We are in the midst of the “Mindful Revolution.” This once “alternative” practice is now mainstream. Mindfulness has made its way onto the cover of Time Magazine, into our schools, into our hospitals, and even into the built-in Health app on the iPhone. Despite this rapid rise in popularity, or perhaps because of it, mindfulness is often misunderstood or dismissed as another passing fad. With the publication of over 2,000 peer-reviewed scientific journal articles in just the last few years touting the benefits of mindfulness, we can assure you that there is more to this trend than just a passing fad.
Let’s take a closer look at what exactly mindfulness is, how to practice it, what the benefits are, and some simple tips on getting started.
Mindfulness, defined simply, means “paying attention.” More specifically, John Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as the practice of
“paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”
The word practice is essential to our understanding of mindfulness. There is no end goal or box to check when it comes to mindfulness; rather, mindfulness is the continual practice of paying attention to whatever is happening in the present moment. If you’ve been harboring any notions of an enlightened yogi meditating on a mountaintop, it may be best to dispel of those now. Mindfulness is in the realm of the ordinary. It is reflected in the level of focus, attention, and awareness we bring to our daily interactions with our self, others, and the world around us.
Victor Frankl describes mindfulness beautifully:
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.”
When we develop our capacity to direct our attention, without judgment, to the present moment we find this space between stimulus and response - even if that space is as small as the gap between thoughts, or as simple as a deep breath. From this space, we move from a place of reactivity to a stance of empowerment, choice, and freedom.
Try it out:
Let’s try an experiment. When you reach the end of this paragraph, stop reading and do the following: Sit up straight, relax your shoulders, and place your hands on your lap. Bring stillness to your body and close your eyes or gaze softly at the ground in front of you. Without changing anything at all, simply bring your attention to the sensation of your breath coming in, and your breath going out. Notice where you feel your breath the most (your nostrils, your throat, your chest, your belly) and bring all of your attention to this one point of focus. With all of your attention on the sensation of your breath, begin to count your breath cycles up to five, and then restart at one. Do this for 1 - 2 minutes and notice how many breaths you can count before you become distracted by a thought, emotion, or sensation other than your breath. Begin.
How far did you get? If you are like most of us, it is likely that your attention began to wander within the space of a few breaths. You may not have even been aware that you were no longer counting your breath - your attention suddenly captivated by a train of thoughts, your to-do list, or some emotion like worry, doubt, or fear.
The practice of mindfulness, then, is noticing that your attention has wandered and non-judgmentally returning your attention to your breath. Just like strength training at the gym, watching our breath is like a “mental workout” that allows us to strengthen our ability to pay attention to one thing at a time. Over time, you become more skilled at purposefully directing your attention and you begin to experience the benefits of mindfulness in your daily life. Mindful breathing is one of the most common and useful mindfulness practices, though you can be mindful of just about anything.
With thousands of scientific articles being published each year on mindfulness, the practical benefits may surprise you. Study after study reveals that mindful breathing and other mindfulness practices are effective methods for increasing positive emotions, focus, memory, attention, and compassion while decreasing stress and negative emotions. Many new studies have even demonstrated that mindfulness practices boost the immune system, increase the density of gray matter in the brain, and is an effective treatment for depression, anxiety, PTSD and obesity.1 - 6 In short, improving your capacity to skillfully direct your attention (mindfulness) will directly benefit every area of your life including sleep, relationships, work, physical and mental health.
While mindfulness is quickly becoming one of the most effective and well-documented techniques for treating a wide range of mental and physical health issues (even more effective than traditional interventions like cognitive behavioral therapy and antidepressant medications, for instance), the beauty of the practice is that you can experience the benefits directly for yourself. Rather than taking my word, or anyone else’s, try it for yourself and notice any changes in your physical, mental, or emotional well-being. Here are a few tips to get you started:
- Start small and progressively build on your successes. Rather than aiming for a 20-minute sitting meditation right out of the gates, see how you do simply observing your breath for 2 minutes each day. As you become more skilled, increase your time (much like adding more weight in the gym as you build strength).
- Keep it simple: bring mindful awareness to things you are already doing. While dedicated mindfulness time is helpful, you can practice mindfulness at any time throughout your day. See if you can make it through brushing your teeth without getting lost in your thoughts. Take the time to notice the smell, texture, and taste of your breakfast rather than eating on the go. Notice the sensation of your feet on the sidewalk as you walk to work. Once you understand mindfulness as paying attention to one thing at a time, you can begin to practice mindfulness in any given moment.
- Buy-in matters: believe it or not, whether or not you actually believe that mindfulness will work can influence the outcomes you get from mindfulness. Approach the practice with patience and an open mind and then see for yourself how you benefit.
- Seek guidance: Although mindfulness is a very simple practice, it can be helpful to have an experienced guide. With the recent surge in popularity, it is likely that you can find resources in your community, be it a yoga class, an introductory course, or a community gathering. There are also a number of helpful apps that can get you started.
- Let go of expectations: You will never be perfectly mindful, and this is not the point. Mindfulness does not need to look any particular way. Rather than seeking a totally calm “zen” state of mind, can you allow yourself to be with whatever thoughts, emotions, or experiences arise for you from moment to moment without judgment?
- Unplug: if your device is present, you likely are not (unless, of course, you’re using a mindfulness app!). No need to renounce technology here and go back to the ol’ flip phone - just be aware of when and how often you’re plugged into a screen.
- Black, D. S., & Fernando, R. (2014). Mindfulness training and classroom behavior among lower-income and ethnic minority elementary school children. Journal of child and family studies, 23(7), 1242-1246.
- David, Deborah Schoeberlein. “Why Mindful Breathing Works.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 26 Nov. 2012. Web. 24 Oct. 2015. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/deborah-schoeberlein/mindfulness-stress_b_2131482.html
- Flook, L., Smalley, S. L., Kitil, M. J., Galla, B. M., Kaiser-Greenland, S., Locke, J., & Kasari, C. (2010). Effects of mindful awareness practices on executive functions in elementary school children. Journal of Applied School Psychology, 26(1), 70-95.
- Napoli, M., Krech, P. R., & Holley, L. C. (2005). Mindfulness training for elementary school students: The attention academy. Journal of Applied School Psychology, 21(1), 99-125.
- Schoeberlein, D. R., & Sheth, S. (2009). Mindful teaching and teaching mindfulness: A guide for anyone who teaches anything. Simon and Schuster.
- Hickman, S. (n.d.). Why Practice Mindfulness? Retrieved January 5, 2016, from http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/topic/mindfulness/definition#why_practice
- Winston, D., & Lopez, E. (2015). UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center. Retrieved December 15, 2015, from http://marc.ucla.edu/body.cfm?id=22