Over the past couple of years or so you may have noticed the word mindfulness getting a lot of attention. It’s the new buzzword, a thing we are all supposed be doing to enhance every aspect of our lives. But what does this concept actually mean? How can we teach ourselves to be mindful? And most importantly how can it improve our lives?
A definition of mindfulness that made sense to us was the one from Psychology Today. It defined mindfulness as “a state of active, open attention on the present. When you’re mindful, you observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance, without judging them good or bad. Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to experience.” The opposite of mindfulness can be described as being inattentive, distracted, unfocused or not engaged.
How about some examples. Have you ever eaten something and before you know it you are staring at an empty bowl or wrapper? What about the times when you have driven somewhere, arrived at your destination but having no memory of the actual drive? These are common actions of mindlessness. Think of it as going on “auto-pilot”. In our busy lives it’s easy to lose track of the moment. Many of us are constantly thinking about the many things we need to do or worrying about what it is we are not able to do. We are multitasking, our schedules are busting at the seam. It’s all very overwhelming, wouldn’t you agree?
You may be asking yourself “why is it so important for me to live in the actual moment?” Let’s next talk a little about the importance and benefits of mindfulness.
According to Harvard Medical School, mindfulness improves our overall well-being in the following ways: by allowing us to savor the pleasures of the moment, help us to deal with adverse events, make us less likely to get caught up in worries about the future or regrets over the past, and allows us to form deep connections with others.
If those aren’t enough benefits for you, mindfulness also improves mental health. Mindfulness meditation has been used to treat depression, substance abuse, eating disorders, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorders and has been used in couple’s therapy. It is thought that mindfulness works by helping people accept their experiences as opposed to avoiding or not dealing with them. Over recent years mindfulness meditation has been proven very effective when combined with psychotherapy, especially cognitive behavioral therapy.
Mindfulness has also shown to improve physical health. Lowered blood pressure, stress relief, chronic pain reduction, better sleep and increase heart health are a few of the proven benefits.
So now that you’ve heard about all the great ways mindfulness can improve your life you probably are wondering how to master it. Like any new skill, mindfulness takes practice and the more we practice the better we will be at it. There are many resources on-line that can guide you through this practice. In fact in our next article we will feature some online-resources and aps so you can learn on your own. You may also prefer to find an instructor or take a class.
Mindfulness is similar to meditation and the practice is in fact often referred to as “mindfulness meditation”. The three basic aspects of mindfulness meditation are body, breath and thought.
Body: We connect with the body by how we set up our environment. Mindfulness uses an eye open technique so our environment should be serene and quiet. We do not want anything distracting us like a TV or a noisy road. Some people prefer to light incense or candles. You can put up pictures or photos or if you prefer a plain wall. Our sitting position is also important. A chair or a cushion on the ground is best as long as they are stable and don’t wiggle around. If you are seated on the ground cross your legs, if you are in a chair rest your feet on the ground or on a stool and let your hands rest on your thighs. Your gaze does not need to be completely focused, let your eyes rest on whatever it lands on in front of you. Your posture should be upright but not stiff.
Breath: There is no special way to breathe when practicing mindfulness and it doesn’t require a lot of focus on breath, breathing should take up approximately 25% of our attention. It should be relatively natural, focusing on the breath entering and leaving the body.
Thoughts: The basic concept of mindfulness mediation is to sit and focus on our thoughts. As you sit and breathe you will notice many thoughts coming into your mind. Observe them, note how they make you feel and when you notice your thoughts taking control or spiraling you away from where you are and what you are doing, bring your attention back to the breath. Sounds simple, right? It’s not. But eventually it will get easier and you may work yourself up to sitting for up to 45 minutes or an hour.
Here is a nice simple mindfulness exercise to get you started:
Set aside about 20 minutes. Sit on a straight-backed chair or cross-legged on the floor.
- Focus on an aspect of your breathing, such as the sensations of air flowing into your nostrils and out of your mouth, or your belly rising and falling as you inhale and exhale.
- Once you’ve narrowed your concentration in this way, begin to widen your focus. Become aware of sounds, sensations, and your ideas.
- Embrace and consider each thought or sensation without judging it good or bad. If your mind starts to race, return your focus to your breathing. Then expand your awareness again.
In our next article we will provide you with some helpful online tools, resources and apps that will help guide you through your mindfulness practices and help you evolve and improve. Stay tuned!