The Key to Establishing a Consistent and Beneficial Mindfulness Practice
Fleet Maull, PhD, CMT-P
Many of us have had the experience of beginning a mindfulness practice with enthusiasm only to find ourselves quitting soon after or simply forgetting about it within a short while.
We may have heard about the many, well-documented benefits of regular mindfulness practice: significant improvements in health and wellbeing, resilience, emotional balance and cognitive control, along with developing a more positive outlook and achieving that seemingly elusive human goal—happiness. Current neuroscience validates these potential benefits. No equipment is needed; anyone can do it, and a multiplicity of free sources for instruction and guidance are readily available online.
Sounds like a “no-brainer.” So why is it so difficult for many of us to establish a consistent mindfulness practice? How can you set yourself up to succeed in establishing a beneficial mindfulness practice as part of your overall health and wellbeing regimen?
Making Use of Habit Hacks
First, establishing any new health regimen presents challenges. We are habit-driven creatures, and establishing any new habit requires consistent effort. We know a lot more about the science of habit formation than ever before though, so we can save time and assure greater success by employing well-known, science-based “hacks.”
For example, you might try replacing the “routine” or behavior component in any habit loop (cue-routine-reward). You do this by taking a habit you already have and identify the cue. When the cue arises, simply replace the old routine with a new behavior that will produce the same or a better reward. For instance, if I have a habit of checking my phone too often, I would pay attention to what triggers that habit. When triggered, I might try instead to take the opportunity to have a nice, deep breath. Another option: habit-stacking, which involves focusing on the process rather than the outcome. With mindfulness, many are tempted to give up because they don’t see immediate results. Instead, the first order of business is to establish a routine.
Mindfulness practice essentially involves training the mind, our core operating system. The untrained mind is accustomed to constantly wandering and shifting attention willy-nilly in habitual reaction to external and internal stimuli. Thus, establishing a mindfulness practice is a lot like swimming upstream against the momentum of our habitually distracted and wandering mind.
First responders in our mindfulness-based wellness & resiliency (MBWR) training programs sometimes say things like, “I just can’t do this. My mind is too wild.” Or: “I have too many racing thoughts to practice mindfulness. I just can’t get a handle on it.” Actually, we all face this same challenge to one degree or another. We can easily overcome this with a science-based approach to the practice.
A Deeply Embodied (Somatic) Approach to Mindfulness
The key “hack” for solving this challenge and successfully establishing a consistent mindfulness practice involves focusing on the direct, sensate experience of the body and breath in a directed way. It also has to do with understanding the relationship between mindfulness practice and neurofeedback processes, as well as the functioning of two neural networks, the default mode network and the task positive network (dorsal attention network): “Neurofeedback is a type of biofeedback in which neural activity is measured and presented through one or more sensory channels to the participant in real time to facilitate self-regulation of the putative neural substrates that underlie a particular behavior or pathology.” 
While neurofeedback therapy involves the use of brain wave measuring instruments providing real-time visual or auditory feedback to the patient, the practice of mindfulness involves real-time sensory feedback experienced directly through the faculty known as interoception or interoceptive awareness of sensations in the body and cognitive activity, i.e. thoughts. Interoception, which is short for “internal perception,” is how we know when we are hungry, thirsty or tired; when we need to use the restroom; and when we are in pain.
Unfortunately, absent the awareness of some form of internal discomfort in our bodies, we pay scant attention to this internal sensate landscape. We live essentially disembodied lives—either externally distracted with our sense perceptions, especially vision and hearing, or internally distracted with habitual discursive thinking. Through the practice of mindfulness, we train ourselves to recognize distractedness, to consciously direct our attention and to stabilize our attention over time based on this internal sensate feedback system known as interoception.
Shifting to the Task Positive Network
Any discussion of brain science in an article this short almost assuredly runs the risk of over-simplification. Such is certainly the case with this discussion of the relationship between the default mode network and task positive network, which has suffered from over-simplification leading to some misleadingly generalized conclusions. Nonetheless, for the purpose of understanding how to effectively begin and sustain the healthy habit of consistent mindfulness practice, the relationship between these two neural networks is instructive.
Establishing a mindfulness practice is a lot like swimming upstream against the momentum of our habitually distracted and wandering mind
In simple terms, the default mode network is responsible for the noisy, discursive mind that makes it difficult to practice mindfulness and the task positive network is associated with directed attention, attention stabilization, present moment awareness, and a reduction in discursive thinking. These two neural networks are, at least in part, mutually inhibitory. The activation of one generally deactivates the other to some degree.
We have all had the experience, whether we noticed it at the time or not, of having our mind quiet down while focusing intently on performing a task, e.g., threading a needle, baiting a fish hook, driving a difficult stretch of road or attempting to return a tennis serve. We have also likely had the experience of a relatively quiet mind while receiving a massage or engaged in intense physical activity or exercise with awareness.
Intentional, directed attention to physical sensation within the body, including the sensations related to breathing, facilitates the shift from the default mode network of the brain to the attention-stabilizing task positive network. Sadly, countless mindful practitioners have attempted to master the practice as a mostly mental exercise, and even instructions to pay attention to one’s body or breath fail to break though the conceptual layer of our experience the actual, direct, present-moment experience of tactile, physical sensation in the body.
Consciously enhancing our innate capacity for interoception or internal somatic awareness is the key to more quickly establishing a consistent mindfulness practice and to more quickly reaping the many real-time and long-term benefits of mindful practice, thus increasing the likelihood that we will stick with the practice.
How do we do this? The next time you sit down to practice mindfulness, try to intentionally focus on exploring as deeply as you can the internal landscape of actual tactile physical sensations in your body. This could include the overall weight and mass of the muscles and bones, sensations of tension or relaxation; your heartbeat or pulse; digestive sensations; or the overall flow of nervous energy or sense of physical aliveness in the body. It could also include various sensations of pain or discomfort in the body. Do your best to simply explore this internal sensate landscape of the body with an open, curious and unbiased attitude, simply willing to experience and directly feel whatever sensations you can notice in the body without needing to change anything. It may help, at least in the beginning, to practice with your eyes closed to focus more internally on actual physical sensation in this way.
Over time, by developing a deeply felt physical presence or felt sense of your own body, you will find that this anchors you in the present moment. This anchoring in the actual sensations of body and breathing, not just the concept or thought of body and breath, makes it easier to notice when you are distracted and easier to return to present-moment embodied awareness. It also makes it a little more difficult to become distracted in the first place. In short, you are learning through a self-activated, internal neuro-biofeedback process to stabilize your attention and access various levels of present-moment awareness. This in turn leads to the realization of the promised benefits that accrue to a calmer, more centered wakefulness or mindfulness in daily living.