The User’s Guide to Mindfulness, Meditation & Noticing

The User’s Guide to Mindfulness, Meditation & Noticing

Mindfulness, an intentional focusing practice, can have many benefits, amongst them easing up feelings around struggle with anxiety. The psychophysiological exercise practice of intentional focusing activates the anterior cingulate cortex of the brain which is related to thinking and emotion, and this entire process, including such physiological activation appears to help us to deal much more effectively with anxiety.

Mindfulness, also referred to as purposeful focusing practice can also lower blood pressure, improves our sleep partly by a common and pleasant side effect of deep relaxation and undoubtedly lengthens your attention span, as mindfulness IS purposeful attentional focus!

However, practising mindfulness skills can be tricky, for instance by bringing us into contact with unpleasant thoughts and feelings that we may otherwise “push to the back of our minds”, seeking to avoid. Many people think they simply can’t meditate. People often believe that gurus who meditate every day have more willpower, less anxiety or a bottomless depth of tranquility.

These beliefs are often due to common misunderstandings: that mindfulness practice is intended to relax (quite the opposite, it is to allow feelings to simply come, and go, and come again), that meditation CLEARS the mind, in fact we usually notice our mental busyness even more. Intentional focusing is a skill that takes practice like anything else.

Guided vs silent Mindfulness practice

There are many types of mindfulness practice, two of the most popular types are guided and silent. Guided mindfulness involves a guide in person or nowadays often via an app, walking you through the practice of intentional focusing step by step. This can be helpful as it brings us back to the purposeful focus practice, as most of us are often hooked off by our minds in all kinds of directions.

Silent meditation practice however is often done completely solitarily, it is likely what you imagine when thinking of the Dalai Lama or Buddhists meditating. This requires great intention of practice and determination aided in all likelihood by historical and cultural reinforcement! Guided mindfulness practice is therefore often your best bet when beginning your own practice.

Brain dump

Often our minds are busy and full of thoughts. It is simply impossible to “empty the mind”. A practice some find helpful is “dumping” all your thoughts on a page – helping you feel like your mind has at least partially processed these thoughts, possibly allowing a little more mental space. If it’s written down you won’t forget it – it can be dealt with after you’ve finished your practice. A brain dump is an exercise where you write everything that’s running through your brain down, handwriting can often be most helpful. Everything that’s bothering you and needs dealing with, whatever pops up in five or ten minutes of writing. It’s a bit like writing a journal, but more flowing and less constrained. It doesn’t have to make sense, just write. Writing down your thoughts and feelings can give you space to experience mindfulness.

Following Thoughts

An ongoing challenge everyone has with mindfulness practice is maintaining focus and not being swept away in our rivers of thoughts that naturally, continuously flow. No one is really able to focus very easily, it’s normal for many thoughts to wander around in your mind and all of us have great trouble unhooking from them.

A helpful exercise (if you are good at visualizing) is the ACT classic leaves on a stream: Visualize a gently flowing stream with leaves on the surface of the water, and you place your thoughts onto the leaves and allow them to float on by. Let these thoughts come, and stay, and go – and come again. While most thoughts me come and go pretty quickly, sometimes, thoughts hang around for quite a while. Let your thoughts come and stay and go, in their own good time, as they please. The aim of the exercise is to learn how to step back and watch the flow of your thoughts, not to make them go away. It’s okay if the leaves hang around and pile up, or the river stops flowing; just keep watching. The skill we’re learning is how to observe the stream of our thoughts without getting pulled into it, how to watch them come and go without holding onto them. So if a positive or happy thought shows up and you go, ‘Oh, I’m not going to put that one on a leaf; I don’t want it to float away,’ then you’re not truly learning the skill of simply watching your thoughts.

A little goes a long way

Making time for regular mindfulness practice is tricky but even five to ten minutes of meditation has been shown to have demonstrable benefits. Sometimes people may expect to focus perfectly first try, but this is really never the case. Mindfulness practice, while helpful, naturally allows the presence of various difficult thoughts and feelings. If you find yourself noticing a very busy mind, don’t beat yourself up, this is a totally normal experience. When a thought arises, thank it for its presence and let it come, go, and come again. Good on you for giving it a go – doing any amount of any new health practice is an achievement!

Apps to Guide your Journey

ACT Companion – the Happiness Trap app – full features US $10 guided mindfulness, written and experiential exercises – from none other than Russ Harris, author of the best-selling book The Happiness Trap. Simple defusion and acceptance techniques, easy values-clarification and goal-setting tools, powerful ‘observing self’ and self-compassion exercises – you’ll find it all here.

buddhify – “the most convenient, best value and most beautiful meditation app available today. Helping people around the world reduce stress, sleep better & be present in the midst of it all.” Certainly the best looking and easy to use mindfulness app!

Insight Timer

Insight Timer has 19000 free meditations by different guides available. Easy to use and has a wide variety of meditations to choose from. Insight Timer is free & community driven with a rating system to help you find the meditations that best suit your needs.


Headspace is a very popular guided meditation app that tracks how often you meditate and rewards continued use. It has more structure than Insight Timer, and requires a subscription past the free courses. The graphic design is also excellent!  If you prefer a structured, consistent course, this is the app for you.

The Sleep School App helps you practice The Sleep School sleep tools & techniques until you have mastered them for life. The app delivers The Sleep School approach across its 5 core areas in a highly interactive audio-visual format.

Mindfulness is like any skill, it takes practice. It’s normal to find it difficult at the start so don’t beat yourself up. There’s a wealth of research demonstrating benefits for performance, wellbeing and sleep – even a small amount of focusing practice can go a long way. Try the brain dump exercise, letting your thoughts flow freely without judgement and go easy on yourself for your first experiences of mindfulness. There are some great apps available to aid you on your journey.

Our Brisbane ACT Centre psychologists are trained in the latest cognitive behavioural therapies, and are all keen mindfulness skills coaches. If you’d like further coaching or input, get in touch with our friendly staff today.  Remember to be gentle with yourself, mindfulness practice is tricky and you should be proud that you’re trying. Be persistent and it will get easier, but forever challenging – in a good way!

The Sleep Paradox - How Working Harder on Your Sleep Makes it Worse

By Dr. Nga Tran

As a psychiatrist sleep problems are one of the most common issues people come to me for help with.  It may be the primary problem.  More often, it occurs hand in hand with depression, anxiety, substance abuse, major mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder or psychosis, grief, major life changes, medical illnesses, pain, or basically any mental health problem.

What do the best sleepers do to get to sleep?  Nothing – they just lie down and off they go.

What do those of us who can’t get to sleep do?  A long list of things including special routines involving baths/warm drinks/music/pyjamas, a variety of over-the-counter or prescription medications, tossing and turning, searching for various pillows/beds, adjusting their fans/air conditioning, sticking to rules about whether to get out of bed or how many hours to aim for, reading books/watching TV, etc. The list can be very long.

Yet sleep is not something one can switch on or off under conscious control.

Could it be that in all our well-meaning efforts to find ways of controlling how much we sleep, we actually create conditions where it is less likely to occur?

Your likelihood of falling asleep depends on two things:

  1. The circadian rhythm – your body’s inbuilt clock which affects the timing of sleep and is co-ordinated with the day-night cycle
  2. Sleep pressure/sleep drive – this is like a timer or counter.  The longer you have been awake, the stronger the desire and need to sleep

However, sleep is not like a tap or switch you can turn on at will.  We need to think of sleep like a guest we’re inviting to a party, and all we can do is create conditions where it is likely to come and stay as long as possible!  Yet we cannot dictate it to come, and the more desperate we are for it to visit, the more it’s likely to stay away.  That is the paradox.  This can be illustrated by this example:  if I  connected to you a sleep detector, held a gun to you and said that I will shoot unless you fall asleep, you can see how this would be impossible for you to achieve.

High arousal or stress is not conducive to sleep.  This explains the phenomenon of nodding off when you give up trying to sleep.  If you have had trouble sleeping, it seems intuitive that you want to work harder to make sure the problem gets solved.  However in trying to fix sleep, we can paradoxically set up a pattern of stress and high arousal around bed time which further exacerbates the problem.

Here are some ways that we can inadvertently make it harder to sleep:

  • Creating certain routines or conditions which we feel must be in place to get to sleep
  • Having mental rules about what type of sleep or how many hours we should get
  • Trying to go to bed early to ensure it occurs
  • Turning down social or meaningful activities to focus on getting sleep
  • Getting angry about not being able to sleep
  • Worrying about the consequences of not being able to sleep – eg “I won’t cope tomorrow”, “I really need to sleep now”, “this is not good for my health”

Here are some suggestions to let go of the battle and change your relationship with sleep (and therefore reduce arousal):

  • Don’t build elaborate routines or set up strict rules
  • Ensure you spend your day and evenings doing what you care about and is meaningful to you
  • Know that there is no “normal” sleep, and let go of expectations of what that should be
  • Learn to be flexible and accept whatever occurs
  • Practise noticing your bodily sensations, breath, sounds or thoughts that are present if you are not asleep, and learn to be with what is there – there are many mindfulness apps that can help teach you this
  • Commit to doing what you can the next day, regardless of how your sleep was the night before
  • Be kind to yourself with yourself when tiredness impacts on what you can do during the day

Here are some general things which can get in the way of sleep to be aware of:

  • Caffeine or other stimulants
  • Strenuous exercise late in the evening
  • Mentally stimulating activities late in the evening
  • Electronic screens of any sort, especially if this involves high arousal activities such as posting on social media, planning or purchasing

Once you take this approach, the natural circadian rhythm and sleep homeostasis can be free to do what they naturally do.  This explains how the good sleepers do it – without trying.

The Struggle with Sleeplessness

One of the key tools that the world’s foremost sleep coaches at the Sleep School use is acceptance and commitment therapy, or ACT. Guy Meadows nicely described ACT as “a revolutionary research-based psychological tool that recognises that it is our struggle or reaction to pain and suffering that actually makes them worse.” ACT promotes mental flexibility, openness and curiosity, so rather than struggling against negative thoughts and feelings, we learn to observe, accept and then let them go.

So how does this relate to chronic insomnia?

Research and clinical experience points to the struggle with sleeplessness is the critical process instigating and sustaining insomnia. Older approaches such as traditional cognitive behaviour therapy sometimes focus on getting rid of symptoms associated with poor sleep. Trying to block out or challenge certain thoughts, or remove anxious feelings. When it comes to the struggle with sleeping (as with anxiety, sadness, and so many other struggles), the thoughts and feelings end up coming back stronger, in greater numbers and with more frequency. Your energy is inadvertently put into trying to get rid of what you don’t want, rather than into what you do want, which is to sleep.

What if a sleep expert found he couldn’t sleep?

In the introduction to his fantastic “Sleep Book” Guy Meadows recounts when the thought popped into his head “what if I became an insomniac to?” Finding himself sleep sleepless, unable to switch off, his mind bringing up more and more worrisome thoughts, “I’m the guy who helps other people to sleep and now I can’t!” While his body wound up the tension, anxiety, urgency… Deep breathing, muscle relaxation, trying to clear the mind, all backfiring. Eventually falling asleep in the early hours of the morning. And the following day those thoughts showing up with even more urgency. He struggled to think back to what he used to do to get to sleep… nothing! Struggling with thoughts and feelings about sleep entangled and prevented. ACT skills are fantastic in this area.

How will we know this is working for you?

Is what you really want less worries about sleep, less agitation in the body, or simply more sleep? Is the quickest way to that battles with the mind, struggles with the body, or opening up to whatever thoughts and feelings are happening, letting them come and go as they will if we can but only actively let them, letting your body do its thing. Guy’s program helps his English clients discover how the struggle to sleep actually prevents sleep, learned through experience what they cannot change, through active coaching how to open up to those thoughts and feelings, to build a new sleeping pattern, and connect this with deeply held values for their personal and broader lives. We can’t take you to London, but we can train you in the skills to help sleep soundly, and live fully.

Mindfulness and Christian Meditation

By Ingrid Ord

I am frequently asked to comment on Christian meditation websites, and these requests have increased as, I suspect, the availability of such websites has increased. Many Christian denominations are represented, and I suspect that there is a fairly even distribution, although I have not researched this. Many offer courses, retreats and material such as books and CD’s in their shopping areas.

I am not going to pinpoint any particular website as I am perturbed by something which I will go on to explain, and I do not wish to denigrate the work of any particular group or person.

It is no secret that over the centuries multiple variations of forms of worship and religious practices have become popular in the Christian church. Indeed, they have been the root of many a conflict leading, in the most extreme cases, to murder and suicide. Any form of ‘packaging’ a set of rituals and rules for the practice of worship and communion with God is, unfortunately, vulnerable to the perils of being exalted from ‘one way of doing it’ to ‘the only way to do it’.

I fear that this might happen to Christian meditation if it is linked to any prescribed manner of behaving. In all of my work with ACT and how it can be helpful for Christians, I have stayed away from Christian traditions, for the reason explained above, and stuck with the one religious text common to all Christian traditions: the Bible.

I have found a very rich connection between mindfulness and Christian meditation, in the Bible, and explain this and have written about it and produced a CD. In no place do I prescribe a manner of behaving, as that is best left to the individual and the complexity of their needs and ways of relating. I explain this a little later – but first I think it may be helpful to tell you a (true) story to illustrate the connection.

This morning the sun was shining brilliantly, the sky was a pristine blue and I noticed a feeling of hopefulness. Nothing very intense, just a mild, general, ‘I can do this’ kind of a day. It is now clouding over, threatening rain and I am aware of a slight ‘slowing down’ within me, and barely perceptible thoughts about how difficult things are. As my spirituality is very important to me, I also find my thoughts tending towards God and His part in all of this. Couldn’t He just arrange for me to have one, really good day? Doesn’t He know that I am an African to whom sunshine is life and joy and motivation in contrast to these grey, English skies which breathe ‘trudge’ and ‘plod’ and ‘do it grudgingly because you have to’ kind of days?

Before I started regularly practising mindfulness and Christian meditation, I would only have known that I felt mildly disgruntled, but not really have known why. Then I would have felt guilty for being ungrateful and become embroiled in a complexity of thoughts and feelings about how bad, unworthy etc I am. Now I can tease out my thoughts and feelings and notice how they are linked to small changes in the environment/context. I also notice what I want to do as a result (ie: go back to bed) and purposefully assess whether that lines up with what is important to me (ie: catching up with my correspondence). Then I can make an informed decision.

It just so happens that I am still writing because I chose to continue doing something that is important to me, and, coincidentally, the sun is shining again. The sunshine is now a bonus, and not something upon which my sense of vitality or purpose is dependant. Very much connected is whether this becomes important in my relationship with God, or not. In other words, if my happiness depended upon whether the sun shines or not, and God says He loves me, then He could prove it by making the sun shine. Right? So if He doesn’t, does that make Him perverse, unloving or perhaps a liar?

If you have read thus far, you may find the above a little strange, especially if you have different religious views from me. To my mind, and in the minds of some, if not many, other Christians, these thoughts would all be entirely logical. I am now aware of them as a direct result of my practice of mindfulness over the years. This awareness has helped me to clear the confusion about why I feel like I do, and what I should do about it. Judging myself for not being content has also been replaced with compassion for my reactions to current difficulties.

Part of the whole process described above  is to do with my relationship with God, and that, together with questions about whether he is perverse, unloving or a liar are settled through meditation. I say ‘settled’ and not ‘answered’ because part of the process has been to learn to live with ambiguity about the ways of God. What the Bible says about God is unambiguous, whether you believe it or not. If you believe it, then questions about His character become irrelevant because the answer is written and, although difficult to understand, the matter is settled upon remembrance of that which is written. What is written is that God is good, just, and loving, and has a wonderful plan for each of His children.

Practitioners of mindfulness who also practise meditation have noted how the experience of practising mindfulness can be very similar to the experience of practising meditation.  This has led to a certain amount of confusion, even amongst professionals.  Both terms have become common in the media and popular psychology, and can have very different meanings for different people.

Mindfulness as a therapeutic practice has no essential spiritual connotations.  The aim is to relearn how we can simply let our thoughts, emotions and physical urges or sensations just ‘be’, without trying to ‘do’ anything with them or about them.  No spiritual exercise is part of the practice.  Meditation is usually linked with spiritual practices which have spiritual gains as their goal.  The difference between the two practices lies in the goal of the practitioner, although the method of practise may appear to be very similar.

It is not essential for a Christian to practise meditation in order to benefit from mindfulness.  Some may find it threatening to consider doing meditation as it is often linked with other religions.

The aim of Christian meditation is very specific, and it is very important to keep in mind whether one is doing an exercise as mindfulness, or as Christian meditation.

Christian meditation:

In Psalm 1 the Psalmist says ‘Blessed is the man (whose) delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night.’ Blessed means ‘happy’!  Does that, and the word ‘delight’, mean that meditation on God’s word is, in fact, a source of happiness?

The Bible says that God wants a relationship with us based on love, obedience and trust and not an empty show of rituals (1 Samuel 15:22).

Praying and communicating with God can be difficult as it involves conveying our thoughts and feelings, and listening to what God may be saying.  In close relationships words are not always needed.  The mere presence of the loved one brings delight.  It is a profoundly moving experience to be free of the need for words and to just be in the Presence of God, in the spirit.

Sometimes there are words, and you may hear the ‘still small voice’ (1Ki 19:12) (NIV) of God in these ‘quiet and alone’ times.  Paying attention to what God may be saying in that moment can be a great help in experiencing the Presence of God in a full and open relationship.

Sometimes there are words, oftentimes no words but just a sense of being in His Presence.  This is Christian meditation.

Where does mindfulness fit in?

The practice of mindfulness can facilitate and provide a platform for the practice of Christian meditation.  Kabat-Zinn says that what tends to happen in mindfulness is that it shows us how to ‘surf the wave between chaos and order’.  Even when we feel very turbulent or our minds are troubled, mindfulness helps us to ‘find the sweet stillness inside the wave.’ (Rich Simon, Mary Sykes Wylie) Mindfulness is good  preparation for focussed attention on God’s word.

Paying attention to ‘what comes up’ in the present moment with no goal other  than just to notice, and continually returning to this task without judging oneself, brings us to a ‘Just as I am’ state of mind.

It is hard not to judge ourselves and try to ‘fix’ things about ourselves before approaching God.  It is natural to want to protect parts of ourselves from scrutiny. It is hard enough to be willing to notice certain aspects of ourselves without going into judgemental mental activity when we are alone.  That is why it takes practice to allow all these parts to be present when we spend time with God.

In approaching ourselves first, in an attentive manner without judging, we allow the totality of who we are right now to be present.

Meditation is not difficult in the sense that it requires skilful learning.  It is difficult because it ‘goes against the grain’.  Just as it is not easy to take time out from daily tasks to exercise physically, so it is not easy to take our minds out of their usual activities into a special time of just experiencing the present moment, right here, right now.

As mentioned earlier, it is important to remember what we are aiming at.  The aim of Christian meditation is not to empty the mind but to focus upon ‘obedience and faithfulness’ to God which, as Foster suggests, is what ‘most clearly distinguishes Christian meditation from its Eastern and secular counterparts.’  (p37) (Foster, 1998)  Further on he states that ‘..detachment is not enough; we must go on to attachment.’(p43)

The bible is replete with suggestions about many different ways to meditate and many different things to meditate upon. We will just have to leave that for another time.

Much of what has been written here has been taken from my book ‘ACT With Faith’ (2014) and on the CD which I recorded in 2009 called ‘Mindfulness and Christian Meditation’. Both are exclusively available on the website ‘’ in paperback, PDF, CD and MP4 format.

Other references include:

Foster, R. (1998). In Celebration of Discipline (20th ed.).

James Strong, S. L. (1890). Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance.

Lawrence, B. (1967). The Practice of the Presence of God with Spiritual Maxims. (F. H. Revell, Ed.) Grand Rapids, MI: Spire Books

Rich Simon, Mary Sykes Wylie. (n.d.). The Power of Paying Attention: What Jon Kabat-Zinn has against spirituality. Retrieved 2009, from Psychotherapy Networker.