1.1 How to become more mindful

Carl's Phone August 2011 246


In a word, you become more mindful through: meditation. Some folks have preconceived notions about meditation based on popular culture that is mostly wrong.  Meditation is not “thinking about nothing”, “prayer”, “hypnosis”, or a “trance”.  (I am not necessarily knocking any of these things, just drawing a contrast.)  There are many ways to practice meditation, but the common element is purposeful and focused concentration on one thing.  Classical meditation involves sitting still on a cushion and concentrating on your breathing or a certain word or words (mantra) that you repeat in your mind.  In short, this is one form of mindful breathing.  Another useful technique is mindful walking, where you concentrate on the sensation of your feet hitting the ground, and in some practices, the rhythm of your footfalls and breathing together.

Regardless of the exact method, the key part is the purposeful and focused concentration.  I have found, and many others agree, that it does not matter too much how you sit, what time of day you do it, where you meditate or walk (although I’d avoid places like minefields and busy intersections) or other particulars.  There are more techniques like body scan meditation, mindful listening, guided meditation audio, and yoga (see the resources listed throughout these pages).  

To become more mindful you have to practice meditation regularly, preferably every day.  I recommend an hour a day at least, but you can likely gain benefits with regular sessions as short as 15 minutes.  The regular practice of meditation changes your brain structure and function in multiple ways, and this is observable in brain scansAs your brain learns to become more mindful, you will become calmer, more focused, less at the mercy of your emotions, and better able to make decisions.  Some people call it being more “centered”.  Doesn’t this sound like a good mindset for making better financial and investment decisions?

Some people say, “I’ll just be more mindful.  I don’t need all that meditation stuff, because I don’t have the time.”  To those people, I sincerely say good luck.  However, to me that’s like saying, “I want to become really good at tennis, but I don’t want to practice at all or take any tennis lessons.  I’ll just step on to the court in full competition and try to be a good tennis player.”  That is clearly a recipe for frustration and failure, and anyone applying this approach will lose all their games and probably won’t ever want to play tennis again.  Clearly, the key to learning any new skill is practice, and mindfulness is no different.  With practice comes more benefits and insight into whatever you are practicing.  By practicing mindfulness through some form of meditation, you acquire a greater knowledge of your own perceptions, mind, emotions, thought processes, and how those all work together.

Advice and resources

I will mostly leave the details of how to do meditation to the resources I note below.  However, I do have a few potentially useful observations about meditation, which are based on some of the most pressing questions and problems I encountered while learning to meditate:

  • Mindfulness and meditation is not something you accomplish by reading or talking about it.  You must practice meditation.
  • Mindfulness is not a panacea.  We all have difficulties in life.  For example, we all get sick and eventually die, as do our loved ones.  Nonetheless, mindfulness gives you skills to better navigate those difficulties.
  • Mindfulness is not a fad.  The concept of mindfulness and breathing meditation has been around for at least 2500 years.  There is a reason that the idea has migrated between completely different cultures and societies multiple times.
  • If one form of meditation does not work well for you, try another.  For example, I never became very skillful at sitting meditation.  I found I was more comfortable with walking meditation and mostly stick to that for my practice.
  • You will become distracted when you try to meditate, sometimes quite quickly and often.  The mind is a slippery thing that is constantly generating all sorts of new thoughts.
  • When you become distracted, simply bring yourself back to whatever you were concentrating on.  Thoughts, sometimes emotionally laden ones, will drift in, but they also pass away too.  I bet you can’t think about something frustrating all day long; at some point your mind moves on to something else.  It always does.  In this case, your mind moves back into concentration.
  • The process of coming back to your concentration is mindfulness in and of itself.  Each time you come back to concentration you have practiced being mindful yet again.  Thus, a meditation with a 100 distractions is a meditation with a 100 “successes” too.  I believe it is actually this process of coming back to concentration over and over that causes much of the initial alteration in your brain circuitry.
  • Meditators use the word “practice” purposefully.  It’s about improving your skills not about right/wrong or good/bad meditation sessions.  I am sure the best tennis players in the world still sometimes have really lousy practices, but they still learn something from it.
  • Regard meditation as something that is necessary to life like eating, sleeping, and having shelter.  Don’t treat it like a “nice to have”.  After a while, many people find that it’s something you desire like food.  Jon Kabat-Zinn calls this, the “love affair” with mindfulness.  Personally, I have a love affair with meditation and chocolate.
  • Improvements in your meditation skills will be slow to manifest, with ups and downs, but your skills will perceptibly and concretely improve with time.
  • Be patient with your practice and more importantly, with yourself.  Everyone has distractions and meditation difficulties.  There really is no purpose in getting upset with yourself or your perceived lack of progress.  The key is to realize that this is what practice is all about, and then simply try concentrating again.  Even one moment of concentration is better than no concentration at all.
  • Don’t give up!

Again, there are many books and websites about meditation that will give you concrete and detailed steps on how to meditate.  Also, audio guided meditations are often a good way for people to start getting familiar with the whole process.  The books I noted in Article 1 give more details, and you can search for guided meditation videos on YouTube.  In addition, I like these free resources:

This last site is about walking meditation.  Some of these sites get pretty deep into the more heady aspects of Buddhist meditation.  However, to start, you can just focus on the “beginner” parts and ignore the more spiritual sounding stuff if you like.

Everyday mindfulness

The last step in becoming mindful is applying what you have learned in meditation practice while engaged in your normal everyday activities (like investing).  This is probably the trickiest concept to explain to someone who does not meditate regularly.  However, you can take brief test drives of mindfulness with no prior practice.  The most fundamental form of meditation is mindful breathing, or concentrating on your breath.  I am sure you have heard the advice to “take three deep breaths” when you are angry.  This home spun wisdom comes from a fundamental truth.  If you concentrate on your breathing, it almost automatically brings you into a more mindful and aware state.  The only refinement to this advice for mindfulness is to not actively change your breathing in any way, but simply observe your natural breathing.  Try it next time you become upset or frustrated.  First, try to recognize your caught up in your “normal” train of thoughts when a frustrating event occurs.  We tend to say things like: “This is a disaster!  This is the worst thing that ever happened to me!  I don’t deserve this!”  When you hear those familiar phrases in your mind, press the pause button for just a few seconds and pay attention to your breathing right at that moment.  Is your breathing heavy and deep?  Is it shallow and fluttering?  How quickly does each breath go by?  Do you spend more time on the in breath or the out breath?  Concentrate on your breath for a few seconds.  Most people will have an immediate sense of stepping outside the frustration, at least a bit.  People also often report feeling at least a little more calm than before.  The practice of mindful meditation allows you to apply these sorts of “tricks” more consistently and over longer durations, which provides greater awareness throughout your everyday life.  And of course, this extends to the everyday life of your personal finance and investing decisions.

By now it is probably clear that mindfulness through practicing meditation can allow you to become happier and calmer in fundamental ways that go well beyond the realm of investing and finances.  Thus, this website is really addressing just one very small benefit of a mindful life.  Regardless, Article 2 about mindfulness for investing explains the connection between the wider concept of mindfulness and how it applies to the relatively confined topic of personal investing and finance.

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