What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is purposeful and non-judgmental awareness of the present moment. It increases your awareness of sensory impressions, thoughts, emotions, imagery, urges and impulses. It enables you to become freer to observe your mind without being immersed in the workings of it. You can watch the waves of your thoughts and emotions crashing from the shore rather than being knocked around in the surf. The skills of mindfulness are quite simple, and will be outlined below, but because our minds typically behave so differently, learning them can take patience and practice.
How is Mindfulness Useful?
So much of the time we are lost in thoughts about what has happened in the past, or worries about what we need to do tomorrow, that we lose the present moment in the shuffle. You may take a shower, drive to work, and go through your day on “automatic pilot,” without real awareness of what you are doing. This common experience of losing touch with the present can cause a variety of problems. On autopilot, you are more likely to be triggered by events around you to react out of habit in ways that may be unhelpful. You may succumb more easily to urges and impulses. By increasing awareness of your thoughts, feelings, and body sensations without being completely immersed in them, you can give yourself greater freedom and choice. This can help you to get out of “mental ruts” or habitual reactions, that may have caused you problems in the past, and enable you to make healthy choices for yourself in the present. It can also help you to feel more engaged in your life, reduce worry about the past and future, experience deeper connections with others, and savor the positive moments when you come upon them.
Not all moments are positive though. We often are facing experiences that include pain, anxiety, sadness and other difficult emotions. Mindfulness can help in these circumstances too as you learn to increase awareness of feelings, you can learn to become more of an observer of them rather than being reactive to them. Even the most disturbing experiences can be viewed as passing experiences rather than as part of you. You can listen to distressing thoughts mindfully, recognizing them as mere thoughts. When the distress is too overwhelming, you can also move your attention to your body, breath, or other sensory experiences.
Research has demonstrated that developing mindfulness skills can be helpful for general well being as well as in the treatment of a variety of mental health concerns including depression, anxiety, substance abuse, eating disorders and couples’ conflicts. In addition to these mental health benefits, mindfulness has also been shown to improve physical health by relieving stress, treating heart disease, lowering blood pressure, reducing chronic pain, improving sleep, and alleviating gastrointestinal difficulties.
How Do I Get Started?
There are a lot of different ways to practice mindfulness, and not all of them involve sitting quietly with your eyes closed in meditation, but often this is a good place to start as you are developing skills.
Exercise: Mindful Awareness of the Breath
Sit quietly and focus on your natural breathing. Allow yourself to notice the sensations of air rushing in and out of your body without trying to control it. As you sit, focused on your breath, your mind is sure to wander. When this happens, gently bring your attention back to your breath without criticism or struggle. There is nothing wrong with your mind wandering, it is giving you the opportunity to notice a wandering mind and return your attention back to your breath. Noticing, without judgment, is part of what you are practicing. You can start with doing this for 5 minutes a day, squeezing it in wherever you can, gradually lengthening the time as you become more comfortable with these skills. The important thing is that you don’t base the practice on whether you feel like doing it or not, instead it needs to be established as a good habit like brushing your teeth.
You may find it helpful to begin practicing mindfulness with the help of guided exercises. Audio files can be found on this site to help you develop your skills.
To learn more about mindfulness, check out this video where Jon Kabat-Zinn, defines “What is mindfulness?” and discusses the hard work and rewards of practicing mindfulness. If you like it, you can read more in his book, Wherever You Go, There You Are.