Chances are you have heard about mindfulness. It is being discussed at workplaces, in classrooms, on the internet and social media. You may associate it with some kind of “woo-woo” nonsense or you may be curious about what it really is and why you seem to be hearing about it everywhere you turn. I became aware of the concept of mindfulness way back in the 80s and 90s – long before it was mainstream – but I really immersed myself after I heard about Jon Kabat-Zinn and read his book Full Catastrophe Living. Many have identified him as the person who is responsible for making mindfulness mainstream through his development of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). Some equate mindfulness with meditation though they are actually separate – all meditation is mindfulness but not all mindfulness is meditation. It can include formal and informal practices, which I will talk about at the end.
What is mindfulness?
There are many definitions of mindfulness but the one I like the best is, of course, from Jon Kabat-Zinn who defines it as: paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally. The two main concepts of mindfulness are reflected in every definition: moment-to-moment awareness and non-judgment.
So why are we hearing about it so much? The benefit of mindfulness becoming more mainstream is that there are now numerous studies available that are highlighting the positive effects of engaging in these activities. These benefits include, but aren’t limited to, the following:
- It makes you less stressed. It helps lower the level of stress hormones by training your body and brain not to go so quickly into the fight-or-flight mode. It helps you remain calm under pressure, be less critical of yourself, and stop over-reacting. You will find that you are not as tightly wound. And since stress can have a negative impact on the body and its systems, we could all stand to reduce our level of stress.
- It focuses your attention. You will be able to avoid distraction for longer periods of time and improve your memory.
- It fights disease. It can reduce inflammation, which contributes to a number of health issues. It can reduce or hold off bouts of depression that are not taken care of by medication alone. It is associated with good heart health and has been shown to minimize negative effects of a variety of health concerns including cancer. It can help improve the immune system.
- It makes you feel better if you’re already sick. Mindfulness does not cure chronic diseases or mental illness but it can reduce the impacts from these health issues. It helps make the symptoms more bearable.
- It can help you break a bad habit. It can reduce cravings for your drug of choice. This is one of the reasons why mindfulness is used increasingly in the treatment of addictive behavior.
- It can improve your relationships. Relationship satisfaction is increased if both partners are engaged in mindful behavior. It has even been shown to enhance attractiveness in dating scenarios!
- It lets us get to know our true selves. We can learn to see our own blind spots which can amplify or diminish our own flaws.
- It makes music sound better.
- It helps us even when we’re not actively practicing it.
- Health benefits can be boiled down to four elements. Body awareness. Self-awareness. Regulation of emotion. Regulation of attention.
- It makes us more compassionate. Towards yourself AND others.
- Decreases feelings of loneliness.
- It helps you sleep better.
So then the question becomes why NOT mindfulness?
How do I start?
There are a variety of ways to get a “taste” of mindfulness and you will be able to explore what works for you and still start to experience the positive effects of engaging in a mindfulness practice. Some suggestions are:
1. Meditate. There is no “right” or “wrong” way to meditate. There are many variations of meditation practice, including: Zen, Vipassana, LovingKindness (or Metta), Transcendental, Yogic, contemplative prayer. There are apps and podcasts that you can explore to find what works for you. I like, and highly recommend, the app, Insight Timer. It has thousands of guided meditations of various lengths and types as well as an option for timed silent meditations. This app is free to use. I also enjoy Tara Brach’s website, tarabrach.com, where she posts weekly talks and meditations. It is more intermediate level but well worth exploring.
Breath meditation. A good way to start is to focus on your breath:
- Find a quiet, comfortable location and sit comfortably in a chair with both feet on the floor.
- Close your eyes and breathe normally. Start to notice the sensations in your body as you breathe in and out. Can you notice the coolness of air being breathed in? Where does the breath land – your chest, your shoulders, your belly? There is no right answer. What are your other senses telling you? Are you hearing any sounds? There is no need to identify the sound – just notice it. Are you smelling anything? Again, just notice. Any aches or pains in your body? Are you able to sit with it and not immediately do anything about it?
- When your brain starts to do what brains do, notice the thoughts and then let them go to focus back on the breath.
- Start with 3 – 5 minutes at the beginning and work your way up from there as you get more comfortable with the process.
Initially, you will probably notice that your brain will constantly take you in a variety of directions. That’s okay. This is the part where the non-judgement comes in. Your thoughts will come and go as they always do so there is no need to beat yourself up about that – just notice when it happens and return to the breath. As you continue to engage in this practice, you will find longer periods of time where you are able to be present with your breath.
2. Attend a yoga class. A hatha yoga class will provide a great meditative experience in addition to the physical workout. There are also a variety of yoga videos on YouTube as well.
3. Go for a nature walk. A strategy I use to stay mindful within nature is to have my camera handy. This conditions me to be present for that beautiful flower, bird, tree, sky, cityscape, etc.
4. Get coloring. There are mindful coloring books available everywhere these days. Find some great coloring pencils and your inner child. Enjoy.
5. Engage in mindful eating. Incorporate all your senses as you cook/eat your meal. Take your time.
6. Keep a gratitude journal. Start off with finding one thing to be grateful for each day.
7. Unplug for a digital detox. Again, start with something manageable that works for you and work your way up from there.
I have had an informal mindfulness practice for decades but started meditating 3 years ago on a regular basis. I meditate almost every day for a minimum of 15 minutes but usually longer. I notice the difference in my overall mood and wellbeing if I miss even a day. Even a few minutes a day of some kind of practice will have positive effects. Enjoy the exploration and journey!
For more information on how mindfulness can enhance the therapy experience and outcome, call me for a free 30 minute consultation.