Even when just dabbling in the health and wellness world, we come across the buzzword “mindfulness” a lot, but what is it really, and how can the concept be used to create more balance in our lives?
At its core, mindfulness is about being present and aware moment to moment in our lives. Each day, our minds are pulled in a thousand directions – from daily tasks, errant thoughts, and family obligations to our work lives and social calendars. We tend to bounce from thought to thought, emotion to emotion, and task to task, often filling in gaps with various forms of distraction. Mindfulness is the purposeful attempt to cut through the fog that this creates in our minds. It’s all about attempting to be actively focused on and observant of the present moment.
Mindfulness practices can be as simple as observing one’s own thoughts and feelings without self-judgment and becoming physically attuned to the process of our own breath. At its most basic, mindfulness helps us create space in our own minds and create some level of objectivity when experiencing our own thoughts and emotions.
Although considered trendy now, mindfulness is not a new concept. It’s based in Buddhist and Hindu teachings spanning centuries and finds its origins in the concept of “sati”. Sati, in Buddhism, is the first step on the journey towards spiritual enlightenment. According to Psychology Today, Sati refers to “attention, awareness, and being present.” Over the years, the idea of mindfulness has been incorporated into western culture and even mainstream scientific and medical practices. Today, mindfulness practices are respected as legitimate therapeutic options that are widely used in clinical psychotherapy.
Benefits of Mindfulness:
Mindfulness practices have stood the test of time because they work. People who practice mindfulness have claimed to be kinder, calmer, and more patient with those around them. Athletes, from hobbyists to Olympians, attribute improvements in performance to mindfulness practices. Meditation, a type of mindfulness practice, has been reported to help improve attention span, decrease job burnout, and improve sleep quality. Mindfulness is a way to gain insight into ourselves and how our minds work and is used by many people to cope with the stress of modern life.
Mindfulness meditation practices have been studied in a number of clinical trials, and evidence supports its effectiveness in the management of anxiety, chronic pain, depression, stress, and insomnia. It has even been known to reduce blood pressure in those with hypertension. Early research has indicated that meditation may even help the management of asthma and diabetes.
How to be Mindful:
Mindfulness can be practiced in endless ways, and each practice is as unique as the person doing it. It can be done while sitting, standing, walking, or otherwise moving and is often incorporated into exercises like running and yoga. Alternatively, intentionally taking a few moments throughout the day to “check in” on ourselves can be just as effective. No matter what form it takes, the goal of mindfulness is to give us a judgment-free mental space to gain a kind of detached perspective of our own minds.
But how do you actually do it?
1. Get comfortable. Find a quiet place to sit if you can. If you’re concerned about being distracted by noises around you, a pair of noise-canceling headphones can help.
2. Set a timer. Just starting out? It’s okay to set yourself a short time; even just a few minutes is better than nothing. Work your way up slowly and be patient with yourself. As you get used to the stillness of meditation, feel free to lengthen the time you dedicate to each moment of mindfulness.
3. Feel your body. Sit comfortably and feel each place you’re in contact with the chair or floor. Now, scan your body from head to toe (or toe to head) by intentionally and methodically focusing your attention on each part of yourself. Pay attention to and then release any emotions, thoughts, or sensations that arise during this process.
4. Focus on your breath. Note the mechanical process of your breath. How your ribs expand and contract, how your shoulders move, feel the muscles at work, and the sensation of air filling and leaving your lungs.
5. Let your mind wander. It’s inevitable that during this process, you’ll become distracted in one way or another. You might feel your thoughts wandering or find yourself focusing on something outside of yourself. When you notice your mind being pulled away from the moment or distracted from the intention to meditate, return your focus to your breath and body.
6. Be kind to yourself. Mindfulness creates a judgment-free zone within yourself. It’s a practice of total self-acceptance. As your mind wanders and you attempt to bring your focus back to the moment, remember that this isn’t a battle with yourself; it’s a calm dance with your own mind. Don’t fixate on your thoughts and emotions during these moments of distraction. Notice them, accept them, and then let them go.
Mindfulness is the ultimate exercise in self-care. To practice self-care effectively, we must be aware of our needs physically, mentally, and emotionally. Mindfulness is a powerful self-care tool, as it allows us to be in-tuned to our consciousness. The more familiar we are with our own bodies and minds, the more likely we are to notice when something is amiss and to be able to take action to remedy it.
Our internal thoughts and emotions can impact our lives. Mindfulness gives us a way to control our reactions to these thoughts and feelings and, in a way, take our power back from them. It is the ultimate practice of self-awareness and self-love.