You cannot open a magazine or your browser these days without bumping into an article about mindfulness. An ancient meditation practice that was once the realm of monks and saints is now all the rage. Practitioners are using it for everything from finding success at work to managing back pain to losing weight to fixing their marriage. We even found examples of mindfulness practices in the military. What gives? How can so many people from so many different walks of life endorse the same practice? What is mindfulness and why should I care?
Mr. Google defines mindfulness as “a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.” Simply put, mindfulness means paying attention. This is something we learned how to do in second grade, right? Almost.
Mindfulness is more than just sitting still, not passing notes in class, or whispering behind the teacher’s back. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the famous teacher of mindfulness meditation and the founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, describes the practice:
We sometimes talk about “mindfulness” and “awareness” as if they were interchangeable terms, but that’s not a good habit to get into. I may be aware I’m irritable, but that wouldn’t mean I was being mindful of my irritability. In order to be mindful I have to be purposefully aware of myself, not just vaguely and habitually aware. Knowing that you are eating is not the same as eating mindfully.
Let’s take that example of eating and look at it a bit further. When we are purposefully aware of eating, we are consciously being aware of the process of eating. We’re deliberately noticing the sensations and our responses to those sensations. We’re noticing the mind wandering, and when it does wander we purposefully bring our attention back.
When we’re eating unmindfully we may in theory be aware of what we’re doing, but we’re probably thinking about a hundred and one other things at the same time, and we may also be watching TV, talking, or reading — or even all three! So a very small part of our awareness is absorbed with eating, and we may be only barely aware of the physical sensations and even less aware of our thoughts and emotions.
So mindfulness means not simply paying attention, but actively paying attention. That makes sense. It doesn’t even sound that cosmic or inaccessible.
In fact, it isn’t. Here are four simple things you can do to bring more mindfulness into your life:
- Breathe – Pay attention to your breath. It is entirely yours and it is always available to you. Notice it coming in and going out. “Just recognize: this is an in-breath, this is an out-breath. Very simple, very easy. In order to recognize your in-breath as in-breath, you have to bring your mind home to yourself. What is recognizing your in-breath is your mind, and the object of your mind—the object of your mindfulness—is the in-breath. Mindfulness is always mindful of something. When you drink your tea mindfully, it’s called mindfulness of drinking. When you walk mindfully, it’s called mindfulness of walking. And when you breathe mindfully, that is mindfulness of breathing.” (from Thich Nhat Hanh, http://www.mindful.org/five-steps-to-mindfulness/)
- Be aware of your body – Notice where you hold tension in your body. Even more important, notice where you don’t! Once you start to notice how your body reacts to certain circumstances or stresses, you’ll start to be able predict its response. Eventually you’ll begin automatically to tend toward more beneficial responses.
- Let go of tension – This is easier said than done, but once you notice things that cause your brow to furl or your shoulders to tighten, see if you can release that tension by doing physical things like releasing the furl in your brow, letting your shoulders down, and taking deep breath. The breath has a lot of power – you can harness that power for stress relief.
- Be grateful – Gratitude has been scientifically proven to increase happiness. Take note of the things for which you are grateful – even the little things like that cup of coffee or that sip of Blossom Water. Keep a little notebook in your pocket. Take a minute to list the things that help you be your best self. Your list can be as simple or as detailed as you like. The practice of making this list helps you begin to notice more and more the things that make you feel gratitude. That noticing is mindfulness!
Whether you use these simple mindfulness techniques for your job, your back, or your marriage is up to you.