“Mindfulness” is a term that people throw around a lot these days. With so much out there, it can be hard to understand exactly what mindfulness is and where it fits into your life. Believe it or not, mindfulness can help with everything from work-life balance to time management to breaking negative thought patterns.
Because it’s such a useful skill, I thought I’d break it down a little in this introduction to mindfulness.
Mindfulness can be defined in a lot of different ways. Most definitions agree that mindfulness is a skill that involves being thoughtfully aware of ourselves—including our feelings, thoughts, and actions—in the present moment, regardless of what we are doing or where we are.
Mindfulness places an emphasis on observation rather than judgement.
This skill isn’t reserved for enlightened monks or people who do yoga every morning (though it’s likely that those people practice mindfulness as well). It’s not necessarily rooted in religious practice or any sort of mysticism.
Mindfulness is for everyone and anyone regardless of age or background. It’s a habit that you and I can work on, and that you can strengthen over time through practice. It’s a physical and mental skill—a muscle we all have and that we all can train.
So, you may be thinking, how do I go about practicing mindfulness?
There are many different ways to practice mindfulness. In this introduction to mindfulness, I’ll cover a range of them and how you can work these practices into your day to day life.
Any introduction to mindfulness would be incomplete without a section on meditation. Right off the bat, you should know that meditation lies at the core of most mindfulness practices.
The term “meditation” can sometimes be intimidating. Most of us are used to functioning on autopilot. We react and create and emote without actually being conscious of the choices we’re making. Because of this predisposition, the concept of meditation feels like an impossibility.
You may have even tried meditation before, in one form or another, and gave up after finding it difficult. This makes sense, since meditation can go against the grain for most of us.
However—as with most things—the key is persistence.
At first, you may find it hard to be physically still, or to not berate yourself for errant thoughts when practicing meditation, but that’s okay. Everyone moves at a different pace when learning new things and meditation is no different.
I’ll quickly go over some tips for good meditation practice, but you can find a much more detailed guide here if you want to know more.
People are quick to get caught up in the mental aspect of meditation, but the fact of the matter is that meditation is deeply involved with your body as well. Your body’s responses to stimuli are key in understanding how to calm yourself and create a state of mindfulness.
Because of this, you should ensure that you have a stable, comfortable position when practicing seated or prone mediation.
You’ll also want to check your posture and adjust it according to what you find comfortable and grounding. Here are some more tips on readying your body for meditation.
When you first start out, you might find it easier to practice meditation in a quiet, still environment.
With our busy lives full of commutes, kids, pets, and technology that can be almost impossible for many to find. Because meditation focuses on awareness, it’s okay if there is background noise in your space or even people moving around you.
You can practice meditation at your desk during your lunch break or at your kitchen table while your dinner is cooking. You don’t have to be seated in front of a garden pond to make progress with your meditation practice.
One of the most important things to remember when it comes to beginning meditation practice is to keep going.
You might find your mind wandering quite frequently or notice that it’s difficult for you to sit or lay still for any period of time. That’s okay! You can see from these habits just how necessary it is for you to continue forward with your mindfulness journey.
It’ll probably be tough at first and you might get discouraged. But like any skill, you’ll find it easier with consistent practice.
You might feel overwhelmed by the idea of beginning your mindfulness practice and not know where to start. Here are a few exercises that don’t take much time and that are easy to do almost anywhere. These are only a few examples of the many, many mindfulness exercises that you can easily work into your daily routine.
Without thinking about it, we’re often breathing very shallowly and quickly, putting our body on edge. Mindful breathing can calm the body and help relax any tension you may be experiencing.
Take a moment and do a “check-in” on your body and mind with this quick breathing exercise.
After a few minutes of this, you should find yourself grounded and ready to focus on the task at hand.
Practicing gratitude is a simple way to inject mindfulness into your day. I wrote before about the power of gratitude in breaking negative thought patterns, but it can also contribute to your overall mindfulness.
Try writing down a list of things you are grateful for in the present moment. These things can be as simple as the chair on which you sit or as grand as the connection you have to a close family member. It’s a good idea to focus on things you normally take for granted, as that encourages the kind of awareness inherent in mindfulness.
After you have your list, consider all of the things that went into the function of these things. The mindfulness coach Alfred James writes on this exercise:
“For example: electricity powers your kettle, the postman delivers your mail, your clothes provide you warmth, your nose lets you smell the flowers in the park, your ears let you hear the birds in the tree by the bus stop, but…Do you know how these things/processes came to exist, or how they really work? Have you ever properly acknowledged how these things benefit your life and the lives of others? Have you ever thought about what life might be like without these things? Have you ever stopped to notice their finer, more intricate details? Have you ever sat down and thought about the relationships between these things and how together they play an interconnected role in the functioning of the earth?”
It’s likely that you haven’t asked yourself these questions before. Contemplating the things you appreciate in greater detail will lead to a higher level of contentment in general.
It’s easy to forget all of the things you don’t have when you are fully aware of the things you do have.
The Body Scan is one of the first mindfulness exercises I ever did. This one is easy to do before bedtime, as it is an exercise you can do while laying down.
First, whether you are sitting or laying down, get comfortable. It is necessary that you do your best to remain very still throughout the exercise. If you must move, do it as sparingly as possible.
Next, you’ll begin by noticing your breath. You shouldn’t try to change anything about your breathing right off the bat, though it might feel instinctual to adjust once you’re paying attention. You simply want to be aware of your breath coming in and going out.
After you have spent some time focused on your breath, it is time to shift your awareness to your body. Take note of the way different textures feel against your skin, and anywhere you might feel pressure or discomfort. Do your best to simply notice these things.
Next, move onto a more specific scan. Allow your awareness to slowly travel from the tips of your toes up to your head. You want to take your time with this. The more detailed your scan, the better.
The body scan is a great starting place for mindfulness practice because we often take our bodies for granted. It’s easy to ignore hunger, or the need for sleep, or physical discomfort when you’re checked out of the moment and busy worrying about whether or not you locked your car this morning (if you were being mindful at the time, you’d know!).
This introduction to mindfulness would be remiss if we didn’t talk about all the ways mindfulness can have a positive impact on your life.
While it’s not helpful to your practice to spend too much time focusing on the perks of being mindful, there are proven benefits to choosing to practice mindfulness. Some of these include:
A 2010 analysis of 39 studies on mindfulness as stress-reduction and cognitive therapy concluded there is evidence that mindfulness meditation increases positivity while decreasing negativity and anxiety.
In a study conducted in 2010, researchers found that subjects who were placed in an eight-week mindfulness program experienced a change in their neural activity after watching sad movies.
They watched the films and fMRIs assessed their neural activity before their mindfulness training and afterwards. After the eight weeks the group that went through mindfulness training showed a decrease in neural activity and different kinds of neural activity when compared to the control group.
They also appeared to handle emotion differently, which suggests that mindfulness improved the subjects’ ability to regulate their emotions and even experience emotion selectively.
We tend to ruminate on negative thoughts, going over situations or possibilities over and over. This habit contributes to our anxiety levels.
Mindfulness, however, can counter that. By being in the present moment, you are already reducing the amount of time you spend worrying about something that happened yesterday or something that may (or may not!) happen tomorrow.
Mindfulness appears to encourage improvements to working memory. When you’re focusing on what you’re doing, your full attention is on the task at hand. This means fewer panicked moments of looking for your keys when you’re already running late.
Mindfulness exercises also seem to help people focus their attention and block out distractions. You’re training your brain to be in the here and now rather than the there and then.
Mindfulness practice encourages the ability to control emotional reactivity. This means that you are less likely to fly off the handle when confronted with a frustrating situation and that you can calm yourself down before something that might make you nervous.
You could also be more comfortable communicating your emotions and needs with those around you. This fosters healthier relationships. Mindfulness helps you assess your feelings and be responsive and measured during conflicts. This is thanks to the ability to remove yourself from your gut reactions.
There are a myriad of other benefits that those who practice mindfulness have reported. Daphne M. Davis, PhD, and Jeffrey A. Hayes, PhD write, “Mindfulness has been shown to enhance self-insight, morality, intuition and fear modulation, all functions associated with the brain’s middle prefrontal lobe area.” Basically, you can be a more fulfilled and self-aware person through mindfulness practice.
I’ve written before about the many apps and websites available for helping you practice mindfulness.
All of these resources are low-cost or free. If you’d like to experiment with mindfulness and guided meditation before you commit to an app, you can find thousands of guided meditations and mindfulness exercises on Youtube.
The beauty of mindfulness is that it’s accessible and useful to any and everyone. Whether you’re a busy parent who wants to feel more present for their kids or a young adult trying to climb a corporate ladder, mindfulness can help you center yourself and experience life to the fullest. Plus, scaling back on reactivity and pushing for a higher level of gratitude and presence is probably a good idea for most of us.
This introduction to mindfulness is only a small look at a big concept. If you feel that mindfulness has a place in your life, you can start right here, right now.
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After graduating from law school and passing the bar, I struggled to find work, pay my bills, and make ends meet. That's when I decided to take control of my future and start working for myself. Now, several years and a handful of companies later, I'm sharing how I launched a successful business, and how you can do it too.