A Beginner’s Guide to Mindfulness
What it is and how to get started
By Piers Kowalski, Magellan Cognitive Performance Coach
Mindfulness has become a popular topic over the last decade, and for good reason. A growing body of research is showing incredible health, performance, and relationship benefits to adopting the practice. But what exactly is mindfulness and how does one practice it?
Mindfulness is a particular way of focusing on the present moment without judgment. It is a skill, a practice, and a state that helps counteract our brain’s natural tendency to time travel back into the past or ahead into the future. Being in the present moment more often is what enables us to build meaningful relationships and perform at our best.
Unfortunately, most of us are more familiar with not being in the present moment. Research suggests we spend nearly 50% of our time thinking about something other than what we are doing. It’s when you arrive home from work excited to see your family and just as you sit down at the dinner table you remember an email you forgot to reply to and suddenly you’ve missed your kid sharing the best part of their day. Or it’s the moment you’re at work trying to focus during a meeting and your mind wanders back to an argument you had with your spouse that morning. It can also be the moment when you are sitting down to finish a report, but you begin daydreaming about your upcoming vacation. And it’s a hundred moments in between.
Mindfulness is the practice of catching our minds when they wander and intentionally bringing them back to where we are—put simply: it’s the practice of being present. The more we practice, the more quickly we’re able to reestablish our mind in the present moment before it impacts relationships or performance.
To be truly mindful is to be able to recognize as your mind wanders away from the here and now, accept the wandering, and recenter your mind back to the present to be where your feet are.
Mindfulness has a long and rich history dating back more than 2,500 years. While this may activate images of ancient monks in stillness and solitude, in the last 15 years, an enormous amount of rigorous research has been conducted supporting the benefits of a mindfulness practice—many that are particularly relevant to thriving in our fast-paced, always-on culture.
Mindfulness has been shown to act as a buffer against cognitive anxiety, improve memory and learning, improve sleep, and reduce fatigue. It is also associated with increased frequency in optimal performance states, improved performance in high-intensity contexts, and better regulation of emotion and stress. Importantly, these benefits can be realized without spending hours upon hours a day in silent meditation. Mindfulness training research suggests that 8-20 minutes a day is all you need to see meaningful benefits. If you want a more exact prescription, Dr. Amishi Jha, one of the leading mindfulness researchers, has determined that 12 minutes a day, five days a week is the most effective “dose.” It balances what time-pressed people will actually commit to and it benefits their attention.
Magellan Federal is the world’s largest single employer of professionals with specialized training in performance psychology coaching. Our cognitive performance coaches have delivered education and training to more than 2.7 million within the Army population in the past five years. Here are some simple exercises our coaches teach to help build positive mindfulness habits:
Practice 1 minute of mindful breathing. Set a timer for one minute and simply turn your attention to your breath. What does it feel like to inhale? What does it feel like to exhale? Try pausing at the top and bottom of each breath. If you find 1 minute too easy, aim for 3 minutes or more.
Practice mindfulness during everyday activities. For example, while washing the dishes focus on the temperature of the water, the slipperiness of the soap, the sound of the dishes. Every time your mind wanders to something else (as it naturally will), gently guide it back to the dishes. Surprisingly, even for menial tasks like dishes, people who focus on the task, instead of daydreaming, report greater levels of happiness.
Conduct a brief body scan. Find a quiet place to sit, start with a few mindful breaths, and then turn your attention to your body. Start at the top of your head and work downward, just noting what your body feels like. Don’t get stuck in any particular place; just notice comfort or discomfort and move on until you get to your toes. Finish with a few mindful breaths.
Know that as you try any of these activities, your mind will wander; it is completely natural. Mindfulness is the practice of gently bringing your mind back to your target. Each time your mind wanders, think of it as a repetition to strengthen the skill of returning to the present moment.
Making it Stick — Find or Build a Community of Support
Like most new habits, developing a mindfulness practice can be tricky. Research has shown that learning with and from others on a similar path has a staggering effect on success.
Magellan Federal believes in a human-centered approach when building new habits like mindfulness. We are currently developing a solution that models the success we have found through our work with the Army, which will incorporate live coaching sessions and a community of support to further enhance successful habit change. Finding or building a group or partnership that supports your mindfulness goals and offers encouragement and motivation along the way will make you more likely to succeed in creating mindfulness habits that stick. You might consider adding a mindful minute with your family before dinner, starting a team meeting with a mindfulness practice, or finding your own unique way to build community around mindfulness practice.
Magellan Federal’s holistic approach seeks to help people not only improve performance, but health, relationships, and culture—and mindfulness is a key piece of the puzzle for many people. If you are Interested in starting a mindfulness practice or connecting to a community of support, contact us today.
Piers Kowalski, a Magellan Cognitive Performance Coach, has dedicated his career to using the science of psychology to help people unlock their full potential, perform under pressure, and thrive through adversity. He has over a decade of experience supporting individuals and teams in high-risk occupations (military, first responders, and healthcare professionals), elite and collegiate athletes and coaches, and corporate leaders and teams. Piers is a Certified Mental Performance Consultant, holds a master’s degree in Kinesiology and Sport and Exercise Psychology from California State University, Chico, and is a certified by the University of Pennsylvania as a resilience instructor. A Colorado native, Piers spent 11 years living and working on the West Coast from Southern California to Seattle, Washington before returning to his home state where he currently lives with his family.