is an introspective method of concentration and self-examination, (And now it seems complicated….) Before you give up on me here, give this one a try. Mindful meditation is about practicing the mental ability to be consiously present in the current moment, while being non-judgmental (whew!). That’s right. No spiritual quest, no exploration of hidden powers of the universe, blah, blah, blah. You simply exercise your mind to be as focused in the present moment as possible. And what I find really fascinating is that there are many methods you can use. All you need to do is select a few that seem to work best for the intended outcome (see multiple attempts to describe above).
When I first introduce mindful meditation to the athletes I work with, one of the first questions they ask is, “What will I become more aware of?” And I think this is a brilliant question, although the answer becomes a little interlaced with psychological concepts. On the one hand, you become more consciously aware of your ability to hone your focus. Essentially, you realize that you have the power to give your attention to what you choose. You also develop a heightened awareness of your thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations. For some this may not be very appealing. However, the benefit is your improved awareness means you recognize quickly when internal distractions happen in coordination with external events, which allows you to redirect your focus where it needs to be. The more I practice mindful meditation on my own, the more I become aware of my ability to recognize being off-task and refocusing my attention. The benefit as an athlete translates quickly. So many of our sports require we put ourselves in danger. But having the ability to recognize how potential threats to our safety (real or imagined) pull us off-task is critically important, as this can become a “trigger” to refocus on what we are doing.
Another benefit I find most appealing is the ability to “disconnect from the noise”. And by noise, I mean the myriad of stimuli that surrounds us, and has the potential to become a distraction (remarks of others, movement of objects, our own worries/anticipations, etc.). When we are in high intensity situations, we naturally become more anxious. By nature, our brains are hardwired to then quickly scan the environment for “danger” signs. For survival, this is typically a good thing. For performance, this means we may miss something important to respond to. Thus, a fourth benefit I like to point out is the ability to harness attentional control. As an athlete, this means regulating how wide or narrow your bandwidth needs to be with regard to what you are paying attention to. For example, an archer needs to narrow that “attention zone” like a small tunnel. Yet a defensive back (soccer or football) needs to open up his attention to a broader field, while limiting his focus to important cues needed to make a play.
At this point, I think it is important to recognize that mindful meditation isn’t for everyone. Those who have experienced severe trauma should consult a licensed therapist first. There is the potential of psychological harm, so I want to be sure I don’t paint this as a panacea. And at the same time, don’t turn away if you struggle with attention deficit issues. The goal isn’t to be great at meditation, but rather to practice the mental skill to improve all of the things I’ve already discussed.
If I have kept your interest this long, you are probably wondering where to begin. Although I think you would benefit from being taught a systematic process of developing mindfulness practice, I also thought a brief description of a simple process might get some of you started. This is also one of my favorites as it promotes having a broader perspective on what you are doing. So here goes….
The task here is to imagine yourself as a grain of sand on the beach. Sitting still (I like having my eyes closed), set a timer on your phone and be contemplative of such an existence. It is not necessary to “feel” like a piece of sand would, but rather to be aware of the difference between the vastness of the beach in comparison to the meager space you fill. Allow yourself to recognize that you are merely one of billions. Observe what happens around you, without your ability to chose or control these events. And as they happen, be aware of the inner experiences that arise (thoughts, emotions, physical sensations) elicited by things such as sunlight, crashing waves, footsteps, and so on. Realize these inner experiences are merely reactions, and where you direct your attention is your choice. Without urgency or need to judge, allow any of these experiences to be something you stay present with. Also allow yourself to recognize that the location you find yourself in may dictate what happens, and this may not be the same for all the other bits of sand. You may have a giant clam burrowing next to you, or you may lie in the hot sun all day, while other pieces of sand remain close to a dock recieving cool water and shade. Fairness is irrelevant, it is simply what it is. As the timer goes off, allow yourself to smoothly transition from contemplation of the beach to your actual surroundings while taking several calm deep breaths. As you open your eyes, simply be aware of what is in front of you now.
My example here is meant to be a blend of metaphor and self-awareness. As I said, the exercise itself may vary as there is no singular/best method. The key is to be present, to recognize how your brain reacts, and to empower yourself to direct your attention without judging yourself. This is often why I refer to mindful meditation as “lifting weights for your brain”. You are improving your ability to focus and refocus, to be self-aware of how you react, and to direct your attention to what you choose without getting lost in emotions. So I encourage you to try being mindful. Take a few minutes several times a week to exercise your brain with intention. Should you find yourself needing more help in this area, why wait? Make the call, bring in an expert.