Chances are, you’ve heard the term mindfulness at some point over the last few years. The concept is thousands of years old, but it has only gained recognition as a stress coping tool in the west more recently.
As John Kabat-Zinn, PhD developed what ultimately became known as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) in the 1980s, he found a way to teach and implement the technique so that was accepted by those in our culture. Over the past decade there have been articles written on applying mindfulness to CEOs, musicians, helping parents with their children, as well as coping with stress and anxiety symptoms.
I hope to address some of the misconceptions people often have about the practice of mindfulness, and also describe how you can begin to practice on your own.
What is mindfulness?
Simply put, mindfulness is being aware of the present moment.
Sure sounds easy, right? It’s actually an incredibly easy thing to learn, but it takes a lifetime to master.
So let’s practice. For the next minute, just be aware of the present moment.
Welcome back. I’m guessing you probably made it about five or ten seconds before your mind drifted to the grocery list, picking up your child from daycare, or something your partner said that was hurtful. And that’s where the practice comes in, because our mind is always on. We can’t shut it off, and we wouldn’t want to because, well, that would mean we’re dead.
It’s pretty typical that most of us spend the majority of our time outside awareness of the present moment.
We are either pulled into the future, thinking of all the things that we need to do, or worrying about something. Or, we’re pulled into our past and thinking of things that have happened to us. Usually when we’re stressed, anxious, and overwhelmed, those thoughts are primarily negative and unpleasant.
We might spend time trying to push them away, or ignore them. Of course doing that only makes them come back stronger.
Don’t believe me? Okay then, do NOT think of a pink elephant for the next 30 seconds.
That’s what I thought. So if ignoring the bad thoughts doesn’t work, what do we do about them? Valid question and we will get there.
Why should I do it?
When they examine the brains of those who practice mindfulness, they find actual structural changes.
Taking the time to stay focused on the present moment, improves our brain’s ability to… stay focused on the present moment. This means that if you tend to find yourself getting hooked by negative thoughts, by practicing mindfulness regularly, you will likely develop the ability to notice the thought earlier and refocus your attention before your mood turns negative.
Additionally, because mindfulness focuses on nonjudgmental awareness, people can often become more self-compassionate and not as caught up in holding themselves to unrealistic standards of perfection.
How do I do this mindfulness thing?
When mindfulness is brought up, it’s typically in conjunction with meditation. I’ve intentionally avoided using that word until now because it raises some concerns for people.
They typically tell me, “I’ve tried but it doesn’t work for me. My mind just does not go blank.” As I mentioned before, I’m glad they are still alive as that is about the only prerequisite for meditation.
The purpose of meditation is to NOTICE what you are THINKING and FEELING. Did I say it was to have a blank mind? Did I say it was to relax? Nope.
Mindfulness meditation is simple. You take time to notice what you are thinking and feeling in a nonjudgmental way.
That means if you feel an ache or pain, you don’t curse it as bad, you just notice it. If you have a thought pop into your head, you don’t shove it away, you just notice it.
Mindfulness meditation takes a lifetime to master because your mind and body will bombard you with thoughts and feelings that will hook your attention, and make it hard to “just notice in a nonjudgmental way!”
Introduction to mindfulness meditation typically focuses on the breath. It’s convenient because it’s always there, and it’s moving so it gives you something to focus on that is inherently the present moment.
With your eyes closed (or open) begin to focus on your breath. There’s no need to change it. Just notice your in-breath, and your out-breath.
Your attention may be on the rise and fall of your chest or abdomen, or on the sensation at your nostrils. Notice any warmth or coolness. Any tension or discomfort. For the next five breaths, just notice anything associated with your breath.
When you’ve completed those breaths, return to the room and take note of any sounds going on around you.
What to do about the thoughts?
If you’re like me, within about 30 seconds you’ve had thoughts start to pop into your head.
Remember, our goal is not to have a clear mind, but to notice the present moment in a nonjudgmental way. Those thoughts are a part of your present moment, though they are a distraction from focusing on your breath.
What we do is acknowledge the thought, “thank you, mind,” and then return your focus to the breath. Sometimes it can be helpful to visualize putting the thought on a cloud that is slowly drifting away, or a leaf that is floating down a creek.
We’re not shoving the thoughts away, but acknowledging their presence, and then letting them drift away as we return to the breath.
Whether this happens twice or 200 times during a 5 minute meditation, the success is in noticing the thought, non-judgmentally acknowledging it, and returning.
Implementing mindfulness meditation practice
Generally I recommend practicing once a day for 5 to 10 minutes. That is enough to begin seeing some of the benefits I noted earlier.
As with any kind of behavior change, it’s helpful to have a fairly consistent schedule for practicing. I like to do mine first thing in the morning when the kids are still asleep.
The important thing is that you try a few different things to see what is most likely to help you be consistent in your practice.
And if you’re interested in a book on how mindfulness meditation can transform a Type A personality, I recommend 10% Happier by Dan Harris.
Guided body scan mindfulness meditation
If meditation just isn't your thing, you can still benefit from mindfulness. Any easy way to do this is to notice five things in the room. Pretend like you are a little child who is noticing these things for the first time. See how the shading appears. Are there textures you can see? Really examine those five items, and if you notice your thoughts pulling you away just let the thoughts drift away and refocus on the items in the room.