I first heard of ”mindfulness” a few years ago, when a friend of mine went to a retreat. While he made it look appealing and interesting, I had no clue what mindfulness was exactly.
I was into yoga since my early teens but meditation was never really my thing. I’m usually all over the place, overdoing everything and juggling a dozen tasks at a time. 30 minutes of doing nothing? That was utterly absurd for me back then.
That ”absurd” 30-minute doing nothing is now a daily routine for me, and I have to say it has changed my life in so many ways.
The most amazing part about mindfulness is the way it works with people who are not really into it or even dislike meditation. For example, you can use mindfulness when taking care of your plants, while cooking, or even while taking a shower.
For me, mindfulness is not only a technique but also served as a transition to meditation, a way to feel more aware in everyday life. It has helped me become more present, allowing me to experience what is going on right now instead of thinking about the past or the future.
Mindfulness has also helped me become more tuned in to my body and how it’s feeling, which has been a huge help in sports.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is not a religion and is in no way connected with any religious practices. Mindfulness simply means being aware of what you do and responding to your emotions, not reacting to them without thinking.
Mindfulness, at its core, is the quality of awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally. Mindfulness has recently become popularized by clinicians promoting it as an important component of health and well-being. Some clinical studies show mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) to be helpful in reducing stress, improving mood states, increasing self-efficacy, decreasing anxiety, depression, chronic pain, and overall health. Mindfulness-based interventions are not just for individuals who are sick or experiencing difficulties in life. The benefits of practicing these techniques have been shown to be helpful to anyone, including children and healthy adults. Mindfulness can potentially improve the quality of life in a variety of settings.
What we call mindfulness nowadays started in the late 70s when Jon Kabat-Zinn created the mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. While teaching a stress reduction class, Kabat-Zinn was struck by how difficult it was for the majority of the participants to sit still and turn their attention inward.
In MBSR, mindfulness is taught as a skill, or ”capacity,” that can be developed through specific training in meditation practices. In this context, mindfulness is not perceived as a trait of consciousness that allows a person to live a life free from worry and full of attention.
Instead, mindfulness is seen as a mental state cultivated through meditation practice. In this context, mindfulness means being aware of each moment. Mindfulness skills can be learned easily and then practiced in everyday life.
What is mindfulness practice?
The formal practice of mindfulness consists of a number of techniques that help an individual develop their awareness by paying attention while focusing on the breath, sensations, thoughts, emotions, or a specific object. There are several different techniques for practicing mindfulness meditation such as: sitting with eyes closed and focusing on breathing; standing and focusing on the sensation of feet touching the ground; taking slow, intentional steps while mindfully walking outside; or simply lying down and paying attention to your entire body from head to toe – noticing where you feel tension and/or tightness in your muscles and then releasing the tension. Mindful yoga is another growing trend that combines basic mindfulness practices with certain traditional yoga poses. Yoga allows for increased awareness of an individual’s body, breathing patterns, and how these things are affected by stress, anxiety, or even physical pain.
What are some benefits of practicing mindfulness?
The overall goal of mindfulness-based practices is to foster adaptive qualities such as better emotion regulation skills, improved interpersonal functioning, enhanced attentional control/concentration ability, more compassion towards oneself and others, less rumination on the past or worry about future events/experiences, higher self-esteem, less negative thinking (e.g., black-and-white thinking), greater acceptance of all emotions including anger & sadness rather than reacting to them, and a greater ability to focus attention on the present moment rather than worrying about what has already happened or will happen in the future. This leads to a more clear consciousness and a better sense of overall well-being/health for an individual.
Mindfulness practices can show significant improvement in anxiety symptoms, depression symptoms, mental health-related quality of life, self-esteem, rumination (focus on negative thinking), distress tolerance levels (i.e., difficulties tolerating painful or difficult situations), and overall psychological flexibility (i.e., the ability to adapt well in different types of stress and difficult situations). Clinical trials have shown mindfulness-based interventions to be effective in reducing psychological symptoms such as anxiety, depression, and chronic pain. In addition, MBIs can also help improve overall health and levels of satisfaction with life (eudemonic well-being).
Mindfulness can be beneficial for a wide range of people including children, adolescents, college students, adults in the workplace, veterans with PTSD or other trauma experienced during combat roles/deployments, patients recovering from cancer or other chronic illnesses such as autoimmune diseases (like rheumatoid arthritis), elderly individuals living with age-related memory impairment issues (Alzheimer’s disease), and individuals suffering from a wide range of mental health difficulties – eating disorders, addiction issues, mood/anxiety disorders (bipolar disorder or generalized anxiety disorder), autism spectrum disorder characteristics, and so many more.
In addition to the benefits listed above, mindfulness has been found to increase cognitive flexibility, an individual’s ability to shift thinking when necessary instead of getting stuck on one train of thought. In other words, people who experience rumination or repetitive negative thoughts may learn how to shift their focus onto something more positive instead of allowing those obsessive negative thoughts to take over their minds and dominate their consciousness. Mindfulness helps us tap into our experiences in a deeper way so we can become more aware of what is really going on inside ourselves; this allows us to make conscious decisions about how we want to respond or react in different types of stressful situations instead of letting our emotions (anxiety, anger, sadness) dictate our thoughts and behaviors without any conscious participation on our side.
There are many types of mindfulness practices available including Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), Mindfulness-Based Eating Awareness Training (MB-EAT), Mindful Self-Compassion Program, Kirtan Kriya Meditation, Yoga Nidra meditation… the list goes on and on. There are so many different programs available because mindfulness takes a slightly different form depending on the individual practicing it, their specific problems or difficulties, and their personal goals for practicing mindfulness. Some people may find that practicing yoga is the best way to tap into their inner self and become more mindful of their physical self and surroundings, whereas others may prefer sitting down in a quiet room with gentle instrumental background music to guide them into deeper mindfulness meditation. It is important to find the mindfulness techniques that work best for you, and which you can consistently practice daily.
How to get started with mindfulness
There are many different apps that can guide you through your first mindful meditation. Some of these apps rely on guided meditations while others may be more flexible and work with whatever style of meditation you prefer. Some examples of mindful mediation apps include:
The Calm app is based on mindfulness training and provides many great guided meditations, sleep stories, breathing exercises… in a word – all the things a beginner needs in order to get started with mindfulness.
Headspace is another great resource for beginners looking to try out mindful meditation. Headspace can be downloaded for free on Apple or Android devices and provides tons of great information about the benefits of mindfulness, how to become more mindful, and includes a great library of guided meditations to get you started.
Headspace Guide on Meditation on Netflix
Another great thing about Headspace is that it has teamed up with Netflix and produced a series of ten short videos dedicated to demonstrating the benefits of mindfulness and how to become more mindful. This is also a great resource for beginners but may be a bit too basic for those already familiar with mindfulness mediation.
The Mindfulness App
This app is a free download and can be used on both Apple and Android devices. This particular app allows users to create a personalized mindfulness program based on what type of meditation works best for them as well as their preferred areas of focus.
Mindfulness takes some time and practice to master, but once you get the hang of it, it’s very simple and easy to do. You can perform meditation for one minute or ten minutes depending on your schedule/time constraints. If you are brand new to meditation it might be best to start with a few minutes at a time until you get used to how your body feels during the process. The most effective way to meditate is in a quiet space where there are no distractions or interruptions (e.g., cell phone notifications).
One example of mindfulness meditation involves focusing on the breath by breathing slowly in through your nose for two counts, holding your breath for two counts, then exhaling slowly through your nose for two counts. This may seem really simple, but it can be very challenging to maintain focus on the breath as most people will inevitably find their mind wandering from those two count holds and wavering back and forth as they try to perform this relaxing breathing technique. Once you notice that your mind has wandered away from the breathing process, all you have to do is refocus on your breath again by bringing awareness back into your body/mind experience. There are no rules surrounding how often to breathe in or out during meditation; it all depends on what feels best for each individual person’s unique body/mind system.
There are many different styles of mindful meditations that involve paying attention to emotions, thoughts, feelings in our bodies, or what is going on in our environment (e.g., sounds, smells). Mindfulness does not require any specific type of meditation to get started; you can try them all and find the ones that work best for your unique body/mind system. You may even end up liking different types of meditations for different purposes; some people like to use sitting and walking meditations for relaxation and de-stressing while others like to use meditations involving their breath during times when they’re feeling anxious or panicked about something… There are absolutely no rules when it comes to practicing mindfulness!
In addition to the physical components used in mindful meditation, there are also three important parts of learning how to practice mindfulness: observing, describing, and participating. Observing means you’re bringing awareness into your body/mind experience and noticing whatever emotions, thoughts, or physical sensations are going on at the moment without judgment. Describing involves putting words to those types of experiences so you can label them in a way that makes sense for you (e.g., “I feel anxious”). Participating simply means becoming fully present with whatever experience is occurring in your body/mind right now instead of trying to avoid, escape from, fight against, or numb out from it.
Alternative mindfulness techniques
If mindfulness techniques don’t work for you there are many different alternatives available as well: deep breathing exercises, yoga, meditation apps, progressive muscle relaxation, guided imagery exercises… These alternatives may take a little more time and effort than mindfulness techniques, but if you learn how to practice any of these and it helps improve your overall mood, energy level, and self-esteem then those extra few minutes spent learning the alternative technique are well worth the time.
Creating a mindfulness practice
The most important thing when creating a mindfulness practice is to do whatever works for you and your unique body/mind system. If a particular type of mindfulness technique doesn’t work then don’t force yourself to continue trying it if it isn’t making you feel better in some way. There are so many different ways to approach mindfulness… The best way is the one that fits comfortably with how you live your life on a day-to-day basis, not what someone else thinks would be the “best” or “most effective” kind of mindful meditation for you to use.
How long should my mindfulness sessions be?
There’s no right or wrong answer here since there really isn’t any “rule” regarding how long you should practice mindfulness. It all depends on what you find works best for your unique body/mind system, which is why it’s so important to keep an open mind and remember that there really aren’t any rules when it comes to meditating. If you want to give yourself a time limit for practicing mindfulness then somewhere between five and twenty minutes of uninterrupted mindful meditation time each day is a good range to try. But how long your sessions actually last will depend on what happens during them (if you’re enjoying the process then the session might end before you want it to; if you get distracted or feel like quitting then the session may end sooner than expected).
I first started with 1 minute. Yes, one! And I barely made it to the minute. At first, I only wanted to do mindfulness for very short periods of time, with no real plan or expectations about how I should be doing this. I just wanted to see if mindfulness was something that might help me with my anxiety, and one minute didn’t seem like much of a time commitment.
Now I need to set a timer so I don’t get too carried away. I try to make as much time as I can for mindfulness and meditation, and I do it every day. I still start off with only one to five minutes, but once I warm up I usually go for between twenty and forty minutes.
I found that I get distracted or my mind wanders after only a few minutes. If you’re like me and you find it difficult to sit still without getting distracted or wanting to stop then the best solution is to simply sit for shorter, more frequent sessions throughout your day. That way, instead of getting frustrated with yourself if you lapse into a daydream after five minutes, you can simply redirect your attention back to the present moment and refocus on the activity you were doing before your mind wandered.
It’s only natural for a human mind to wander. Distracting thoughts and feelings are going to happen no matter how much you try to resist them or control your experience at the moment. It’s best just to accept these things when they happen, refocus on what you’re doing, then continue practicing mindfulness whenever you get another chance.
To create a solid foundation for practicing mindfulness it helps to start with one minute of uninterrupted mindful meditation at least once per day. Once this becomes comfortable for you then slowly build up from there adding more time or making some changes so that new situations can be handled in a healthy way while old ones gradually fade away as new habits take their place.
You don’t have to clear your entire schedule if that doesn’t work for you. Give yourself at least five minutes of undistracted mindfulness time each day, then build on this as you feel comfortable with the practice.
Once you have a good foundation for practicing mindfulness, adding some variety to your sessions will help keep things interesting and more fun so that you can really enjoy what it feels like to be fully present at this moment, right now.