An Introduction to Mindfulness
Mindfulness involves conscious attention on what is happening right here and now with compassion and curiosity. It can help you improve your mental health. Read how below.
What is Mindfulness?
John Kabat Zinn, mindfulness teacher, writer, and creator of the “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction” program defines mindfulness as “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally." In order words, mindfulness involves conscious attention on what is happening right here and now with compassion and curiosity.
In contrast to mindfulness is “mindlessness,” or not paying attention, spacing out, thinking about the past or future, and getting carried away in thoughts, worries, and feelings. Oscillating back and forth between mindfulness and mindlessness throughout the day is normal and nothing to be ashamed of. However, making a conscious effort to cultivate more mindfulness can lead to improvements in mental health and overall wellbeing.
Mindfulness Can Help You...
Build the ability to stay present instead of getting carried away into thoughts and worries that may be contributing to mental health struggles
Enjoy the beautiful moments of life more, whether it be eating a piece of chocolate, or experiencing gratitude for a stranger's small act of kindness (instead of mindlessly moving through life in a haze, tuning these things out)
Experience more wonder and appreciation, for example, noticing a flower blooming in spring on your morning walk or the leaves slowly turning colors in the fall.
Relate to yourself and others with more kindness and compassion (you may even want to call it “kindfulness!”)
Gain more perspective on your life, yourself, and your thoughts, emotions, and opinions instead of being “blended” with them. Instead of saying “I am angry,” or “he is so stupid,” you can instead step out of these these thoughts and feelings and kindly observe that “I am noticing myself experiencing anger right now,” or “I notice I am judging him to be stupid.” This helps you get “unstuck” from rigid thoughts and feelings that cause suffering for yourself and others.
Navigate emotional experience with more equanimity, instead of causing more suffering by wallowing in your feelings, over-thinking them, or trying to numb and escape them. Mindfulness helps you recognize that both comfortable and uncomfortable emotions are part of life, and are impermanent. This helps you appreciate the enjoyable experiences and get through the hard times.
Fine-tune your ability to focus which leads to more calm, simplicity, flow, and relaxation.
Recognize how resilient you are as you learn to hold yourself even in moments of suffering without being overwhelmed.
Experience Mindfulness for Yourself
If you'd like to try mindfulness for the first time, I recommend starting with a "3-minute breathing space" meditation. This meditation is brief, easy, and accessible for anyone. You can try it right now. Here are the steps:
Close your eyes and focus inward.
Notice what is present for you right now. Take a wide-angle lens, noticing what is happening with your thoughts, emotions, body, etcetera, without trying to change any of it. Do this for about 1 minute.
Next, narrow your awareness just to your breath, watching it flow in and out of your body for about 1 minute.
Widen your awareness back to your body as a whole, noticing the entirety of your experience for 1 minute.
Slowly open your eyes.
Then, notice how you feel after this short practice. Does it perhaps differ from how you felt before you started?
Mindfulness-Based Activities to Try
When most people think of mindfulness, they think of meditating. While meditation is certainly a good way to practice mindfulness, it is not the only way. Many people find that "informal" mindfulness practices are the most practical ways to start. Here are some ideas:
Mindful daily activities: This includes walking the dog, doing the dishes, showering, or driving, for example. When doing these activities, see if you can engage with them with all of your senses. Notice the noises of nature on your walk and the feeling of the earth underneath your feet. Slow down and feel the soap and water on your hands when washing the dishes.
Mindful conversations: Many of us listen to respond, or are distractedly thinking about something else. Conversations with our loved ones are a great place to practice mindfulness. When talking to someone, instead of thinking ahead, see if you can really slow down and pay attention to them. Notice what they're saying, their facial expressions, and the emotions they are showing. Trust that when it's your turn to talk, if you've been listening well, you will know what to say in the moment. You may even find that this improves your relationships, since your loved ones will feel more heard.
Mindfully doing 1 task at a time: instead of talking on the phone while driving, doing your taxes while on hold on the telephone, or getting on TikTok while eating a snack, try doing one thing at a time. You will likely find yourself focusing better, feeling more relaxed, and getting more out of the activity,. You may even experience flow, which is a pleasant absorption in the task.
Mindful eating: we eat multiple times a day, but how often do we really taste our food? Eating can be one of the most pleasant experiences of our day, but only if it's done with presence. Try slowing down and really tasting your food. You will likely find that you enjoy it more and feel more satisfied!
Formal Mindfulness-Based Practices to Try
Mindful movement such as yoga, walking, or tai chi: With these activities, it doesn't matter so much what you are doing, but how you are doing it. Forcing your body into a full lotus position in yoga while being hard on yourself is not mindfulness. But staying in your body and your 5 senses from a place of kindness and curiosity is, no matter what you are doing. While doing these mindful movement activities, see if you can practice being present with your body and your surroundings.
Mindfulness of breathing or "Samata" meditation: The purpose of this meditation is to focus your awareness on your breath. This can help you develop focus, concentration, and presence. You could do this for 3 minutes, 10 minutes, or even hours at a time. I recommend starting small, with 3 or 5-minute meditations, and working up from there. To do it, sit or lay down in a comfortable position, and focus kindly on your breath. If you notice yourself getting distracted, gently bring your awareness back to the breath. Know that it is quite normal to get distracted and it doesn't mean you're "doing it wrong."
Mindfulness of thoughts meditation: It's common for our minds to "think" a lot by default. When our thoughts take us in the direction of worries or rumination, this can impact our mood and contribute to anxiety and depression. Becoming more mindful of your thoughts can help you gain perspective on them, without getting sucked in. To do this meditation, sit or lay down in a comfortable position. Close your eyes and focus inward. Bring your awareness to your thoughts, and notice them floating in and out of your mind. See if you can observe them without getting carried away by them. You don't have to stop them. Just let them come and go and observe them with curiosity.
3-minute breathing space: see instructions in the activity a few paragraphs above.
Brief pauses in your day to take a few mindful breaths: This can help you become more centered and present. It can be especially helpful if you're feeling overwhelmed, such as when you have a lot to do at work. Taking a few moments to do this can calm your nervous system, help you focus, and help you step out of spiraling thoughts and feelings. To do it, you can either choose a number of breaths you will take, like 3 or 10, and count them. Or you can set a timer for a specific amount of time. You can do this with your eyes open or closed.
A body scan: In a body scan, you "scan" your body with awareness from your toes up to your head. This usually takes anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes. The intention is to stay present in your body and feel the sensations within it. If you'd like to try this, I recommend looking up a recording on a meditation app like "Insight Timer."
No matter which practices you choose, I want to reiterate that mindfulness involves both presence and kindness. This means that even if the practices don't go as smoothly as you hope, you remain gentle with yourself. Self-compassion is arguably the most important part of the practice!
I hope you found this article helpful! If you have any questions about mindfulness or want to try some of these practices in sessions with me, I would be more than happy to help. Just let me know!