THE BLOG
01/21/2014 11:35 am ET | Updated Mar 27, 2014

7 Common Mindfulness Questions, Answered

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This post is part of an ongoing partnership between the Institute for Mindful Leadership and Huff Post as we work together to bring mindfulness to the workplace. The Institute has just opened enrollment for a number of retreats in NY and MN. More info can be found at http://instituteformindfulleadership.org/retreats/. We hope you'll join us in 2014!

Welcome! We thought it might be helpful to bring together some of the questions that commonly come up as people begin to learn the practice of mindfulness. The breadth and diversity of human experience that has been evident throughout the years of offering the Institute for Mindful Leadership's retreats and workshops is truly amazing, and yet, we've identified some recurring themes that might echo some of your own questions. Enjoy!

1. What does sitting still with my eyes closed have to do with my job, or my life in general?

Formal sitting meditation is similar in some ways to practicing your golf putt with a cup on the floor, playing piano scales or shooting hoops. Sitting with your eyes closed while paying attention to the breath or sounds is a training; it's not "the game." But like other activities we practice with repetition, it helps to strengthen our ability to focus. Developing focus is one of the four fundamentals of leadership excellence; without it, we perpetually skim the surface of experience, never resting long enough to understand what is truly before us and what response is called for now.

2. How can paying attention to brushing my teeth help? Isn't it better if I use that time for planning my day?

Most of us have spent years reinforcing this habit of not paying attention to our lives as they are unfolding. So, the bigger picture is that you are learning to shift from a habit of continually projecting into the future or ruminating about the past, to a habit of being aware of what's really happening now. Training the attention to stay with experience as it is really occurring supports the mind's ability to see clearly and learn. We begin to see what truly is present, not what we wish or fear is present; we begin to interact with experience as it is, not colored by our habitual "filters" or automatic views. We begin to unravel our struggles with experience, and in doing so, create the space we need to lead from our deepest principles. And so, when it's time to plan your day, you can really be there, with all your capabilities, for planning your day.

3. Yesterday my meditation was easy and today it was hard: My mind just kept drifting away to my weekend plans. What am I doing wrong?

First for the bad news: This is a very good description of doing the practice "correctly." Your question shows you now know some things about your own mind. You know that the mind you sat down to meditate with today was very different than the mind you sat down with yesterday. You know what "today's mind" was intent on doing: planning for the weekend. And you know your mind is quite happy to go ahead and do what it intends to do without asking for "your" permission! Great! The good news is that you also recognized at some point that the mind had "drifted away." The practice is to use that recognition to gently redirect the attention back to our intended focus. Some days our mind will throw a lot at us and we get a lot of practice redirecting; others, our mind will be settled and content to sustain attention on whatever we intend. Either way, our practice is to be with whatever our experience is, with as much self-compassion and curiosity as is available to us.

4. How long will it take before I notice a difference?

Not surprisingly, there is a good deal of variability in how this practice impacts people's lives and when they start to see those changes occur. That said, it's fairly common for people to report within a couple of weeks of dedicated practice that they were able to meet a situation with a new sense of having choice in how they respond. These are the early signs of developing a degree of freedom from our automatic and habitual tendencies. Something else to consider: Co-workers, family and friends sometimes notice these changes before we ourselves are clearly aware of them.

5. Can I listen to music while meditating?

This depends on what you are looking to develop through this practice. The inclination to put some music on to meditate with, at least in early stages of learning the practice, might be coming from a wish to be entertained or to "chill out." In other words, a wish to get away from whatever is happening now. The aim of mindfulness practice, however, is to strengthen our ability to stay with what is occurring in our experience, and to see clearly what's true for us now. Over time, if incorporating music into formal practice still interests you, then experiment, remembering to notice if this seems to support your ability to remain attentive and curious, or not.

6. I can't sit still for 10 minutes, is it OK if I move around?

Through mindfulness practice we begin to learn more about the inter-relationship between the body and the mind. Just as we have developed the habit for our minds to spend a great deal of time jumping into the imagined future or rehashing the past, so too, we have developed the habit for our bodies to continually shift position in response to the slightest uncomfortable sensation, usually without our being aware of it. Quieting the habitual jumpiness of the body supports us in aiming and sustaining attention, which in turn, strengthens the mind's ability to focus. So we do our best to not shift position automatically and bring awareness to any movements we decide to make.

7. I'm fine with silent meditation, but once I open my mouth I'm not mindful at all! Does this ever get better?

Bringing mindfulness to communicating is a bit more challenging than paying attention to the sensations of the breath. This is where purposeful pauses can help us: By establishing the habit to use the common occurrences of our day to remind us to bring our attention to the present, we are eventually able to weave mindfulness into more complex activities, such as speaking and listening. It's also helpful to recognize that the attention and focus we bring to these complex activities is much lighter and broader than the close attention we may place on the sensations of breathing when we are sitting still with closed eyes.