What is Mindfulness?
What is mindfulness? Mindfulness, simply defined, is consciously being aware of your current state of being. Practice is necessary to get used to being fully present because it is easy to get swept away in the hustle and bustle of your normal life. To be mindful is to acknowledge and accept your thoughts, your feelings, and your physical sensations. In doing so, you are more connected with what you are directly experiencing which leads you to experience life more pleasantly.
An important aspect of mindfulness is known as “grounding”: the ability to return to the present moment with sustained attention. Grounding is particularly beneficial to combat anxiety, stress, overwhelming feelings, dissociative feelings, and more. Further in this article, there will be an example of grounding activity for you to give a try.
Another aspect of mindfulness is meditation; however, meditation is not necessary in order to be mindful. For those who are comfortable giving it a try, meditation is venturing into one’s own mind and thoughts. Meditation can be guided (following prompts) or it can be free meditation.
Another important concept in mindfulness is acceptance instead of judgment. Lots of times, you may not know exactly how often you pass judgment on yourself because it is so natural, but with mindfulness, you learn to accept your thoughts as thoughts that you have without going the extra step of deciding that they are “good” or they are “bad.” With mindfulness, you also learn to accept your current situation without always needing to label it “good” or “bad.”
Using Mindfulness as a Tool in My Own Life
A personal example I have of attempting to practice this radical acceptance was just a few days ago when I was woken up in the middle of the night by loud thunder. Laying in bed awake listening to the booms of thunder and seeing the flashes of lightning, my immediate reaction was to start to feel anxious thinking about the long day I had ahead of me at my social work job, how tired I would be if I could not go back to sleep right that moment, feeling annoyed at the storm for waking me up, and more. You know how thought patterns like that go in the middle of the night. After a few minutes, I remembered mindfulness and thought I should go ahead and give it a try at that moment (I mean, what else did I have to do in the middle of the night?). The anxious thoughts I was having were not reality; they were just thoughts, so I needed to get back to reality.
First, I just listened to the thunder. By paying attention to what I was hearing, I noticed the distinct patter of the rain hitting the trees outside and the whoosh of the wind through the branches. I had not distinguished either of these before when I was caught up in my anxious mind; it was actually quite beautiful when I took the time to really listen.
Moving onto physical sensations, I noticed how pleasantly warm I was wrapped up in my favorite fuzzy blanket. I noticed my pillow had the perfect amount of cush. I was quite comfortable.
Taking the time to be consciously aware of the present moment brought a sense of peace that my anxious thoughts, had I let them continue, would never have granted me.
After grounding myself, I tried to practice some radical acceptance. Sure, being kept awake when you have a big day looming ahead would not be anyone’s first choice, but as I lay there, I told myself, “I am awake now and that is okay. I may be tired tomorrow but that is also okay.” Understanding that circumstances are not the end of the world and attempting to accept them just as they are is tough; that is why mindfulness is a practice.
Working to peacefully accept my circumstances that night that I was kept awake went against every pattern my brain is used to following, but it did make both that night and the next day much more pleasant to experience. Honestly, I was tired the next day. But I was fine with that.
Why is Mindfulness Beneficial?
Mindfulness began being researched at a larger scale in the Western world in the 1970s, though mindful practices have existed long before that in Buddhism. In the United States, the use of mindfulness in the therapeutic world is actively expanding, as is the research showing benefits of practicing mindfulness. Research has shown that mindfulness can improve cognitive ability and slow brain aging.
Benefits of mindfulness include:
- Improving cognitive ability
- Slowing brain aging
- Reducing stress, anxiety, and depression symptoms
- Increasing a sense of well-being
- Helping with pain management
Mindful Habits to Incorporate into Your Life
One of the fun parts about mindfulness is that you can be mindful without changing any of your daily routine. Obviously, there are also fun, creative ways to help get your brain used to being mindful; however, some of the easiest mindful activities are those that are already incorporated into your life.
The first couple of times that you try to purposefully, mindfully breathe, it will be difficult. That is alright – still try. Obviously, you breathe all throughout the day, but you can choose anytime you want to be mindful about it; a good starting point may be right after you wake up or right before you head to sleep.
- Place yourself in a comfortable, relaxed position.
- Spend a few moments noticing how you physically feel. Which parts of your body do you notice?
- Breathe in very slowly and deeply through your nose. Concentrate on inflating your entire lungs.
- Hold your breath for a moment.
- Breathe out slowly through your mouth.
- Repeat slowly for as long as you would like.
Sometimes, mindfully deep breathing can be difficult, especially if you are not used to or not comfortable with being slow and still.
Tips for Success:
- Use the 4-7-8 Method: breathe in for four seconds, hold for seven seconds, exhale for eight seconds.
- It’s okay if distracting thoughts come into your mind. Acknowledge them, then redirect your focus back to your breathing.
- To help focus, place one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach. Pay attention to how they move as you breathe. Your belly hand should be moving more than your chest hand for the most relaxing breathing.
Having meals is an integral part of anyone’s day and enjoying beauty in the mundane is an integral aspect of mindfulness. Taking the extra awareness to slow down, turn off autopilot, and mindfully complete daily tasks are wonderful ways to practice mindfulness. Not to mention, eating is a task that incorporates all five of the senses: sight, sound, touch, smell, and definitely taste. Practice grounding yourself while eating, being acutely aware of what you see, what you smell, what you taste, and how it feels. As eating is a necessity in everyday life, it is a perfect activity to begin practicing mindfulness during because you will be getting daily mindfulness practice.
Going for a walk of any kind has many benefits as you breathe fresh air, get your heart rate up and blood flowing, and you often feel more mentally clear after taking some time to yourself. Walking for the purpose of mindfulness is very similar to just going on an ordinary walk, but you will take the time to be presently aware of where you are, how you feel, and what your environment consists of. Often lots of thinking occurs on a walk; pay attention to your thoughts and let them pass through your mind without a “good” or “bad” judgment. Accept the thoughts as what they are – just what you are thinking at that moment.
Every moment is a chance to be present, no matter how routine and mundane it may feel. To be mindful while commuting may be to practice radical acceptance, even if you got cut off just a moment ago and now you are stuck behind a driver going well under the speed limit. Instead of allowing your situation to increase your agitation, leading you to enter your workday or return home full of irritation, you can acknowledge that this traffic will not last forever. It will usually take more than a few tries for you to be able to truly accept what is just as it is, especially on those days where it seems the world is out to get you on your trip to work. However, practicing acceptance helps strengthen your emotional regulation, aids in stress reduction, and honestly just makes your experience more pleasant to experience.
Your commute may also be a great time to practice grounding yourself. Take notice of the physical sensations you feel, the sights you observe, and the sounds of your environment around you. Do you taste anything? Do you smell anything?
Mentioned in the introduction to this article, grounding is the ability to return to your present moment with sustained attention. Grounding is helpful when someone is in a moment outside of the present (i.e. overcome with an uncomfortable emotion, feeling strong anxiety and/or panic, struggling with dissociative symptoms, or even just working in autopilot for too long). One of the most common grounding techniques is the 5-4-3-2-1 Grounding Technique. Step one is to regain control of your breath (see “Breath” section for more tips there). Once your breath is under control, the challenge is to bring your mind into your current moment by finding and acknowledging:
- 5 Things you are seeing
- 4 Things you are touching
- 3 Things you are hearing
- 2 Things you are smelling
- And 1 Thing you are tasting
By slowing down and focusing mental energy on the here-and-now, you may find that it is easier to regain control of a racing mind.
Overall, remember to have grace with yourself when giving the practice of mindfulness a try. Being slow, observant, and accepting often takes quite a bit of effort in the beginning as it goes against much of how you may be used to living. However, each time you put the effort in to be mindful, you are making your brain that much more used to mindfulness and you are getting better at it day by day. Baby steps are steps and I am cheering you along for yours.