What is Mindfulness?
“Mindfulness helps us get better at seeing the difference between what’s happening and the stories we tell ourselves about what’s happening, stories that get in the way of direct experience. Often such stories treat a fleeting state of mind as if it were our entire and permanent self.”
Sharon Salzberg, Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation
Mindfulness helps us experience reality instead of reflections or illusions
The price of mindfulness? A little attention
As you read this sentence, what’s going on around of you and within you? Coworkers are chatting, a TV is on, there’s an ache in your leg, a dog is barking, you’re a little thirsty.
Things are happening around us at all times that are outside of awareness. This is necessary. There’s so much going on in the world that if we took it all in, our brains would probably explode. We need to be selective with our attention.
The thing is, nobody every really taught us how to control that attention. And so we’ve grown up allowing our attention to go wherever it wants, instead of wherever we want it to go.
That’s where mindfulness comes in.
It’s a pretty simple idea: become aware of what you are thinking about, and then use the power of your mind to pay attention to what you want to pay attention to.
Mindfulness can make your whole life better
You don’t have to sit on a cushion in silence, or stare at a candle, or go to a yoga class (although you can if that’s your thing). Mindfulness is a personal practice that can be done however you’d like.
A mindfulness practice could be something you do on the train or while you’re walking, while you’re in public or private, while you’re happy or sad.
Being mindful is about more than just having a practice, though. Mindfulness is a quality that you can cultivate to be happy and successful across your life.
Want to be a healthier eater? It starts with being mindful of what you put in your body.
Want to increase your physical fitness? Be mindful of your activity levels, posture, and exercise routines.
Want to be more productive? Be mindful of how you spend your time and get work done.
Want to be a better lover? Be mindful of your and your partner’s emotions and act accordingly.
Being mindful is a key to a better life. It is a muscle that we build over time to increase our personal power and happiness. It doesn’t happen instantly but rather is cultivated over time. But you can start today, and there are many tools and techniques that can help you make major life improvements quickly.
To learn more about mindfulness, read Mindfulness In Plain English, which is known by many as the bible of mindfulness.
Why practice mindfulness?
Tens of millions of dollars are being invested into mindfulness research and product development at leading universities and organizations around the globe. Mindfulness is among the hottest areas of research in all of psychology and has already been shown to contribute to dramatic improvements in mental and physical health and performance.
Specific benefits of mindfulness include:
1. Stress reduction
When we’re stressed, our bodies release cortisol, a hormone which suppresses our immune system, making us more likely to get sick. And when we are in a constant state of stress, cortisol exhausts our bodies and prevents us from properly regulating our emotions, causing mood swings. This sucks.
The effects of cortisol may explain why – when you’re feeling overwhelmed – it is easy to get irritable with your friends, family, and coworkers.
But rather than taking out your stress on yourself or those around you, try using mindfulness, and you may find that your stress quickly fades away.
Mindfulness helps us better control our emotions, so that we don’t experience those emotional outbursts that seem to come from nowhere. At a neuroscience level, mindfulness engages our frontal lobe – the command center of our brain, which gives us control over our actions.
But the benefits don’t stop there. The research is clear that by reducing stress, mindfulness also leads to benefits like reduced inflammation and improved immune system functioning (5,6).
If you want to see just how calm and de-stressed your brain gets during meditation, check out Muse. It’s a meditation wearable that guides you through your meditations and tracks how calm you get during a meditation session.
2. Improving the experience of this moment
Mindfulness helps us enjoy each passing moment a little more.
In practicing nonjudgmental self-awareness, we can actually rewire our brains to focus on the positive aspects of our lives instead of dwelling on the negative. Kind of insane that this simple act can actually change the biological functioning of our brains (1).
The more we flex our mind muscles to be present in this moment, the stronger our mind is at staying in the present moment. And when we are present, we typically find ourselves in a positive state that is calm, peaceful, and understated (not obnoxious, happy-go-lucky, and in your face).
In the moment, we stop worrying about the things we can’t control and allow ourselves to focus on the things we can.
3. Increasing empathy and compassion
Mindfulness can also help us grow and develop our interpersonal skills.
Studies show that mindfulness and meditation activate the parts of our brain responsible for empathy and self-awareness (the insula and cingulate cortex). We are social animals with an evolutionary wiring designed to get us to help one another.
When we feel empathy and compassion for others, our personal experience of wellbeing goes up as does the wellbeing of those around us (2,3,4).
4. Closing the Self-Discrepancy Gap
When we evaluate what we think about ourselves, we often subconsciously compare ourselves to who we want to be, an ideal self. The distance between who we are and that ideal self is called the self-discrepancy gap. The larger the gap the more unhappy we are because we feel bad about what we lack.
Mindfulness, however, has been shown to help seriously reduce that gap.
First, mindfulness can improve how we think about ourselves today.
Through mindfulness, many people find that they judge themselves in a more realistic and typically kinder light than before they started their mindfulness practice. They come to realize that they are all of the things they thought were huge shortcoming aren’t so bad after all. They become much more okay with who they are right now.
Part of this is driven by the development of a more compassionate understanding of the self. When we treat ourselves with the compassion we typically reserve for others, our happiness levels often jump up.
Another part is that through mindfulness people develop a “beginners mind.” This is an attitude driven by curiosity about the world around them, instead of an attitude of judgment.
While judgment keeps us disconnected and distant from the world, curiosity focuses us on developing new understandings of the world which leads to new knowledge, connections, and meaning.
These factors help reduce the self-discrepancy gap by lifting our current self-concept. (7)
How Do I Practice Mindfulness?
If you’re interested in beginning a mindfulness practice, take it slow. Step by step. Moment by moment.
All you need to do to practice a basic level of mindfulness is to become aware of what’s going on around you. Noticing the small sensations you’re experiencing will ultimately become a powerful driver of wellbeing.
That means noticing what you smell, the details of what you see, how your clothes feel on your body, the flavor of your food or drink.
This advice always seems so silly when you read it. It seems so obvious and also so unhelpful. “You’re telling me to taste the food I’m eating? Thanks, guy.”
You might not feel anything at first, and the idea of actually noticing what’s happening might actually be uncomfortable because what’s happening isn’t all that pleasant. That’s OK though. Trust the process.
Part of mindfulness is getting in tune with the feelings of our body. This frees us of constantly having to distract ourselves, and opens us up to the world of possibility in front of us.
Also, mindfulness is not going to produce results immediately. If you’re interested but unsure, try it a few times first. 5-10 minutes a day for a month. If you don’t notice any changes in your life, move on.
Headspace is a great app to help you get started meditating. It guides you through the process of learning about and getting used to the practice.
Here’s a few specific exercise to get you started.
The Self Check-In
Pay attention to your body’s natural needs. Something as simple as drinking water can be your mindfulness practice. Feel the temperature of the water, pay attention to how it feels in your mouth. Do you chug it or take small sips? What are you doing with your breath while drinking?
Noticing these small sensations will send you on your way to living mindfully.
There are many other times that you can do a self check-in.
Next, at some point today, take some time away from technology. Sit in an area with natural light. Leave your phone behind. People or nature watch. Try this for a few days in a row.
The Mindful Meal
Eat one meal in silence, really focusing on what you’re eating one chew at a time. Leave reading materials and other distractions for after the meal.
A Basic Mindfulness Meditation
Many people run when they hear the word meditation. Or maybe they’ve done it before and really don’t get it. That’s okay. Starting a meditation practice requires a leap of faith to believe it will work, and it takes a bit of time and commitment to start really “getting it”. Don’t expect an epiphany on Day 1.
Here’s some tips and tricks on how to do a basic mindfulness meditation:
Sit in a chair with both feet on the ground. Close your eyes or angle them at a point 45 degrees in front of you. With a straight back inhale and exhale, focus on the rising and falling of your breath. When your attention loses focus, and it inevitably will (even with experienced meditators), be aware of the thoughts floating by without giving them too much judgment or attention. Start practicing about 5 minutes a day and work up to longer stretches of time.
Every time we practice meditation, we level up just a little bit. We increase our ability for compassion, for joy, for focus. We decrease our experience of stress and self-doubt.
It’s one of the most powerful tools we have available to us, and it only takes a few minutes a day.
Yoga has been embraced by leading athletes, working professionals, and anyone else who is looking for a way to increase their physical fitness and mental wellbeing. It also happens to be the perfect time to practice mindfulness.
Ever felt the burn of a yoga pose only to be instructed by your teacher to focus on the breathing? When you feel like you’re about to collapse in a sweaty heap, having someone tell you to focus on your breath is basically guaranteed to make you frustrated and even less able to breathe. But, alas, your teacher was right.
Here’s how to make yoga (and any other exercise that involves respiration) more mindful:
Set an intention before your practice. Do you want to de-stress? Recharge? Get a great workout? Push yourself outside of your comfort zone? During your yoga session, you can use your breath and your 5 senses as an anchor. Focus on the sounds around you. Think about the smells in the air. Whatever it is, pick one and fully engage in it. This is a way to be fully present and, subsequently fully mindful, during your workout. Looking for a quick session at home? Check out a YouTube video from Tara Stiles.
Have questions about mindfulness or the content we’ve provided? Have a story to share? Shoot us an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org; we would love to hear from you.