Take 5 — Beginning your personal practice of mindfulness

In this excerpt from her book, Deborah Schoeberlein teaches how to “Take 5” and get started now with mindfulness practice.

Deborah Schoeberlein
17 February 2010

In this excerpt from her book, Deborah Schoeberlein, author of Mindful Teaching and Teaching Mindfulness: A Guide for Anyone Who Teaches Anything, teaches how to “Take 5” and get started now with mindfulness practice.

Gaining experience with mindfulness sets you up to teach authentically within your comfort zone. There’s a huge difference between teaching something “I think ought to be useful” and something “I know, from my own experience, is useful.” You don’t need to have significant expertise—rather, you just need to practice yourself so you have an experiential foundation on which to base your teaching.

The learning sequence for mindfulness is essentially the same one you already use when you teach students other skills, from math to music, or language arts to athletics. Information and instruction come first followed by lots of practice.
Over time, the brain becomes familiar with generating mindfulness. With repetition, these skills become more automatic and require less effort.

In the beginning, a few minutes to practice mindfulness can feel like an eternity, so using short sessions is appropriate. Then, as you become more accustomed to the techniques, you might choose to practice longer. It’s good to go at your own speed and see what happens. And just five minutes practice regularly is more useful in the long-run than longer sessions done more sporadically. All you need to do to get started is “Take 5.”

Begin by taking five minutes to sit still, by yourself, in a quiet, comfortable, and private place. Turn off the ringers of your phones, turn off the TV or radio, and put aside your “to-do” list. If you’re concerned about how long you’re going to practice, set a timer that has an audible bell or flashing light.

It’s best to sit in a stable position, with your spine as straight as possible, either on a chair without leaning against the back, or cross-legged on a comfortable cushion set on the floor.

Place both your hands in your lap or palm-down on your thighs. The idea is to get comfortable without getting caught up in trying to find a position of perfect comfort. And, of course, don’t sit in a way that causes you serious pain—or lulls you to sleep.

Once you’re settled, allow your gaze to soften and gently go out of focus as you keep your eyes slightly open. Look forward and downward at a 45°angle so that your eyelids relax and lower a little. Try to breathe through your nose, and let your lips, mouth, and jaw relax. Now that you’re in position, you can begin the basic breathing practice outlined in the following progression.

  • Breathe normally, paying attention to the feeling of the breath as it fills your lungs and then flows up and back out the way it came.
  • Notice when you lose awareness of the breath and start thinking about something else, daydreaming,
    worrying, or snoozing.
  • Return your attention to the breath, with kindness toward yourself and as little commentary as possible.
  • When you first begin mindfulness practice, you’re likely to pay attention to the breath for a few seconds and then lose focus.

That’s perfectly natural! You’ll eventually become aware that the focus of your attention moved away from the breath and onto something else. You might feel like you’re becoming even more mindless. All these sensations are normal, and in fact, they signify that the practice is working—you’re noticing what’s really happening. If thoughts about the quality of your practice come (because that’s what thoughts do…), don’t worry about them, just notice them and refocus on watching what’s happening right now.

The essence of this technique is attending to the process (the experience of noticing) without getting caught up in content (what the thoughts are about). First, simply notice thoughts as they first appear on the horizon of your mind. Keep some distance as you watch them and let them fade away. This is the difference between witnessing thoughts and engaging with them. It’s an attitude of, “Oh, here are some thoughts about work (or a relationship or something else), but I’m not going to get into them now.” Be gentle with yourself, and patient, and kind.

As you practice mindfulness, you might start noticing all sorts of changes in your daily life. You might be less reactive, and more likely to pause and breathe when something comes up. You might also notice that pausing for breath facilitates your ability to choose a response that promotes better outcomes for everyone. Amid all of this, you might begin to take pleasure, or find more pleasure, in your mindfulness practice and seek new opportunities during the day in which to Take 5. In addition, you might also notice greater patience and kindness in relationship with your sense of self.

Cultivating mindfulness begins with practicing a simple progression like Mindful Breathing and becoming adept at moving through the three basic phases: (1) committing to practice and doing so; (2) noticing your breath and remembering that you’re noticing it; and (3) refocusing and returning to practice when you become distracted. Then, as mindfulness becomes more familiar, you’ll focus your attention and extend your awareness more spontaneously while you gain the experience that supports teaching the practice to others.