The term “mindfulness” seems to be everywhere these days. What is mindfulness, how is it done and what are the benefits?
Many people pair mindfulness with meditation or a spiritual practice. Although mindfulness is embedded in some spiritual practices, it actually is a practical skill that can be learned and practiced every day. The bonus is that it can benefit your physical and mental health.
I like the definition in Webster’s: “The practice of maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis.”
Quite simply, that means paying attention in the present moment by noticing what is going on with your body, emotions, thoughts and environment. That also includes paying attention, without judgment, to those thoughts and feelings, understanding that there are no right or wrong emotions.
Think about times you have beat yourself up about something that happened in the past or spent time worrying about future events that may never even occur. Have you ever been driving only to realize that time has passed with no recollection? Or read the same page of a book over and over because you don’t remember any of it?
That mindless spinning reduces your ability to focus or concentrate and can increase stress, anxiety and depression.
There is a good amount of research showing that being mindful can boost your immune system and reduce stress and anxiety by adding positive thoughts and feelings while decreasing negative ones. Keeping your brain actively engaged allows for better ability to regulate emotions, focus on tasks and retain information while increasing attention and learning. Mindfulness can also help improve not only your relationships but also your productivity and effectiveness.
There are many simple ways you can begin to incorporate mindful practice every day. Some people do it through meditation, but you can build skills through simple steps. Here are some examples:
• Take a few minutes each day and focus on your breathing. This can be specifically useful during intense situations or interactions.
• Be aware of your body. Take note of physical sensations. Do a body scan and notice any areas of tension or pain and try to relax them.
• Pay close attention to your senses — smells, sounds and touch — that you may not notice otherwise.
• Notice your thoughts as they pass. Try to think of them as clouds in the sky, being aware but not attaching to one particular thought.
A good way to practice is to concentrate on one task. Focus only on that task and the sensations experienced with it. A great activity that you can use daily is going for a mindful walk while paying attention to the sounds you hear and the sensations from the environment.
Practicing just a few minutes each day to begin training your brain to be more aware can lead to many positive changes in your day-to-day regulation of stress. Keep in mind that it is a skill and that to do it well you must practice. If you begin and notice that your mind has wandered, notice the wandering and turn your attention back to the activity.
Awareness can be the first step in observing your thoughts and feelings in a neutral way. As you practice mindfulness you must also practice becoming aware of any judgments you may have. Practice removing the judgement by just noticing it and letting it go. We tend to give our thoughts a great deal of power, but remember that a thought is just a thought, not necessarily a fact.