Mindfulness has become a popular word recently, and with good reason. From the corporate world to the psychological community, it’s easy to find someone praising its benefits. I have seen firsthand, both in my role as a psychologist and as a student, how the practice of mindfulness can lead to a profound, life-changing impact in one’s life. So, what exactly is mindfulness? How do you practice it? And, what are the effects?
Defining Mindfulness to Understand Its Practice
Simply put, mindfulness involves paying careful attention, without judgment or preference, to the details of the present moment that are often missed as we rush through our lives.
With its roots in Buddhism, the core principles of mindfulness involve awareness, attention, and remembering. Awareness is noticing the present moment, which includes our physical surroundings, our body sensations, emotional states, and quality of our thoughts. Attention refers to intentionally choosing to put our focus in a particular place, such as our breath, or body sensations. And remembering means continually remembering to be aware and pay attention.
As we use it in psychotherapy, mindfulness also includes another essential dimension: acceptance and nonjudgment — adding an attitude of warmth, friendliness, and compassion. This means paying attention to our thoughts and feelings without believing that there’s a “right” or “wrong” way to think or feel in a given moment. This is probably the hardest part of the practice for most of us.
When we practice mindfulness, our thoughts tune into what we’re sensing in the present moment rather than rehashing the past or imagining the future. Therefore, when putting these elements together, we can think of mindfulness as, “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, and nonjudgmentally, to the unfolding of experience moment to moment.” (Kabat-Zinn)
In other words, mindfulness is the art of cultivating the ability to be in control of our own minds instead of our minds being in control of us.
Why is this important?
Understanding How The Mind Works
Have you ever put your hand into a bag of chips, with the intention of just having a few, only to find yourself putting your hand into an empty bag not long after? Or do you get in the car to drive somewhere and arrive at your destination only to realize you haven’t noticed anything or anyone along the way? Of course you have, we all have. These are common examples of how many of us live on autopilot.
We all fall into habits of mind and body, of attention and inattention, which result in not being present for our own lives. The consequences of this inattention can be quite costly. They can result in missing some really good things, and also ignoring really important information and messages about our lives, our relationships, and even our health. Our reactions to the stressful events of our lives can become so habitual that they occur essentially out of our awareness.
In mindfulness teachings, the mind is often compared to a drunken monkey that’s been bitten by a scorpion. In a chaotic attempt to run from its pain, the monkey leaps from tree to tree, frantically seeking relief. It cannot be still, even for a moment.
Like the monkey, our mind and body are evolutionarily wired with our sympathetic nervous system, i.e. fight or flight, to deal with threats to our survival. So when we’re faced with a fast-approaching fire or an attacker with a weapon, the monkey mind reacts fast.
Unfortunately, our nervous system can’t distinguish between, “I’m being chased by a tiger,” and “I have a deadline to meet.” When we’re in autopilot, our mind is simply reacting, as fast as possible, to any and all perceived threats. We take mental shortcuts such as making assumptions, unconsciously based on what’s happened before, rather than gaining a full appreciation and awareness of the here and now. We see situations with eyes of the past, while simultaneously projecting into a possible future that we imagine, and often believe, will result in a particular outcome.
Living in this constant state of unconscious reactivity can have significant physical, emotional and/or psychological consequences. The reactions can include tension in the body which can lead to many physical ailments, including: high blood pressure and inflammation, experiencing painful emotional states, such as anxiety and depression, and destructive habits of addictions, negative thinking, obsessions, and intense, even toxic self-criticism.
How Mindfulness Can Help Create Change
Mindfulness offers us a way to turn off the autopilot and experience things more accurately by tuning in to the present moment with full awareness. In practicing mindfulness we learn to become aware of our thoughts, emotions, feelings, and behavior so we can interrupt stress cycles, by making wiser and more fully informed choices.
By learning to be mindful, we are able to take ownership and responsibility for ourselves and our choices by bringing awareness to the present moment and learning to relate differently to our experiences, so that we don’t continue to stay stuck in the same problematic patterns driven by reactions and inattention.
When it comes down to it, creating meaningful change in our lives is driven by our intentions. Our intentions shape our thoughts and our words, our thoughts and words mold our actions, thoughts, words, and actions shape our behaviors, behaviors sculpt our physical experiences, physical experiences develop our character, and our character hardens into what we look like.
Mindfulness is a practice that leads us to be more intentional with our lives. If we intentionally set time aside to bring more mindfulness into our lives, we’ll start priming our minds to see from a greater place of balance, flexibility and compassion. Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” That starts with intention. Mindfulness allows us to consider, in this moment, how you want to be in this world.
So, How Do You Do It?
The most common and widely accepted practice for cultivating mindfulness is with a formal meditation practice, however, this isn’t the only way. Jon Kabat-Zinn, developer of the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program says, “It’s not really about sitting in the full lotus, like pretending you’re a statue in a British museum. It’s about living your life as if it really mattered, moment by moment by moment by moment.”
I like the idea that wherever you are is your starting point. You can, in any given moment, remember that you can be more mindful. The best way to practice mindfulness is to make the effort. Explore what it might be like to pay more careful attention and to allow yourself to experience directly what is here, especially tuning into what is happening in your own body, heart, and mind.
I often suggest to my clients who aren’t yet ready to commit to formal meditation practice to create designated check-in times for themselves, such as when starting a new activity or any transitions in their day. This might be taking a minute or two after the alarm goes off and before you spring out of bed, or sitting in your car before walking into the office to close your eyes and just begin to notice. Notice if your mind is busy or calm, any emotions you may be feeling, and if your body feels tense or relaxed. Then bring your attention to your breathing (or any other sensation that you feel comfortable with, breath is just the most common.)
In these moments, the sensation of the breath is the “anchor” for awareness in the present moment. Narrow your focus to just the breath sensation. Allow yourself to feel the breath as it goes in, and goes out and the pause between in and out. Do not try to control the breath. Simply let it come and go. Bring as much attention, as completely and continuously as you can to the direct sensation of the breath.
When the mind wanders off into thinking, “This is stupid, I have other things I should be doing,” or “What’s the point of this?” or “I can’t forget to pick up milk on the way home” just notice what the mind is thinking about without getting too caught up in the content and bring your attention back to the breath.
It’s important that you understand and expect that your mind will wander. You don’t need to berate yourself or see distraction as a problem or failure — each time you notice the mind has wandered, you’ve already come back to mindfulness. Congratulate yourself when you notice the wandering, because that means you were mindful, and choose to come back to the breath.
You can do this any time throughout your day. Practice for a few breaths at a time, possibly for a few mindful moments, or even a formal mediation. Mindfulness is a muscle that is strengthened the more we use it. You will become more mindful with more practice.
And while formal practice is an excellent tool for building this muscle, similar to what lifting weights might be for other muscles, it’s important to understand that mindfulness is really about a way ofbeing in the world rather than what you are doing.