What is mindfulness?
You’ve probably heard about mindfulness in the last couple of years. It’s been appearing in popular publications and growing in popularity as a recommended treatment for everything from pain and insomnia to parenting and depression.
It may seem like a new and trendy self-help practice. However, mindfulness is a phenomenon that has been around for thousands of years and stems from Eastern traditions of meditation. Mindfulness is scientifically proven to improve upon emotional and physical wellness.
What is it really? Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention, non-judgmentally, to what is happening. It’s a simple concept; however, like any new skill, requires practice—just like healthy eating and exercise require time and repetition.
Mindfulness is helpful in decreasing depression and anxiety, lowering blood pressure and heart rate, and increasing concentration and focus. Unlike other meditation practices, mindfulness meditation invites you to allow your thoughts and feelings to come and go, and to honor them without attachment.
Imagine lying in the grass on a summer day, your thoughts as puffy clouds passing over. You see them. You observe and even describe them. But ultimately, you let go without clinging to them.
Why practice mindfulness?
Studies have shown that as little as 5 minutes a day of mindfulness meditation can be beneficial for lowering stress and increasing happiness. It is important to start with a short amount and increase gradually over time. I practice 10-15 minutes a day, but some days, that is a challenge and then practicing the skill of non-judgment, I try to be satisfied with 5 minutes.
How do I practice mindfulness?
To practice a breathing mindfulness meditation you’ll need to have a timer, whether it’s the timer on your phone, your microwave, or even an old-fashioned oven timer from the kitchen. Again, start with 3 to 5 minutes, and do the following:
- Find a comfortable spot away from distractions (family members, coworkers, pets, etc.).
- Lie down or take a comfortable seat with an upright but relaxed posture.
- Have your feet flat on the floor.
- You’ll be using your 5 senses to keep you present from moment to moment. Usually the breath is an ideal anchor for focused attention, because you carry it everywhere you go and it is always ready.
- Focus on the different sensations in your body and describe what you are feeling. Maybe there is hotness, or coldness, tingling, or vibrating.
- Your mind will, of course, float away to planning for the future or remembering the past. This is perfectly normal. All minds do this. Once you’ve realized this has happened, gently guide your mind back to your breath. It’s easy to beat yourself up about your mind drifting away. But treat yourself with the same kindness that you would offer your best friend or a puppy.
- Often when we have thoughts or feelings, we label them with the value of “good” or “bad.” This is something most of us do throughout our day; however, it can cause us great distress. For example, “I just thought about the end of my marriage—now I feel sad; I don’t want to think about that” or “I just remembered I have to pay my rent, and I’m worried if I have enough money.” However, teaching our brains to stay in the here and now allows us to let go of some of the distress that our thoughts and feelings can cause.
- Once the timer has alerted you that your time is up, I think it’s important to show a sign of appreciation to yourself for setting aside this time to practice.
How is mindfulness used in therapy?
In many cases, people seeking therapy want to make changes in their lives. Often this process, with the support of their therapist, entails self-discovery and self-reflection. Integrating mindfulness into daily life can allow for these self-discoveries and changes in behavior to come more quickly. This is anecdotal evidence; however, I have witnessed this in myself and with many of my clients. Though I’m unsure of all the reasons why mindfulness helps spur insights and supports behavioral change, I have some hypotheses.
For instance, taking 5 minutes a day to simply focus on your breath is like a mini-vacation for your brain. For 5 minutes, you get to take a break from remembering the past or planning for the future. This space to focus on the breath decreases distress, allowing for a sense of relief. Relief begets energy. Energy to change.
Additionally, one large facet of mindfulness is centered around taking a non-judgmental stance towards self and others. Cultivating awareness of our judgments offers an opportunity to notice them, label them, and then allow them to leave, just like the earlier analogy of watching clouds pass over and not attaching to them.
Resources for learning more about mindfulness:
- UCLA Center for Mindfulness offers additional information on mindfulness and also has quality guided meditations that you can ease into, from three minutes on up.
- Happify is a smartphone app and website started by Dan Harris. He shares his own experiences with anxiety and how mindfulness meditation has helped him.
- Stop Breathe Think is an app which offers quality guided meditations. They also have a YouTube channel if you prefer not to use the app.
- Grand Rapids Center for Mindfulness is a West Michigan-based organization that specializes in teaching Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction. I attended their 8-week mindfulness training and found it to be a very positive and influential experience.