What is Mindfulness?
I am often reminded that as a Psychologist, I take a lot of my knowledge as “common knowledge” and forget that many not trained in psychotherapy may not know the meaning of some of the terms I use or things I talk about in general. When I ask people if they have heard of mindfulness, I usually get a mixed response. Some will say they have heard the word, but don’t totally understand what it means, others think they know what it means, but really don’t, and others have never heard the word at all. I thought it might be beneficial to explain it and give some general examples of how one might experience it.
Mindfulness is the act of being fully present in the current moment with all your senses. There’s a great Hot Chocolate Mindfulness Exercise that gives a perfect example of this. We might say, “ I am aware of seeing my computer in front of me, the candle in my periphery, and the color of the walls behind the screen.” Or “I am aware of the smell of lunch cooking”, listing individual spices, etc. or “I am aware of the sound of people talking around me” or “music playing, birds outside, etc.” “I am aware of the feeling of the chair under me, the air entering and exiting my lungs, the taste of tea in my mouth, etc. All of these things are generally going on for us all the time, but we rarely stop to acknowledge them. Mindfulness is the act of slowing down and noticing was is present inside and outside of us in the moment. All of this is to be done without judgment. So rather than, “I notice my co-worker’s annoying voice” You might say, “I notice that the sound of her voice is displeasing to me.” This is harder than you might think, as we put judgment on everything!
So why bother? Well the benefits are more than you might think. Studies on mindfulness have shown to reduce stress, decrease illness, improve concentration, reduce ruminative thoughts, and handle emotions more effectively. Not bad for staying more present in our day to day. Handling emotions better, reducing stress…sounds like the recipe to getting along with others better, enjoying our time more, and just maybe increasing our levels of happiness. This is the number one goal of people I talk to. “I just want to be happy.” This maybe isn’t the whole answer, but I would be willing to say it is at least part of it.
If this sounds difficult, that’s because it is. We live in a fast paced, I need it NOW world. Our thoughts are often on so many things at once but rarely on what is occurring in the present moment. And certainly not without judgment. While practicing mindfulness is challenging, it is certainly worth practicing, and like any skill the more you practice, the better you get. You do have to practice though. Here’s a little practice you can do any time you have 5 minutes to spare. I set a timer on my phone, but that’s just me. You can work up to 10 minutes, 15 minutes, etc.
Sit in a quiet place. Get comfortable. Then just start to notice. Notice your body first. Start with the top of your head, through your face, notice any tension or pain, move through the neck, shoulders and back. Again, just notice. Do not judge, or try to fix it. Notice your abdomen, pelvic region, hips, buttocks, and legs. Again, not adjusting anything, but just noticing. Notice your feet, what are they feeling in this moment? Tired, relaxed, firmly planted on the floor?
Then start to notice your breath. Is it slow or fast? Deep or shallow. Notice how just paying attention to it, deepens it. Notice the feelings of the air filling your lungs. Notice how muscles relax as you notice your breath. Notice any thoughts you might be having. As you notice each thought, only notice them, do not judge them or try to hold onto them. Picture each thought written in the sand of a beautiful beach. As each thought is written picture a wave coming and washing the thought away, leaving fresh, clean sand in its place.
Continue to focus on breath. As mind may start to wander, always come back to breath. It helps me to count each breath but only up to 4 then start over. Breathe in, breath out, 1. Breath in, breathe out, 2. Breathe in, breathe out, 3. Breathe in, breathe out, 4. Breathe in, breathe out, 1. And so on.
This might sound easy, but it can be difficult as our mind has trouble just being in the moment. But remember that it is practice, and does not need to be perfect. Just keep coming back to breath until time is up. I’d love to know if you try this or other methods you use to practice mindfulness. Feel free to post in the comments challenges you have had, as I might have some ideas to help!