Want to Learn How to Practice Mindfulness? Here is where you can start your Journey to Mindful Living
It’s a word that gets thrown around quite a lot lately. You see it used very often and you might be wondering… What the heck do they mean by Mindfulness? Well, before you can learn how to practice mindfulness, you need to understand the definition of Mindfulness. However, you’ll soon learn that mindfulness has multiple descriptions. These are all correct, but sometimes it’s easier to understand something if you look at from more than one angle.
So here are some descriptions of Mindfulness. A little later we’ll cover how to practice mindfulness.
The many definitions of Mindfulness
Mindfulness is paying attention to what’s happening in the present, to what you’re doing at this moment and how you’re feeling about it. That’s right, you can practice mindfulness right now, as you read this post.
Mindfulness is the state of being in which your mind is completely focused on one task or thought. In a way, it’s the opposite of multitasking.
Mindfulness is the observation of one’s own thoughts and emotions. In other words, it means stepping back and then simply being aware of what you’re feeling, what you’re thinking and what you are experiencing.
Mindfulness is being “present” and “intentional”. Being present means giving your full attention and focus to what you are currently engaged in. Being intentional means being purposefully engaged in what you are doing. Both “presence” and “intentionality” help capture the idea of mindfulness.
I personally like to describe Mindfulness as being “intentionally aware”. Being aware of where you are, what you are doing, what you are thinking, and what you are feeling.
What Mindfulness is, and is not
Another way to define Mindfulness is to understand what it is NOT. It is not :
- Sitting on a meditation cushion for hours (although that’s not a bad thing to do!)
- Being perfect
- Having all the answers
- Another task to add to your task list
- Something you have to schedule in your calendar
- A fashionable social media slogan
Using Mindfulness helps us by bringing more awareness and attention to the way that we handle various events and to how our thoughts and emotions normally control us. This then in turn allows us to anticipate them, to deal with them and ultimately to prevent them.
Mindfulness defined by it’s benefits
Most likely you’ve heard the word Mindfulness in conjunction with new reports about all the great benefits that it can give you. And it is true. Studies have shown that practicing Mindfulness can:
- Decrease stress and improve your ability to deal with adversity
- Lower anxiety and depression
- Increase your clarity, attention, and brain function
- Increase your immune system functioning
- Lower your blood pressure and heart rate
- Improve your general well-being
So based on these benefits, some think of mindfulness a clinical tool. For example, it can be an important part of ‘CBT’ or ‘Cognitive Behavioral Therapy’. This is a psychotherapeutic approach that involves the practice of essentially replacing and reprogramming underlying thoughts, beliefs and ruminations. But that’s only one way to look at Mindfulness. It has also long been a part of other meditative practices. In this case, the objectives are somewhat different. The goal here is to be more aware of the present moment in terms of the sensations, sounds and emotions. By learning how to practice mindfulness you can eventually become more ‘present’ in the moment and better able to react to what’s going on around you with a clear focus and without judgement. In the end, the true goal is to find that inner calm that many of us lack in today’s fast-paced world.
The Benefits of Mindfulness
You’ve probably been made aware of Mindfulness through recent news reports or other articles about the benefits of using mindfulness. How much of these benefits apply to you? And how many of these benefits are real? To try to help you figure out the truth from the fiction, below are specific benefits and associated studies about how mindfulness can help all of us.
In general, the summary is that many health professionals, as well as the experience of others point to the fact that mindfulness is a powerful tool that can help you improve your well-being in a vast range of different ways. However, as with any tool, you must learn how to use it for the benefit you are trying to achieve. That’s why learning how to practice mindfulness is so important. Now, let’s go over a few of the many benefits of using mindfulness…
1 – It helps reduce stress
Mindfulness teaches us how to be present and how to exist in the moment. This helps us to rise above the stressful thoughts we might be having and even to ‘reprogram’ them in some cases. Research out of the journal Health Psychology indicates that mindfulness is not only associated with lower levels of cortisol (the stress hormone), but it is associated with feeling less stress. Research out of the Jefferson-Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine indicates that mindfulness training can decrease the stress patients with breast cancer often have Imaging studies have shown that it is linked to changes in the brain connected to emotions, stress, and reward. A study out of the Annals of Rheumatic Disease from 2011 showed that even though mindfulness training didn’t lessen the brain’s ability to function, it did help people with osteoarthritis lower their stress levels.
2 – It improves focus
These days there are constant distractions we get from our technology and our general ability to get any information or entertainment in seconds. Due to these distractions our mental focus is often lacking. Practicing mindfulness requires that you increase your focus and be more aware of and improve your mental discipline. As a result, mindfulness training can make you more focused. This is because it helps the brain have more control over emotions and the processing of pain. According to a research article found in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, it does this by controlling the alpha rhythms in the brain.
3 – It can help you perform better at work.
For example, research out of the University Of Rochester Medical Center indicates that doctors who engage in mindfulness training are better listeners, more self-aware, and are less judgmental.
4 – It improves academic skills
Researchers out of the University of California at Santa Barbara indicated that college students who got mindfulness training did better on testing and had improvements in their working memory. The results showed that doing mindfulness training is an efficient and effective technique for improving memory and other cognitive functions.
5 – It enriches life and health
Being mindful means being present and that in turn means being aware of all the wonderful things happening around you. Instead of being in your own head, you start experiencing the world around you. This can even enhance your relationships. For example, according to an article in the journal Psychology of Music, mindfulness training improves your ability to focus and engage in music. It helps you experience what you listen to and helps you enjoy music better. Researchers out of the University of California in Los Angeles found that mindfulness meditation helped to reduce feelings of loneliness in older people. It also improved their health by decreasing inflammation.
6 – It helps you learn about yourself and make you a better person
Learning to ‘observe’ your own mind is an amazing skill that teaches you about how your own brain works. This is both fascinating and a very useful skill for growth and development because you get to know your true self. Mindfulness can help you see beyond optimism when you really need to analyze yourself objectively. In a study out of the journal Psychology Science indicates that mindfulness training can help you get rid of the blind spots in your life, which can diminish or increase your own flaws. This can also help make you a better person, as well as better benefit those you interact with by making you more compassionate helping you to better manage your relationships with them. According to a study in the journal Psychological Science, scientists from Harvard and Northeastern University’s found that mindfulness training relates to behavior that is more virtuous.
7 – If you continue to practice, mindfulness continues to work.
Health organizations love mindfulness because it’s something anyone can practice. Once you understand the concept and have been taught the basics, this is something you can do anywhere and with no equipment. It even helps you when you aren’t actively practicing it! A study out of the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience found that the amygdala is altered by mindfulness training and that it works even when you aren’t practicing the techniques. The amygdala perform a primary role in the processing of memory, decision-making and emotional responses (including fear, anxiety, and aggression).
8 – Mindfulness is an Effective Pain Management Technique
There are numerous studies that demonstrate that mindfulness is especially useful in helping people to manage pain. The practice can help to reduce pain and even help to rid the body of discomfort completely. This is particularly important for people for whom narcotics are not an option or for whom that is simply not the path they want to travel to manage pain. Though there have been several studies on the topic, scientists have not yet discovered the specific analgesic neural pathway that reveals exactly how mindfulness meditation interventions to reduce chronic pain. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health reports that mindfulness also aids in reducing inflammation throughout the body. This can be especially useful for people who suffer from conditions like irritable bowel syndrome, or other complex health conditions.
So, who can benefit from learning how to practice mindfulness?
That’s easy – everyone can benefit from mindfulness training!
Are you someone who rushes frantically from place to place, is always on the go, has a never-ending to-do list, and is prone to high anxiety? Then you can benefit from mindfulness. Are you a corporate executive working 12-hour days, with meetings and responsibilities, are you burnt out or a workaholic and your family life is beginning to suffer? Then you can benefit from mindfulness. Are you a busy stay-at-home mom, or a working single mom, or a married and working single mom? Then you can benefit from mindfulness! CEO’s, students, retirees; no matter what your role in life, or what your circumstances, you can benefit from mindfulness. Even if you have it all, feel happy and content, and have a wonderful partner, children and everything the way you want it, you can STILL benefit from mindfulness!
How to Practice Mindfulness
One of the benefits of practicing mindfulness is that you can do it just about anywhere! Nor do you need to sit in silence for hours, chant, or even close your eyes. Now that’s not to say that doing those things are bad – in fact they are quite good for you – but they’re just not required to practice mindfulness. Your objective with mindfulness is to bring your complete attention to the present, where you are right now, not distracted by memories of the past or anxieties about the future.
Here is a guide on how to practice mindfulness in order to stay grounded and present no matter what time of day or where you are.
You can use breathing techniques like the one below to anchor your awareness firmly in the present. It’s so easy you can even do it right now – as you’re reading this article.
The 3 Breaths technique: Simply bring your attention to your breath – breathe in slowly and gently, following the path of your breath with your mind. Feel it deep in your belly. Then breathe out slowly and gently, again paying attention to the movement of your breath. Just breathe. Don’t do anything else. Feel your breath going in and feel yourself exhaling. Notice your chest moving when you breathe. If you lose your focus and start thinking about all the problems of life, just try to pull your thoughts back to your breathing.
Can you feel a subtle energy shift, a calm peacefulness? That is how mindfulness feels. You can do this anywhere at any time, and no one will know that you are practicing mindfulness.
Tips to use with your breathing technique
- Set an alarm on your phone or maybe do it on the hour for the even numbers; 2 pm, 4 pm, 6 pm, etc. It only takes a minute or two.
- Go outside on a cold day when you can physically see your breath. Or if you are inside you can practice it on a mirror or up against a window. The trick is to see and feel your breath.
When you are taking slow and deep breaths you are helping to stimulate your vagus nerve. As you get more comfortable with your breathing techniques, you can start using your breathing to be purposeful as you are taking these slow, deep breaths (five to seven minutes), to trigger your heart rate to decrease which leads to a wealth of physical responses throughout the body.
Another breathing technique:
Sit in a position that is upright, and your feet are resting flat against the floor. Next, taking a deep breath through your nose, hold it for a five-second count, then just as slowly, release that breath through your mouth while counting to five. Repeat this breathing exercise for five to ten minutes, being purposeful with focus and execution. You can do this lying in your bed first thing in the morning or at night just before you fall asleep. It doesn’t have to be five seconds by the way. If you have trouble holding your breathe for that long then start with 3 seconds.
Use a Mantra
A variation on the above technique is to begin to use a mantra – a word or phrase – that will help you keep count of the seconds you are breathing in and out, as well as help you focus your attention at the same time. You can find many different mantras but I think it’s actually best if you find one that fits you so that you’re remember to use it. For example, the one I developed for myself works like this: while I am breathing in I say to myself “I breathe in for life” and when I breathe out I say to myself “I breathe out for love”. Again, pick one that speaks to you. Another reason I came up with this one is that each word equals one second in my breath count. Originally I started with a 4 second breath count and then I added the word “I” to my mantra when I moved from a 4 second to a 5 second breath count.
Stop and take time
Breathing is an automatic act that we do nearly every second of the day. But how often do you stop and pay attention to your breaths? Studies show that deep breathing is better for the mind and body when compared to shallow breaths. So, take long, deep breaths during your busy day and see how your disposition changes. You’ll immediately feel less anxious and begin to focus on your breath. This helps you remain in the moment without worrying about the future.
Check in with your senses
One of the most important aspects of mindfulness is to allow thoughts to pass without seeking to control them. When we try to control what’s beyond our control, the ego starts to fester. Anxiety levels rise because being out-of-control is scary and our body desperately tries to find a way to cope. So, stop trying to control your thought. Let them pass by like a leaf in the wind. This might feel uncomfortable at first, but the more you stop judging the thoughts, the easier it’ll be to accept them.
Focus on awareness
If you’re finding that your mind is distracted while trying to practice mindfulness, one thing you can try is what is called the 5 Senses Check-in. Make a conscious decision to disconnect from distractions and focus your awareness on what you can see, feel, hear, smell and taste. This simple exercise will ground you in the present moment anytime you feel stressed or harried. Pay attention to what’s going on around you. Name one thing you can see, feel, smell and hear. This immediately takes your mind off the what is distracting or distressing you and redirects you to the present moment.
Turn towards your emotions
Your emotions can often get in the way of your attempt to become mindful. One way to get past this is to try describing your feelings out loud or to yourself. This validates your feelings and makes them real. If you need to cry, don’t hold yourself back. The key to this step is avoiding the need to control your emotions. This is called turning towards your emotions. You are going to listen to the thoughts and feelings you’re experiencing and then simply acknowledge them. Don’t be ashamed or upset that emotion exists but simply recognize that you are currently feeling the way you are feeling. For example, holding onto anger is just a cover up for intense sadness. Acknowledging that you are hurt because of a certain situation gives you an excellent starting point. If you start feeling sad or anxious, allow the feeling to stay with you. Feel every ounce of that emotion without trying to make it stop. This will further help you to validate how you’re feeling.
Give it time
You get upset sometimes. You may get angry sometimes. But if you’re simply aware of your condition, then you can be aware – or in other words be mindful – that perhaps the thoughts you’re thinking aren’t completely objective. What’s more, you should always remember that emotions aren’t permanent. In other words, you’re feeling angry right now and as such your thoughts shouldn’t be taken too seriously. But in a few hours, you will likely feel better and then the world will seem like a brighter place again. Being aware and accepting of your emotions in this way will allow you to assess them in a kind of ‘debriefing’ and to look at what triggered them, how you dealt with them and what they made you think and do. If you keep working at breaking down and intellectualizing your emotions, the more you will find you gain control over them.
Take every opportunity that comes your way to practice mindfulness. Here are some tips, suggestions and recommendations on how to incorporate mindfulness in your daily activities and routine.
When we first wake up in the morning, we enjoy a clarity that we won’t see again for the rest of the day. Don’t spoil the moment by immediately checking text messages, status updates, emails, and alerts. Enjoy yourself. Enjoy the morning. Put social media on hold – all of that can come later. Starting your day off with a little moving around also helps you get some exercise before your brain can object. Whether you’re a marathon runner or you just do a few sets of yoga positions, this is a very important part of healthy morning rituals. Consider getting up five minutes earlier than normal. Use those five minutes to do a breathing exercise or follow a guided meditation.
The morning routine
You can be mindful while performing all your normal morning activities. For example, brushing your teeth, taking a shower, and eating breakfast. The key here is to simply focus on what you’re doing. For example, when you brush your teeth, focus on the scent of your toothpaste, how the bristles feel as they brush across your teeth. Pay attention to each tooth as you brush each one completely. When you use mouthwash, focus on how it feels as it moves around your mouth. Feel the bubbles and how it feels tingling your throat and super clean mouth. Making your bed? Then reach out and feel the sheets beneath your fingertips; concentrate on how straight you’ve made the mess of covers and how neatly you’ve arranged the pillows. Adding Mindfulness to your morning routine will allow you to feel more relaxed as you go about your day. Now, doesn’t that sound better than worrying about what your day holds or stressing about your never-ending to-do list?
Where it’s to the office, to school, or shopping, any commute can be stressful. You can’t control how others drive. You can only control what you do. So, tune everything else out and practice mindfulness as you drive to work. Take in the sights, and the smells, be observant of the road around you. Don’t listen to an audio book, don’t turn on a podcast, just focus on your drive and what you are doing. Stuck in traffic? Just put a half-smile on your face and watch your breath. Fell yourself breathing in and breathing out. Focus on those breathes and don’t try to control it. In no time, you’ll feel your frustration melt away. This also works great with you’re waiting in line for anything.
You might not walk much, but you at least do so from your car into your workplace or wherever you were heading, and the return journey. Try to take a longer walk. Even in short journeys on foot, you can simply be present instead of allowing the anxiety of work or home to creep into your thoughts. As you’re walking along, look up and really notice the sky, the leaves on the trees, are flowers budding or blooming? Smile at other passers-by and notice their reactions. If you can manage longer walks, such as at lunch or after work, try to immerse yourself in nature and really bask in its beauty. There are any number of techniques to help increase your focus using mindfulness. You could listen to a song and pay special attention to the highs and lows, the rhythm, everything about it.
As You Eat
When you’re eating at any meal of the day, tap into your senses and really focus on what you’re eating. Don’t eat in front of the television or at your desk. Instead, find a quiet place to enjoy your meal. Try chewing your food for 20 seconds before swallowing it. While you are chewing, think about the texture of the food, the aromas, flavor, and how it looks. Really savor the flavors, textures and notes as you chew. Do so with every bite you take and allow yourself to chew slowly. A huge benefit of mindful eating is that you will be more in tune with your body. Instead of mindlessly eating an entire bag of chips, you’re be more aware and will notice when you’re full, so that you’ll have a healthy portion that fuels your body as opposed to harming it.
During the Day:
Being mindful at work or during the day can help in so many ways. Many of us just go through the day reacting to what happens to us. But you can use Mindfulness to create that all important space between action and reaction. For example, before you send an email, take time to breathe and notice your breath, then read the email again and decide if you want to send it or re-write it. When talking with another person. Avoid jumping in with a reactive response. Instead, sit back and really listen. Give the other person your full attention and respect, and you’ll have a more meaningful and productive conversation. Take few minutes away from your devices. Ignore or switch them off for a while and instead, relax and do some breathing techniques. Or do a full body scan. Think about where you’re holding your tension and release it. Most of us subconsciously clench our jaws or create a fist when we’re feeling anxious. By immediately acknowledging that tension and releasing it, you can relax more fully and be more focused rather than stressed out.
One suggestion here is to consider journaling. It is one of the most mindful things you could do each day. Writing down your thoughts and ideas in a journal is an excellent way to identify, explore and examine your innermost thoughts. This process can draw you into the here and now and will help you to acknowledge your feelings and develop an awareness for what it is you need to be happy.
Before your head hits the pillow, just breathe. Sit in your bed and focus completely on your breathing. Think about how your body feels, and allow the negative thoughts weighing on your shoulders to ebb away. Allow yourself mental peace, you’ll sleep better. You can do a full body scan lying in bed as well.
More to think about:
Mindfulness is very much about being in the moment. This can be a calming but also a very practical mindset to develop. Think about it this way – the past is out of your control and the future is unpredictable. Focusing on the present as part of a mindfulness outlook isn’t about ignoring the past or the future – it’s more about realizing that the present is really the only time that you have any control over. Let’s say that you were sick for a few days and had to take some time off. And how when you’re back up to speed, you find that you might be behind on a project at work or behind on paying the bills at home. Will focusing on the reasons why you are behind help you? No. Will worrying about what will happen if you can’t pay your bills help you? No. You only have today. So you should focus on working and looking for solutions that can help you now, today, and you can only do those things while focusing on the present.
Mindfulness Meditation – what’s next?
So far, we’ve been discussing how to practice mindfulness. But there is another level of mindfulness that warrants attention. Mindfulness Meditation. There is a ton of information out there about mindfulness. And there is probably that same amount of information – if not more – on the practice of meditation. So, what is the difference between these two things? It depends on how you look at these two practices. Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, who has studied mindfulness for over three decades, has been known to say that when you practice mindfulness, you’re actually meditating. I think that is true, but that defines only one type of meditation. There are many different types and sub types of meditation, such as Zen, Kundalini yoga, and Transcendental. Mindfulness Meditation is just one form or type of meditation.
Mindfulness vs Meditation – what’s the difference?
Here’s what I see as the difference. Mindfulness means focusing your attention on every aspect of what you’re doing. You stop and notice what’s going on around you while you are doing things. It’s externally focused. It can be done anywhere and at any time. On the other hand, Meditation takes a mindful approach and turns your attention inward. When you meditate, you withdraw your attention from the outside world and focus on your inner world. You create a quiet space to detach and let your mind and body relax.
Look at it this way…
When you are practicing mindfulness, you are giving your full attention to the person, situation, or task in front of you right now. Doing so will keep you grounded in the present moment. On the other hand, when you practice meditation your goal is to find peace within yourself. Meditation is a more formal process than mindfulness and requires a physical and mental separation from what’s going on around you. Now, with all that being said, you can also look at mindfulness as a way to help launch your practice of meditation and actually starting practicing what is defined as mindfulness meditation (which again is just one type of meditation).
Since your goal with mindfulness is to be focused on what you are doing right now, then if you are doing meditation you can mindful and focus on your meditation. The goal will be for you to be in your awareness state of mind for a longer period since meditation normally requires that you devote a longer stretch of time (usually 20 minutes or more) than does being mindful alone. This is something that people don’t usually just jump right into and starting practicing when you are first learning about mindfulness. But if you’ve been practicing mindfulness and doing your breathing, focusing on your senses and emotions, but only doing it for a few minutes at a time, you’re probably ready to consider devoting a longer amount of time to begin practicing meditation. And when you are being mindful and focused on that, you’re performing mindfulness meditation.
Although we all tend to overlook it, I think you will have to agree that there is a lot wrong with the way most of us currently live our lives. As humans, we evolved in an environment completely foreign to the world we live in now. And during that time, we adapted to gain abilities and traits that in many ways leave us unsuited for our current time and environment.
Today’s environment, the pressure cooker
We sit in chairs all day long gaining weight, we eat processed foods and we face constant stresses from work, from our relationships and from our finances. Plus, we are constantly ‘on call’, ‘plugged in’ and ‘stressed out’. Your cell phone is always ringing, you have texts are always coming in, and you get a new get a new e-mail every two minutes. We have a near addiction to technology that means we’re normally never able to really decompress. So, do you think it’s any wonder that mental health problems are so prevalent, and so much in the news today? Most likely, this is probably also a big part of the reason that learning how to practice mindfulness is so popular right now. Done correctly, mindfulness can help you to enjoy calmness and to stop the incessant chatter of your mind. That will provide you with relief and a way you to relax and recover from the stress and anxiety that might be bearing down around you.