In my last post, I talked about the most common comment I get on mindfulness. In this post, I’m going to tell you the most common question I get about mindfulness:
“I’ve been practicing mindfulness – how can I tell if I am actually more mindful?”
The first thing I do is ask about your mindfulness practice. I know there are books and pundits that say you can practice mindfulness for a minute or two here and there. And I agree that a little bit of mindfulness is better than no mindfulness. But neuroscience shows us that the more we practice mindfulness the better we get at it, like any other skill or competency. If you are new to running and want to complete a 5k, you don’t train for it by running 100-yard distances a handful of times each day. It’s unlikely you could learn a foreign language by studying in one-minute intervals every now and then. Mindfulness is no different – the more you practice, the more you increase your ability to be mindful. And if you are not dedicating sufficient time to practicing mindfulness, you are not going to see much change in your ability to be mindful. I recommend setting aside time each day to practice, starting with a few minutes and gradually increasing the time.
MRI scans show that after only eight weeks of practicing mindfulness, our brain activity changes, and we are more mindful. But since most of us don’t have access to that sort of verification, we need to look to other indicators. One way mindfulness is measured is through self-assessment questionnaires. The Mindful Attention Awareness Scale is one of the best-known, although several such surveys exist. A comprehensive list can be found here. I was able to find a free copy of most of these by doing an internet search on the name of the survey. You could certainly use one of these to measure how your ability to be mindful changes over time.
I personally don’t use self-assessment questionnaires. What has been most useful for me is to observe myself to see if my response or behavior is different in a specific situation. For example, I used to go to bed at night, and my narrative mind would continue to stay active thinking about everything earlier in the day, what was going on tomorrow, etc. And I’d lie awake while my brain happily hummed away. Since I have started practicing mindfulness, I’ve noticed that my narrative mind is quieter, and I fall asleep faster.
Self-observation is the same measure of progress I use with my coaching clients. One of the first steps of the coaching process is to clearly define the desired end state. My client might say to me, “I want to increase my leadership presence.” I would then prompt him or her to think of specific outcomes with questions like: If you were successful in meeting that goal, how would you and others know? What would that look like? What would I see about what you say and how you behave? This takes a broad goal to specific things that can be observed as indicators of change.
So I encourage you to take a few minutes and think about what you hope to get from practicing mindfulness. To feel less stressed? To be more focused? To respond patiently and thoughtfully instead of with a knee-jerk response? Mindfulness will benefit you in all these ways. But look what happens when you can frame this in a particular situation: “When I used to speak with my challenging boss, I used to snap at him almost right away. Now, I am able to pause and answer calmly instead, and our conversations are more productive.” Then you can more clearly see that you are being more mindful as well as the positive impact mindfulness has in your life, in terms that are most meaningful to you.
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