Chances are you’ve heard or read this word at least once in the past couple years, and probably more often than that. But what is it? Why is it so frequently discussed?
Well, simply put, mindfulness is all about taking a deep breath, slowing down and calmly observing either the world around you or the internal world of your own mind. It’s not a complex concept, even if it’s sometimes described in complex terms.
By focusing on the world around you, or by paying attention to your breath as it moves in and out, you practice moving “outside” of your own tangled thought patterns and thereby reduce stress. Think of it as a form of “mind management,” one that most of us can’t afford to go without.
The Evidence for Mindfulness
The above sounds all well and good in theory, but does mindfulness work in practice? It does, actually!
There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence: people you meet who have reduced stress through meditating or doing yoga regularly and rave to you about it. However, as general interest in mindfulness has increased over the years, so too has academic interest.
One large study, performed at Johns Hopkins University back in 2014, sifted through more than 19,000 previous meditation studies. The team narrowed those studies down to 47 high-quality ones relevant to their question. The study ultimately determined that mindfulness meditation is beneficial for psychological conditions such as anxiety and depression.
Another study published in the Journal of Research and Personality in 2016 determined that mindfulness allows for an “adaptive response” to situations that cause stress in our day-to-day lives.
Mindfulness has further been shown to increase cognitive flexibility and improve the ability to concentrate.
Chronic stress, of course, is poor for our overall bodily health, meaning the stress reduction provided through mindfulness can help our physical health as well.
One study looked at people with prehypertension. All participants received the same drug treatment but were split into two groups. The first group tried out progressive-muscle relaxation, while the second took up a mindfulness meditation practice. The mindfulness meditation group saw decreased blood pressure compared to the group that had taken up progressive muscle relaxation.
So, maybe you’re convinced by all of this and want to give mindfulness a try, but how do you “do” it?
Well, there are at least two ways of exercising your “mindfulness muscles.” One is by being mindful throughout your day or at select moments, and the other is by practicing mindfulness exercises like meditation, yoga or tai chi. Of course, you can combine both modes if you wish.
How to Live Mindfully
To live mindfully, you must first apply “mind-setting” to adopt a mindful attitude. A mindful attitude is one where you do your best to focus only on the present. Don’t worry about the past or future, but only now.
You can do almost everything mindfully: You can go for a walk mindfully, listening to the sounds of the birds chirping or the wind blowing through the breeze. These may be sounds you haven’t really noticed in some time! By paying attention to these things, you are practicing mindfulness
Cooking mindfully is another possibility. Bring your attention to the vegetables as you cut them, or the soup as you stir. It may sound silly but, if you give this kind of thing a try, you may notice yourself feeling more relaxed or looking at the world in a bit of a different way.
You can listen to music mindfully, or watch a flickering candle flame mindfully.
These are just some of the ways mindfulness can be adopted as a way of living and begin suffusing your life with a sense of calm.
How to Exercise Mindfulness Through Meditation
Mindfulness meditation actually isn’t some strange, esoteric thing. All it requires is focusing on your breath! Of course, as you’ll learn, this is a lot easier said than done.
First, find a quiet spot where you’ll be able to meditate without interruption. If you have family members or roommates sharing your home with you, tell them not to bother you unless it’s an emergency.
Next, sit either on the floor with back support (for example, against your bed) or on a chair with firm support. “Firm” is important: You don’t really want to use a chair you can lean into, for example. For the same reasons, you don’t want to lay down. What are those reasons?
Well, although one of the side effects of meditation is calm, the goal while you’re doing it is to try to focus, and that means staying in an upright position and, more importantly, staying awake!
Once you are firmly seated, close your eyes.
Now, notice your breath moving in and out. Don’t try to regulate it – rather, let it come and go naturally.
There are two spots where you can clearly notice your breathing exiting and entering the body
The first is the diaphragm, which is the muscle towards the top of your abdomen, above your belly button, that contracts as you breathe in and relaxes as you breathe out.
The second is your nostrils, where you can feel air moving in and out.
Choose an area to focus on and attempt to do this for five to ten minutes (set a timer).
This is mindfulness meditation. As you go, you’ll notice that you become very easily distracted from the point you’ve chosen to focus on, but that’s ok. What you do when thoughts pop up is simply notice them, without judgment, and gently redirect your attention to your breath.
You’ll get better and better as you go, but don’t strive to relax. One of the paradoxes of emotion – one that meditation “understands” and works with – is that if you try to feel a certain way, you won’t feel that way. If you try to feel relaxed, you’ll only stress yourself out. So make your only goal focusing on the breath. Relaxation will come on its own.
Be sure to meditate around the same time each day, in the same spot, and for the same length of time. Give it a couple of weeks to “get into the groove” and you’ll soon see how such a simple thing can benefit your life.
Mindfulness can help you in various areas of your life, and it’s worth giving it an honest try, whether that’s through simply slowing down and noticing the world around you or taking up a meditation practice. Both (along with yoga or tai chi) make excellent mindfulness activities for beginners and advanced mindfulness practitioners.
Perhaps you feel you just don’t have enough time to sit and essentially do nothing for 10 minutes a day. But if that’s the case, you’re probably exactly the kind of person who could benefit from giving it a shot!
Remember to check out some of the many books available on mindfulness, specifically those by Jon Kabat-Zinn (the man who invented the program of “mindfulness-based stress reduction back in the 1970s), and the many free Internet resources available on YouTube and beyond.