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Mindfulness FAQs

What is the difference between mindfulness and meditation?

Mindfulness is a quality or skill that we can develop to make us more aware of what is going on around us and within us, and is something we can develop to be a more natural part of our daily lives. Meditation is a particular practice to develop a quality or skill, such as mindfulness. Mindfulness meditations emphasise ways of bringing the attention back into the present moment without any self-judgement or criticism. Mindfulness is a bit like mental fitness, and meditation is a bit like an exercise programme to develop mental fitness. In a mindfulness course, you will learn lots of ways of practicing meditation and lots of ways of becoming more mindful in everyday life.

How many different meditations are there?

Difficult to answer. Probably hundreds. There are many types of meditation practice, and each teacher has their own style and approach based on their personal experience. Often people think of meditation as just one thing, but there are many practices and sometimes one person will use different practices at different times for different reasons.

How long should I meditate?

Quality not quantity is a good maxim. Ten minutes of focused meditation can be better than an hour of mostly mind wandering and day dreaming. There are some simple short practices that take two or three minutes, and even a few seconds pause and connecting with the breath can be a useful practice. At the other extreme, doing more than (say) an hour a day without proper support and guidance is probably going too far, at least until you are confident and experienced with your meditation practice.

How often should I meditate?

Daily meditation is usually recommended. Often people find that difficult at first. Some people rely on a weekly longer meditation with a group and that is all they do. The more regularly you practice, the more benefit usually is gained.

When should I meditate?

There are no fixed rules. Many people find that meditation is easier and more effective if they do it early in the day, before they get into the flow of things. Many people find it useful in the evening to wind down. Some people find short practices during the day helpful.

Can I teach myself?

There are lots of books around and guided meditations, and plenty of apps. Frantic World is a great starting point – the book by Williams and Penman is accessible and the meditations are clear and easy to follow. Reading is good, but practice is needed to understand what mindfulness is – you can read all you like about riding a bike, but until you have got on one you can’t really say you know how to ride one.

Do I need a teacher?

Some people get a long way with guided meditations on their own. However, it can help a lot to have a skilled teacher who can guide you along your exploration of meditation and mindfulness.

How do I find a good teacher?

Shop around. Find someone you are comfortable with. Find a group, and join that. If you don’t like it, move on. Talk to people about it.

Do I need to do an MBSR or something similar to get going?

No, there are lots of ways of starting. An MBSR is a high commitment, and if you are not ready then it might be too much of a challenge – a good teacher will check a number of things out with you before you start a demanding course like MBSR. Most of the research has been done on full 8 week programmes, but there is growing evidence of the value of shorter courses with shorter practices. If you are ready for an MBSR or similar, it can be a great experience and really help you develop your practice.

Are there any dangers to meditation?

Generally you need good advice before starting any meditation programme that encourages a lot of meditation. It can exacerbate certain mental illnesses, and if you have a lot of stressful things in your life then taking on a challenging meditation programme might be too much. Ask the teacher for advice.

Will it make me calmer and less stressed?

Most people find that a regular practice helps them get through life with less stress, and there is lots of scientific evidence to support that. The intention of mindfulness practices is to help us respond more effectively to life’s challenges. However, it is no magic bullet, and even the most experienced meditators will get stressed and irritable. If you start a physical exercise programme, you will most likely get stronger and fitter, but you will not become an olympic champion overnight. So too with meditation – it will probably help overall, but it will not solve all the difficulties that come with life.

Does it really work?

Lots of science today says it does.The NHS in the UK recommend a mindfulness programme for certain conditions, and its use is growing as a therapy. Businesses are adopting it to help in the workplace. Even the UK parliament has a large all party group that recommends mindfulness practices.

Why can’t I control my mind wandering?

Because you are human. Our thinking minds evolved to solve problems and avoid danger. Just sitting down quietly does not stop that part of our minds. Often people think that meditation somehow agitates their mind, but more likely it is that they become more aware of the agitation that is already there. There is a myth that meditation is about achieving a still mind, and so an assumption that if your mind is busy then you are not meditating. Mindfulness meditation practices help you work with that busy mind rather than shut it down. In time it will probably calm down, and a still quiet mind is lovely to experience, but it does not usually happen that often or for that long, and not so often in the early years of practice – even the most experienced meditators have agitated minds at times during a practice.

What is a good meditation?

Often people say that the only bad meditation is no meditation. Simply having the discipline to sit still for 10 minutes regularly, even if the mind hops around all the time, can be beneficial. There is a bit of a danger of judging all meditations by the really nice calm one you had, and comparing. Each meditation just is, whether it is noisy and agitated or blissful and calm.

Is it essential to complete very expensive courses to learn how to share Mindfulness or can it be done through self learning and small courses?

If you want to facilitate a mindfulness class, then as much learning and experience as possible helps. As a mindfulness teacher you should embody the practice, so you need a sound regular practice yourself. There are good and bad ways of leading mindfulness sessions, and if you can then find a teacher who can coach you, and they may be willing to let you support them. Know your limits. Only teach what you know from the heart – that bit you read in a book is not good enough. Setting out to teach a full mindfulness course without lots of experience of the practices and experience of leading meditation practices can get you and the class participants into difficulties. Expensive courses are often very helpful, but not necessary if you have good local teachers who will support and encourage you on that journey.

Should I go on a retreat?

Retreats are a great way of developing your mindfulness and meditation practices. However, choose wisely. Ask someone who has been on it what it is like. Build up your experience. Day retreats are now quite common and a good way to get some longer experience of mindfulness and meditation practice. Weekend retreats are a good way of extending that experience. A week or longer can be quite challenging, especially if it is a silent retreat. Start small, and build up your confidence first.

Why are some retreats silent?

Talking keeps part of the mind very active. Not engaging in regular conversation helps the mind to calm down. But a long silent retreat can be very challenging if you are not used to it, and there is not good support on the retreat. Sometimes some dormant emotions may come up that can be quite overwhelming, so be prepared for a bumpy ride at times.

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