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What Makes Mindfulness So Hard & How To Make It Easier

Mindfulness is making waves in the world of psychology and coaching, in large part thanks to research proving its benefits, which include:

Furthermore, brain imaging studies show mindfulness practice creates both functional and structural changes in the brain regions associated with these functions.

Thousands of people are trying out mindfulness – hundreds of courses are available across the UK. And yet a significant proportion of people don't persist with practising much beyond the duration of their course. One thing seems clear: if you don't do the practice you don't get the benefits. So why don't people persist?

In this article I'm going to offer my take on this question.

To embed change in our lives we need (i) clear understanding of what to do (i.e. the thinking mind needs to know what it's doing) (ii) motivation – the emotional part of the mind must be engaged, we must want the benefits on offer, and (iii) we need supportive conditions (environment).

Of these, I think the main thing missing for most people is motivation: our emotional minds are not particularly engaged. Why not? In short answer is that meditation practice for many people is just not very gratifying, not very enjoyable. They might understand the benefits on offer but they don't feel them, at least not in the short term.

Think about your hobbies: whether you're into playing chess or tennis or singing in a choir, after a period of engaging in your hobby you'll generally have a feeling of satisfaction or gratification. You feel you've enjoyed the activity and you look forward to the next time.

How many of us get that feeling after a period of mindfulness practice?

And if you don't get it, my guess is it's because you spent most of the time in distraction, which just isn't much fun. It's easy to think of other things you'd enjoy more. You might even have spent the time in distracted worry or stress. At best, distraction and daydreaming feels like a waste of time. 

My own experience, even after decades of regular practice, is that I typically spend about 90% of my time not really present, i.e. distracted (unless I get some help – more about that later).

Of course mindfulness teachers would remind us that the practice isn't about avoiding distraction, it's about bringing the mind back repeatedly. But for me, and I suspect lots of others, that simply doesn't happen very much. I can easily spend 10 minutes in distraction before I notice. 

So what makes it so hard to bring your mind back to present-moment attention? This is the nub of what makes meditation hard. It's hard because when the mind has wandered off, by definition it's not present in order to notice. It's like noticing you're asleep. You'd have to be awake in order to notice. If you think about it, it's quite mysterious how we do notice – we just find suddenly awareness pops back, and then you notice you had been distracted.

How To Make Mindfulness Meditation Easier

So clearly if meditation practice were a more gratifying experience, it would be easier to maintain a regular practice and we would realise more benefits in our lives.

Certainly mindfulness can be a very gratifying experience – at times we feel effortlessly absorbed. At such times, practice is like a flow experience: we feel less self-conscious in the sense that there is no separation between our experience of ourselves and the doing of the practice. It feels effortless but we're fully present and even in control, or in possession of ourselves.

In an earlier article I wrote about preconditions for flow. Perhaps then, we can make meditation easier and more gratifying by somehow enhancing the preconditions for flow?

How Biofeedback Supports Mindfulness Practice

Using biofeedback in a context of meditation is not for mindfulness traditionalists, but personally I believe it has a lot to offer, without changing the essence of the practice, and I think it does so in part by enhancing the preconditions for flow. I wrote about this in an older article on how biofeedback supports mindfulness.

Here I'm going to focus on one simple concept: that biofeedback can help mindfulness by acting as a distraction detector.

First I need to justify the concept. The mind-body principle says that how you think, feel and act is reflected in your biology and vice versa. This suggests that when you're relaxed, focused and present in meditation, you'll be in a different bodily state compared to when you're distracted, restless or daydreaming. If the biofeedback device can measure the difference, then in principle you can use the biofeedback software to give you a nudge when you drift into the “physiology of distraction”.

Does it work in practice? To an extent, yes – in my experience at least. I personally use biofeedback in this way on a near-daily basis.

What physiological parameters can be used to flag up the change? Probably several, but I'll focus on a simple one, that's easy to understand: muscle tension.

It's easy to grasp that when you get stressed your muscles tighten up. Even a subtle restlessness or agitation can register, especially in the muscles of the face, which respond to emotions. (You can read more about the relationship between muscle tension and stress in this article.)

I find that in meditation, if a distraction comes along of the agitated variety, it can lead to a (perhaps subtle) increase in facial tension, which the biofeedback device can detect before I've noticed it.

Unintrusive Biofeedback

If you're practising mindfulness meditation, you don't really want to be focusing on a computer screen, but on your direct experience, especially of the body (e.g. breathing). You can still do that! Just set the software so that when your measured muscle tension crosses a threshold (which you can set) it will ring a bell to remind you to let go.

More Biofeedback Parameters

In my own practice I focus on a slow, regular breathing pattern. I find that when I become distracted my breathing changes – for one thing it speeds up. So breathing rate, also easily measurable with a biofeedback device, is a useful parameter for meditation, as is heart coherence.

Resilience Programme

My stress Stress Resilient Mind programme aims to build stress resilience skills, and teaches you to work with biofeedback in this way, using rented biofeedback devices.

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