All of the mindfulness training exercises in this book are inspired by meditation. Just as you train your quads to get stronger through practicing squats we will provide exercises to train your mind to learn to be progressively more present, poised in the face of difficult emotions and ultimately better armed to perform, regardless of your challenge. Given a range of mindfulness-based meditation practices serve as the core tools we will use to help strengthen your habit of mindfulness we would like to consider meditation up front in this book.
What is mindful meditation and how do you do it?
Put simply, the word meditation refers to a formal approach to training the mind in a particular way. There are literally thousands of specific styles of meditations out there. Some meditation styles have you watch the breath, feel the body, repeat a certain word or phrase and others have you create mental visualizations. Some meditation practices are religious practices and others secular.
Most people have some sense of what the word meditation means. And often that sense of what it means to meditate refers to one broad category of meditation known as concentration meditation. You might imagine someone sitting down in a quiet, darkened room, closing their eyes for a (long) period of time. They might watch their breath or repeat a certain word or phrase. And within that period of time, something is supposed to happen. Their mind is supposed to clear. Their annoying thoughts are supposed to stop. The person should feel relaxed and renewed at the end. Anxiety and stress should disappear. In other words, the person should feel noticeable beneficial effects after a period of meditation, otherwise why would they waste their time, right?
Well, as it turns out, this popular perception of what it means to meditate represents just one broad category of meditation, and it’s not the type that is emphasized in this book. We are not emphasizing such meditation practices because they will not serve you best in effort to optimize performance. There are many historical and cultural reasons that might explain why this popular perception of meditation exists right now. We’ve all been in the checkout line at a grocery store and seen the covers of new age magazines where a beautiful (air-brushed) model sits on top of a boulder, smiling serenely with inner-contentment. And a caption on the cover often reads something like, “Six Easy Steps to Inner-Ease and Peace.” Who wouldn’t want that? (OK, maybe you’d want “Six Easy Steps to Inner-Ease and Athletic Excellence.” – which we are getting to!)
This perception points to some popular confusions about what meditation must be. Meditation is often perceived to be a quiet, peaceful experience that reduces stress. But that’s just one type of meditation (concentration meditation). And the truth is, even with concentration meditations, often the mind wanders and is distracted by body sensations, sounds, thoughts and emotions. Concentration meditation is not always quiet and peaceful.
Amidst all these different styles of meditation, there are two broad categories or approaches to meditation. First, there are meditation styles, which emphasize concentration or the ability to stay focused on one thing in particular. With this style of concentration meditation, you would try to shut out all other sensory input and focus only on what you were trying to focus on. And then there are styles of mindfulness meditation, which emphasize focusing the mind in the present moment to be aware of everything that is arising in real time. In other words, there are no distractions in mindfulness meditation. Whatever you are noticing, that is what you bring mindfulness to! Our meditation-training program is based on mindfulness meditation, which will help you most with athletic performance.
Many people have the perception that meditation is training in concentration but not training in mindfulness. They think, “I have to sit down, close my eyes, focus on something, and block everything else out.” But that approach is only concentration and not mindfulness training. In this book, we will use concentration drills as a means towards strengthening mindfulness, but we will not use the concentration as an end unto itself.
The main emphasis in this book is to offer a training for your mind that is based in mindfulness meditation so that you can dynamically engage with the present moment from a space of freedom and spontaneity.
So, for example, if feelings of anger in meditation arise – the goal is not to block it out but to acknowledge and accept the feelings. When your mind wanders in mindfulness training and you notice it – this is a moment of success, not another moment of failure. When you are present and aware of what is happening – no matter what is happening, that is being mindful.
As this training takes root and develops, you gradually shift your default mental states from random mindlessness to more present and wakeful experiences of mindfulness. This training creates the inner space so that you can respond to whatever is happening in the moment without being overwhelmed by negative thoughts or emotions. With this inner training, you will learn how to ‘get out of your own way’ and how to, more likely, enter flow (more on flow later).
When well trained, the mind will become more adaptive, more resilient, more perceptive, and more creative. Mindfulness meditation is really strength and conditioning training for your ‘muscle’ of awareness. Just as you train your bodies for performance-specific outcomes on the field, you can train the mind so that it is better able to serve your needs in a game or competition.
How do you do? When you close your eyes and watch your breath, what percentage of the thoughts that you noticed was ‘intentional’? And what percentage of your thoughts was ‘unintentional’ or ‘uninvited’?
When we ask this question in seminars, some of the more overly confident students will say, “It was 50-50! About half my thoughts were intentional and half were random.” But then, someone else will question, “Really? I felt like ALL my thoughts were random.” Whereupon a chorus of other participants will chime in, “Yeah, it really seemed like at least 99% of all my thoughts were random.” Feeling that they may have been a little too optimistic, the first, overly-confident person generally concedes, “Well, er… hmmm…. I guess it would be more accurate to say 90% of my thoughts were random after all.”
In just a short five-minute period of time, we notice that the vast majority of our thinking is utterly random, out of our control, or simply uninvited. For many people, this is a discouraging and even frightening realization. “Wow,” they think, “If that’s what it’s like in just five minutes, what does that mean for the way I live the rest of my life?”
The great news is that in mindfulness training you are not trying to stop your random, involuntary thoughts. You are learning to have a different relationship to them. When you are practicing it is 100% OK and expected that the involuntary thoughts and distractions will arise. This is, in fact, part of the meditation process. The mindfulness practice is really about how you respond to such involuntary mental and emotional occurrences. Do you notice them with interest? Or do you believe and buy into every desire, criticism, and fantasy of what the mind did or did not say is good or bad?
Many people who start trying mindfulness exercises can feel disheartened by the initial insight that they have streams of random, uninvited thoughts. We all do! Yet, when they first start noticing their busy minds many people prematurely conclude that meditation is not for them. But this is just like a couch potato who one day decides to run a marathon and finds that by the end of the first 200 yards they are winded, cramped, and unable to run another foot. The problem isn’t the activity. The real problem is lack of training. And this is where mindfulness training comes in to practice. You can train your minds so that you are better able to choose how you engage with any situation.
Until now, we’ve been discussing what mindfulness is: simple, present-moment awareness of whatever is happening right now, whether it is a sound, a bodily sensation, or a thought. And even though this is a basic faculty or skill of our minds, unless you train this capacity, the forces of mindlessness will tend to prevail.
Mindlessness is defined as acting and reacting in the moment based only on experiences and lessons learned from the past. You might wonder, isn’t it good to learn, to have habits of reaction in performance? Well, the answer is yes and no! Here are a few examples when mindlessness is not a good thing.
Ellen Langer, a social psychologist at Harvard, is a respected expert regarding her research on mindfulness. She does an unusually good job at articulating just what you don’t want – a mindlessness approach to creativity, performance and living. She refers to mindlessness as an inactive state of mind, a state of mind in which you are not present to what is actually occurring before you in your environment (e.g., the open, easy lay-up).
Her summary of a mindless state:
When in a mindless state, an individual operates much like a robot; thoughts, emotions, and behaviors (hereafter just behaviors) are determined by ‘programmed’ routines based on distinctions and associations learned in the past. (Bodner and Langer, 2001, p. 1)
This means that if you remain in a mindless state, our past can determine what happens in the present. Ellen Langer often refers to the mindless state as “operating like a robot.” This can work well until the environment around our robotic ways has changed. When mindless, you are less able to react wisely to your environment, to learn, or to adapt and adjust.
When mindlessness in sport (or any performance realm) you lose out on opportunities to improve or to respond more wisely to what is showing up in front of you or within you. With the 7 minute mindfulness techniques we offer you a method of the most effective interventions currently existing. Certain mindfulness techniques balance different areas of the brain. The stress response starts to disconnect. Mindfulness brings natural order back to the artificial chaos.
Learn more about 7 minute mindfulness