One of the most frequently asked questions after people have seen my feature documentary My Year of Living Mindfully is:
How do I get started on my own mindful experiment?
Before you continue reading this guide though, the first thing I’d like to ask you in return is:
Do you actually want to start meditating regularly?
If your answer is no, then stop reading now and plan to spend your precious time on something that you would like to do for your health and wellbeing. If your answer is yes, read on.
The reason I ask this important question is because despite the fact that I’ve now been meditating for more than 1000 days (when I initially only committed to 365), I don’t think that everyone should meditate.
If you've seen My Year of Living Mindfully, you might remember that I included a study comparing an eight week mindfulness course to another health program which was similar, but didn’t involve formal mindfulness meditation. The outcomes showed that both groups improved their wellbeing.
If you’re suffering in some way with chronic pain or mental or physical health problems, it’s likely that a high-quality, evidence-based health program that is delivered by supportive, qualified experts will be good for you regardless of whether it specifically includes mindfulness. On the other hand, among other things, mindfulness-based programs have been shown to improve everything from relationships to greater stress resilience, and to help anxiety and depression, some addictions and chronic pain.
If you’re feeling motivated to try mindfulness training, this guide answers some of the most frequently asked questions I've received after people have seen the film. I am not a mindfulness teacher, a psychologist, a doctor or a scientist. But the guide is based on countless interviews, my deep-dive research, and my personal experiences.
Table of Contents
What is mindfulness anyway?
For some, mindfulness is a life-saving psychological tool that pulled them out of the depths of depression, for others it’s a way to disentangle from the grip of addiction. Some use mindfulness to face chronic pain or stressful emotions, while others use it to achieve peak performance at work. No matter what you think mindfulness is or what it does, there’s no doubt that there’s a kaleidoscopic array of definitions, which are diverse and even divergent.
The most widely used definition comes from Jon Kabat-Zinn, the microbiologist-turned meditation teacher who designed Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), the eight-week mindfulness course, which is favoured by scientists who are interested in studying the effects of meditation.
Just before I travelled to the US at the start of my project, Jon sent me a paper that he’d written in response to some of the recent mindfulness criticism. In it, he expanded on his now famous definition;
“Just so it is clear what I mean when I use the word ‘mindfulness,’ I am using it as a synonym for ‘awareness’ or ‘pure awareness.’ - Jon Kabat-Zinn
“Just so it is clear what I mean when I use the word ‘mindfulness,’ I am using it as a synonym for ‘awareness’ or ‘pure awareness.’ The operational definition that I offered around the work of MBSR and the intentional cultivation of mindfulness (or access to mindfulness) is that mindfulness is the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, and non- judgmentally,” he wrote.
Defining mindfulness, it seems, is a bit like defining complex ideas such as 'intelligence' and 'wisdom.' Jon’s operational definition clarifies why, in psychological science at least, mindfulness can be regarded as a state of mind, a personality trait, a meditation practice, and a mental health intervention. He intentionally allows for multifaceted complexity so that it can be picked apart and studied in differing combinations such as acceptance, attentiveness, awareness, focus, curiosity, or attitude.
When Jon is paraphrased in popular literature I’ve noticed that the 'awareness' part is often left off his definition. It took me an entire year to really understand why this is a misnomer. Mindfulness is verb, not a noun; an activity not a destination. Perhaps it’s not even an 'awareness practice,' but rather the practice of 'aware-ing'.
If all that is still too confusing, let me try another way of explaining it. Dan Harris, the ABC journalist-turned meditation entrepreneur told me that practicing mindfulness for him is like sitting behind a flowing waterfall, aware of the gushing water that are his thoughts and experiences.
I also like author Tim Ferriss’ description that being mindful is like sitting outside of a washing machine. When he’s caught up in his thoughts, he’s in the washing machine, but practicing mindfulness enables him to step outside and become aware of his tumbling experiences as they occur.
Cultivating the skill of learning to hear myself think.
To be clear, I mean 'hear' in the sense that it is an activity that requires perceiving, paying attention to, and becoming aware of my inner thoughts, experiences, sensations and interpretations as a distinctly different activity from listening, which implies taking notice of something and then reacting in some way. This is something that scientific researchers might also describe as decentering – observing things that arise in my mind (such as thoughts, feelings and memories) from a healthy psychological stance, with greater-awareness and a new perspective.
Now that I view mindfulness in this way, it finally makes sense why so many health programs are being called 'Mindfulness-based' and how, with the help of good mindfulness teachers, depressed people can recognise that their despondency is something separate from themselves, addicts can develop distance between craving and behaviour, and chronic pain sufferers can disconnect their pain from its emotional overlay.
The practice of mindful 'aware-ing' also means that in the same way that school children can be taught not to believe everything they first hear, they can also learn to not to believe everything they first think and feel. Our workplaces too can be transformed by people who are cultivating an ability to respond rather than react.
As I concluded in the film, in an era of worldwide political volatility, environmental uncertainty, and technological disruption, I suspect the national and international political landscape would also look very different if it was populated by clear minded politicians with an ability to notice deeply and respond wisely.
Why is mindfulness so hard?
I confess that when I first started on my mindful experiment, if not for the fact that I had a whole team of scientists tracking my every move, I probably wouldn’t have stuck with a daily practice. There are a million more pleasurable things that I can think of doing with my rare moments of spare time than sitting down to meditate.
Buddhists describe practicing meditation as like trying to tame a 'monkey mind,' but for me, it’s more like trying to wrestle with a bull elephant. No sooner do I direct my awareness to a point of focus (my breath, my body, or whatever else) than I find my mind is elsewhere. Thinking, planning, remembering… anything but where I’m intending it to be.
What really helped was doing a little digging into current neuroscientific thinking about how my mind works, and learning that my brain has something called Default Mode Network (DMN) which automatically switches on when I’m not doing anything in particular. The DFM’s job is to contemplate, understand, imagine, and make sense of all things related to ‘me’, ‘myself’ and ‘I.’ It’s kind of like an automatic program that runs to force me to think about my place within the world.
According to cognitive scientist Matthew Lieberman from the University of California Los Angeles, in the same that way we have basic needs for food, water, and shelter, we also have a basic need for connectedness and being pre-programmed to spend our downtime processing and re-processing social information is Mother Nature’s way of ensuring that we work well with others for the good of the tribe and survival of our species.
Although having a DFM is helpful for telling me who I am each morning and taking mental time-out has been shown to facilitate creative insights, there’s a huge downside to having an inner social network. Like Mark Zuckerberg’s social media network, it’s notorious for taking me off task.
Whenever I replay conversations in my head, rewrite my verbal gaffes, or subject myself to an inner moral performance review, that’s my DFM coming online. Characteristics such as intense emotionality, excessive worry, rumination, self-criticism and loneliness are all hallmarks of my default network which is linked to a range of disorders from depression and anxiety to post-traumatic stress.
There’s still a lot more research to do on this but it seems the problem isn’t my DMN itself, the problem is the extent to which I get caught up in the drama of my life and take it personally when something happens to me, good or bad. From what we know about the DMN so far, it seems that the goldilocks principle might apply – not too little, not to much, just right.
There are currently no 'neural signatures' for what happens during mindfulness training, but researchers such as Associate Professor Amishi Jha from the University of Miami explained to me that the simple instruction to focus on something (breath, sound, sensation etc), then when I notice I’m distracted, to return to the point of focus, means that mindfulness is kind of like a cognitive-yoga or an inner mental workout, which likely strengthens my ability to toggle between brain networks.
All this came together for me when I sat down to practice and listened to the words of veteran mindfulness teacher, Sharon Salzberg, speaking in my headphones.
As my year of living mindfully progressed I started having more pleasant experiences while mediating that made me feel differently about sitting down each day. Eventually, my motivation came less from having the scientific experiment as my 'stick' and more from having the wellbeing benefits as my 'carrot.'
Getting started – apps, courses, books and teachers
Anyone who’s ever attempted to start a new healthy habit or to break an unhealthy one will know there’s a big difference between understanding something in theory and actually putting it into practice. I knew I needed help. But where to start?
Meditation is now the fastest growing health trend in the US and has transformed from an ancient spiritual practice into a 1.1 billion dollar industry. Unlike other meditation techniques, such as Transcendental Meditation, mindfulness has never been trademarked and it’s therefore now widely available everywhere from classrooms to boardrooms, in studios and online. There are mindful books, apps, podcasts, gyms, busses and even mayonnaise.
With 100,000 products now capitalising on the word 'mindfulness' for sale on Amazon (including the Mindful Pets Tear Stain Remover Combs for Dogs and the Mindfull Products Space Saving Wine Bottle Rack), I’m not surprised that the mindfulness movement is copping a backlash.
After seeking advice from no less than 18 expert meditators and mindfulness scientists here’s how I decided to go about my own experiment. This is by no means the only or best way to go about your own mindful year, but happens to be how mine turned out.
MY 365 DAY PROGRAM
Day 1 – 30
- 20 minutes a day guided meditations by Jospeh Goldstein and Sharon Salzberg
- Using the Ten Percent app, founded by Dan Harris.
Day 31 – 88
- 20 minutes a day guided meditation
- Using the Unwinding Anxiety app, developed by Judson Brewer MD, PhD.
Day 89 – 143
- 45 minutes a day guided practice
- Plus extra homework such as mindful eating and mindful conversations as part of my eight-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Course (MBSR)
- Using the Openground app for home practice, produced by my MBSR teacher, Timothea Goddard.
Day 144 – 219
- 45 minutes a day guided practice
- Using a combination of apps, plus mindful dishwashing exercise every evening
-Homework set in preparation for my silent retreat by teacher Patrick Kearney
Day 220 – 228
- Silent retreat x 10 days
- Including sitting, walking and mindful eating (starting at 5:30 am – 9:00 pm)
- As led by teacher Patrick Kearney
Day 229 – 365
- Between 45 minutes and 2 hours a day
- Self-guided practice, using Insight Timer app
Day 365 – 1008 (and beyond)
- Aim for 45 minutes a day, plus attend at least one silent retreat annually
- Self-guided practice, using Insight Timer app
Not all apps work for everyone and there’s still a lot more research to do on what works for whom, when, where and why. One of the obstacles for many people is that some apps require a monthly subscription. Many apps offer special rates for teachers and healthcare professionals, and some will even provide their app for free if you write to them and explain your circumstances.
Although apps are helpful (and I still use one every day), I found there was a big difference between learning mindfulness from an app and learning from an experienced teacher. For me, it was a little like learning yoga or a new workout technique from an exercise video as opposed to learning from a yoga teacher or a personal trainer.
I tried many different apps throughout my own mindful experiment, depending on what I was looking for, including:
- Insight Timer - This app is kind of like YouTube for meditation teachers. Anyone can upload their material and it's an open platform for a broad range of meditation techniques, not just mindfulness meditation (which is the kind of meditation I practiced in the film). I use the bells in Insight Timer to time my self-guided practice and to keep track of how many days I've meditated.
- Openground - This app came free with my Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course and had guided tracks by my teacher Timothea Goddard, so that I could do my course homework.
- Ten Percent - This was a good beginner's app and has guided meditations by some well-known American mindfulness teachers such as Joseph Goldstein and Sharon Salzberg. It does require a subscription though.
- Unwinding Anxiety - This app is developed by psychiatrist and neuroscientist Judson Brewer, MD PhD. I used it early on in my mindful year and it helped me with my insomnia. The app offers video lessons, community forums and mindfulness practices that are based on the current understanding of how and why we become anxious. Although it is expensive, you can email them to apply for a scholarship.
- Waking Up - I used this app during a period in my mindful experiment when I was interested in exploring the nature of my own consciousness and the mechanics of my mind. It is developed by Sam Harris, who became well-known for his criticism of religion but has been increasingly exploring ethics and consciousness in his podcast Making Sense. It requires a subscription but also offers scholarships for those to are experiencing financial hardship.
COURSES FOR STRESS, PAIN, CHRONIC ILLNESS AND DEPRESSION
It became clear after a couple of months that an app could only take me so far and that in order to improve I would need guidance from a meditation teacher. I signed up to Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), the eight-week mindfulness course which is favoured by scientists who are interested in studying the effects of meditation on our health and happiness. The program was originally developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn in 1979 to offer hope to chronically ill people for whom conventional medicine had done all it could. MBSR underpins many of the mindfulness programs now being offered in schools, hospitals and universities alike.
A program called Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) is also currently being looked at by scientists wanting to understand the ‘how’, ‘why’ and ‘for whom’ of mindfulness and depression. MBCT combines elements of MBSR with Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), which was developed by Aaron Beck in the 1960s and aims to help people change their distorted, damaging thinking and behaviour. A meta-analysis (a study of studies involving a total of 1258 participants) demonstrated that MBCT is as equally effective as anti-depressant medication for preventing relapsing depression.
These programs are widely offered globally, some included in my film include:
- England – The Oxford Mindfulness Centre
- USA – The Mindfulness Center at Brown University and the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds
- Australia – Openground and Monash University
I would expect that any mindfulness teacher with integrity would not turn a student away because they couldn’t afford to pay full price. This is a philosophy embedded into mindfulness teaching pedagogy. One of my teachers, Patrick Kearney does not work for money at all. He is instead offered something called Dhana, which basically means 'pay what you can.'
COURSE FOR TRAUMA
Amit Bernstein at the University of Haifa in Israel is also working on program specifically designed to help the mental health of refugees. The program is called Mindfulness Based Trauma Recovery (MBTR-R) and the first safety and efficacy papers are being published in peer reviewed journals in coming months.
COURSE FOR SELF-COMPASSION
Associate Professor Kristin Neff from the University of Texas, who was featured in the film has developed Mindfulness Based Self-Compassion (MBSC) which combines mindfulness and self-compassion in order to provide emotional resilience skills. Greater self-compassion is associated with a range of healthy behaviours, including eating well and sticking to an intended diet, exercising regularly, quitting smoking, and following doctors orders.
COURSE FOR CHRONIC PAIN
Vidymala Burch, who is featured in the film as a case study, runs an organisation called Breathworks which offers mindfulness for chronic pain courses and retreats. The not-for-profit Breathworks Foundation enables people experiencing financial or personal hardship to participate.
I went on an Insight (Vipassana) Meditation retreat which was facilitated by the not-for-profit organisation, Melbourne Insight Meditation. They also offer free weekly meditation groups in Melbourne.
I know many teachers are taking their mindfulness training online. I have not yet personally done an online course, although many are being produced by highly experienced and qualified teachers. My one recommendation would be to look for a program that offers teacher-student interaction and one-on-one guidance so that you can get help when you need it.
I read widely throughout my mindful year, including books by scientists, teachers, journalists, sceptics, critics and comedians. I didn't like all of them but felt that diversity was the key to getting my head around the full breath of perspectives on mindfulness in contemporary life. Some of the books I read include:
- Altered Traits Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson
- America the Anxious, Ruth Whippman
- Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, Stephen Bachelor
- Digital Minimalism Cal Newport
- Drop Dead Healthy, A.J Jacobs
- Frazzled, Ruby Wax
- Free Will, Sam Harris
- Full Catastrophe Living, Jon Kabat-Zinn
- How to Be Human, Ruby Wax
- How Emotions Are Made, Lisa Feldman Barrett
- How to Change Your Mind, Michael Pollan
- Living Well with Pain and Illness, Vidyamala Burch
- Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor E Frankl
- McMindfulness, Ronald E Purser
- Mindfulness for Life, Stephen McKenzie and Craig Hassed
- Mindfulness for Beginners, Jon Kabat-Zinn
- Mindful Work, David Gelles
- Natural Causes, Barbara Ehrenreich
- Flow: the psychology of optimal experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
- Social: Why Our Brains are Wired to Connect, Matthew Lieberman
- Teach Us to Sit Still: A Sceptic's Search for Health and Healing Tim Parks
- Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, Jaron Lanier
- The Art of Meditation, Matthieu Ricard
- The Craving Mind, Judson Brewer
- The Embodied Mind, Francisco J Varela, Eleanor Rosch and Evan Thompson
- The Pursuit of Happiness, Ruth Whitman
- The Telomere Effect, Elizabeth Blackburn and Elissa Epel
- The Undoing Project, Michael Lewis
- The Year of Living Danishly, Helen Russell
- The Art of Thinking Clearly, Rolf Dobelli
- Lost Connections, Johann Hari
- The Science of Enlightenment, Shinzen Young
- The Strange Order of Things, Antoni Demazio
- Waking Up, Sam Harris
- Wherever You Go, There You Are, Jon Kabat-Zinn
- Why Buddhism is True, Robert Wright
- 10% Happier, Dan Harris
Throughout my mindful experiment I came to understand that the word 'meditation' is a bit like the word 'exercise.' In the same way that swimming and running can both be good for me in similar and different ways, different mental training techniques have different purposes and different effects. But researchers are not yet able to recommend specific meditation techniques, in specific doses, to specific people for specific purposes so for that, and for now, we’ll have to rely on the guidance of qualified and experienced teachers.
Efforts to establish mindfulness meditation teaching standards have been under way for more than a decade around the world but exactly what those standards should be, how they should be quantified, and who should enforce them is up for debate.
Before I began my own year of living mindfully, I got in touch with Assistant Professor Willoughby Britton from Brown University Medical School, a leading advocate for rigorous criteria for registered teachers. After publishing her research demonstrating that meditation training can sometimes have adverse effects, Willoughby established a charitable organisation, Cheetah House which works with teacher organisations to create meditation safety plans and training programs.
“I think a lot of the quote unquote ‘adverse’ effects are really about mismatches between the practices and the teachers and the programs, and people’s goals,”
Willoughby’s advice to me? Make sure the meditation teachers I find have the same agenda as I do.
“I think a lot of the quote unquote ‘adverse’ effects are really about mismatches between the practices and the teachers and the programs, and people’s goals,” Willoughby told me. “People might not want to lose their sense of self, but that's what certain practices are designed to do. So don't do those practices. Do ones that cultivate positive emotions. Those are some of my favourites.”
One thing widely agreed upon is that helping people to train their mind takes a great personal experience and skilled wisdom, so here are some questions that might help.
FIVE QUESTIONS TO ASK A MEDITATION TEACHER
1. Where did you learn meditation? (Or what is your meditation lineage?)
The expert teachers I’ve met have usually been trained by someone, who trained with someone, who trained with someone else, going back hundreds if not thousands of years. This is sometimes called a meditation 'lineage'. Although some teachers might have their own unique style, there’s a great deal to be gained by being grounded in time-tested techniques. Look for teachers who have clearly done their own work too; those who have been meditating for decades, not months. I’ve been meditating every day for almost three years now and I still feel like a beginner. Also, as any upright professional in any industry admits, continuing education is really important. If you find a meditation teacher who still studies, who regularly attends long retreats and keeps skilling-up by doing new trainings, this is a good sign.
2. Where did you receive your teacher training?
Although there’s not a universal mindfulness teacher 'qualification', this is a helpful question. In the same way that you wouldn’t want to learn yoga from someone who attended a few yoga classes, or to receive psychotherapy from someone who went to see a psychologist a few times for their own problems, it’s best to learn mindfulness from someone who has been trained to be a teacher by a well-regarded institution. A good follow up question to also ask is who encouraged them to become a mindfulness teacher? It might be a red flag if they can’t articulate a person or institution with a good-reputation.
3. Is your style about relaxation or acceptance?
This simple question will tell you if they’re teaching mindfulness meditation. As I wrote in my blog The Mindful Myth: It’s Not Actually About Relaxation, even though mindfulness meditation can be relaxing, it is not the main game. The actual aim is to change the way we relate to our thoughts, feelings and experiences by cultivating non-judgemental awareness. If your teacher is not making that clear then they may not understand mindfulness themselves.
4. Do you think everyone should meditate?
Although a good mindfulness teacher might say they wish everyone practiced, they will also be able to give you a nuanced, thoughtful response which touches on the fact that although mindfulness meditation can help many people in varying circumstances, it is certainly not for everyone. In fact, they may also say that there are some people who shouldn’t try mindfulness.
5. What is your motivation to teach?
If your meditation teacher is the real-deal, they are likely to say they want to help people to understand the nature of their own minds better. They will likely want to hold the space and offer guidance to help others navigate the tricky waters of their own minds. They will encourage independent thinking and open inquiry in their students. Red flags here would be signs of pushiness, the requirement of blind obedience, or the expectation of adulation.
By asking these questions, I knew I was in good hands with the teacher I found for my Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course. Timothea had been recommend to me by MBSR founder Jon Kabat-Zinn himself. She first started attending long mindfulness retreats when she was in her early 20s and is now also a clinical psychotherapist. She was one of the first MBSR teachers in Australia (there are now more than 1000 around the world) and in the last 16 years has personally taught more than 2000 students and trained more than 120 mindfulness teachers through the Mindfulness Training Institute – Australia and New Zealand.
Tim in turn recommended Patrick Kearney to me, who oversaw my ten-day silent retreat. There’s a good reason he has long wait lists. Patrick has been running long retreats for serious meditators for decades and has a particular interest in the original teachings of the Buddha (Buddhism as it was before is was a religion). He studies Pāli, the language of the earliest surviving Indian revision of the Buddha's teachings in order to make the ancient texts relevant for contemporary life.
Finding time to meditate and sticking with it
Surprisingly the biggest problem with my mindful experiment was not convincing 18 world leading mindfulness experts to give me advice, or even lining up the team of Australian researchers to donate their time to study me for a year. My biggest problem was that I had no idea how I would find time.
I’m not alone. It’s currently the number one question I’m asked bu beginners and meditation teachers alike who have seen My Year of Living Mindfully.
“It is currently unclear what conditions are required to maintain the new behaviour and prevent relapse, or to re-establish the new behaviour after relapse.”
When I started the project, I looked into the research on how to make healthy lifestyle changes last and it didn’t look good. There was a 50–80 percent chance I would fail and despite the catchy click-bait headlines that are the sustenance of my social media feed, it turns out experts actually know stunningly little about the real keys to sustained behaviour change. One review, which took into account all of the top 100 behaviour theories being used in respected academic circles concluded, “It is currently unclear what conditions are required to maintain the new behaviour and prevent relapse, or to re-establish the new behaviour after relapse.”
Great. Thanks science. There is however some research that hints at a way forward. I spoke about this idea during one of the film Q and As that I did with a group of mindfulness teachers in Portugal during the COVID19 lockdowns.
STRATEGY 1 – PLANNING
When I was writing my book, The Whole Health Life, which is about how I use science to live better despite having a chronic illness, I interviewed behaviour change expert Peter Gollwitzer, a professor of psychology in the Psychology Department at New York University, who has developed a technique called the If-Then planning to help us overcome the gap between what we intend to do and what we actually do.
The idea is simple and involves three point planning. Essentially, it involves specifying;
- The action I intend to take
- When and where I would undertake it
- What I would do when I (inevitably) slip up
The theory behind If-Then planning is to automate our healthy behaviours.
Here’s a clip from the podcast interview I did with Peter Gollwitzer, where he explains what the strategy is and why it’s much better than relying on willpower.
Over time my If-Then planning has evolved, but these days, it looks like this:
- If it’s 6:00 am in the morning, then I will get up and meditate in my bed for 45 minutes.
- If I need to sleep in a bit longer or the kids wake up early, then I will meditate at work on my lunch break.
- If it’s the weekend and I’m not at work, then I will meditate in my home office while my three-year-old son has his nap and my seven-year-old son is listening to an audio book.
- If my day has been too busy and I still haven’t meditated, then I will meditate in my bed before I go to sleep.
If I’d attempted to meditate at the exact same time each day at the outset of my experiment, I definitely would have failed because I don’t have a regular and scheduled life. These days about three out of seven days a week I manage to meditate first thing in the morning, about two days out of seven I meditate on my lunch break at work, and about two days a week I go all the way through to the end of the day before I can find the time.
Although having an If-Then planning strategy made all the difference in my success (I haven’t missed a day since) it’s not indestructible. Peter did a review of 94 studies looking at the effectiveness of If-Then planning and it was shown to help people achieve their health goals, but it’s way too simplistic to conclude that a little bit of planning is all I had to do in order to establish my regular meditation practice. Indeed, many studies demonstrating the effectiveness of Peter’s technique have been combined with other motivational strategies including boosting self-belief and having positive experiences. Recruiting the encouragement and support of people like Jules (my husband), Justine (my sister) and Liz (my best friend) really helped.
STRATEGY 2 – THE COMMITMENT CONTRACT
When I’m asked about how I found the motivation to keep meditating at the start when I was finding it so unpleasant, I often talk about the idea of making an Odysseys contract (or 'commitment contract'). I spoke about this idea during one of the film Q and As that I did during the COVID19 lockdowns.
Basically, because the version of 'me' who wanted to meditate every day for a year didn’t trust the version of 'me' in the future (who would rather watch Netflix than meditate), I dreamed up an elaborate way of holding myself to account. I enlisted the help of a team of scientists who tracked my every move. If I failed there wasn’t going to be anything interesting for the scientists to find and I may as well have flushed my $30,000 investment in research lab time down the toilet.
My experiment was elaborate I know, so it might be helpful to share my favourite (less full-on) but nevertheless effective example of an Odysseys contract which comes from a fellow self-experimentalist/ author, A.J Jacobs, who wanted to overcome his addiction to dried mango slices. He’d tried several strategies to kick the habit but nothing worked. In the end he wrote a $1000 cheque to the American Nazi Party and made his wife promise to mail it if he ate another dried mango slice. A.J recently told me that he’s hasn't touched the sugary treat since.
STRATEGY 3 – THE LIFE HACK
A happy accident led me to discover this life hack one morning when my alarm clock automatically defaulted to playing a recorded talk given by one of my favourite meditation teachers. The talk by Patrick Kearney was recorded while I was on my first silent retreat and is called 'Establishing Mindfulness.' I’ve never changed it since because the first words I hear every morning are, “So this morning I’ll be talking about mindfulness, the practice of mindfulness, and I’m starting at the very beginning.” As I transition from sleep to wakefulness every day I can’t help but be reminded of my own intentions to meditate.
STRATEGY 4 – FLOSS ONE TOOTH
“It’s like flossing. If you can commit to flossing one tooth, your dental health will improve. Why? Because nobody flosses one tooth.” – Associate Professor, Amishi Jha
Failing all that, I like to keep in mind the advice given to me at the start of my project by Associate Professor, Amishi Jha from the University of Miami, who’s a full-time working mother and a leading mindfulness neuroscientist.
“It’s like flossing. If you can commit to flossing one tooth, your dental health will improve. Why? Because nobody flosses one tooth. You’re there, you’re ready to go, you're going to do the full routine. I think that if you keep your bar very low, of just sitting on the cushion once a day, just taking the posture of practising, even if you get up after that, with that as your requirement for your day, I think that you're likely to have a lot of success with this in the next year.”
Before I began my Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course with Timothea Goddard I remember her saying that people often come to meditation because they’ve already tried everything else. And I remember sitting in my first class and thinking what an unlikely gathering we were; a motley crew of mothers and fathers, professionals, performers, entrepreneurs, bakers, nurses and counsellors. There was a 19-year-old motorcycle enthusiast with striking tattoos, a mother of two young kids who was mid-way through her second round of breast cancer treatment, and a Catholic nun who was about to have her 24th major surgery for a horrendous, incurable and painful autoimmune disease.
We had all turned to mindfulness for different reasons – for grief, for depression, for addiction, for post traumatic stress, for chronic pain, for uncertain futures, for financial hardship, and for difficult relationships. But looking back, despite our diversity, we were all unified by our hope to find a better way to cope with the suffering in our lives.
I can’t speak for the others in the group, but that’s certainly what I unexpectedly got from My Year of Living Mindfully. I thought I started the project looking for the brain's equivalent of a 30-minute jog around the block or the mind's daily serving of five fruit and vegetables, but I ended up with was so much more.
I was recently asked by Senior Sydney Morning Herald and The Age journalist Gary Maddox if I’m any happier as a result of my experiment and replied, “The surprising truth is that I don't think mindfulness makes me any happier. I know that's going to sound controversial to anyone who's ever read any bestselling mindfulness book. But, for me, mindfulness makes me more comfortable in life's inevitable discomfort.”
The word I use in the film to explain this is:
If you've made it this far through my Beginner's Guide to Starting A Mindfulness Practice and you actually haven't seen my film, watch the trailer here or watch the first 15 minutes of My Year of Living Mindfully for free below.