Understanding and Practicing Mindfulness
Mindfulness has been receiving quite a bit of attention lately, particularly in the health and wellness community. While its roots can be found in Buddhism, mindfulness is being recognized as a tool anyone can use to help address common issues like stress and chronic pain. And increasingly there are research findings to support these uses. Unfortunately, like many such trendy topics, mindfulness can feel unapproachable or not applicable to the average person just going about their daily lives. The purpose of this post is two-fold: first to de-mystify mindfulness and its benefits, and second, to provide some ideas on how anybody, including you, can incorporate it into your life.
Simply put, mindfulness is defined as non-judgmental awareness of the present moment. What does that mean exactly? A common misconception is that mindfulness means “shutting off” the mind, not thinking, or somehow stopping the endless stream of thought that we all experience. This is not the case. Instead, to be mindful is to be aware of thoughts, sensations, and feelings as they arise, and then letting them pass without attaching meaning or judgement. What would the benefit of such a practice be?
Consider that how we feel at any given time is generally dictated by our thoughts and judgements, more so even than the situation at hand. Much like an oversized dog pulling the person on the other end of his leash wherever his will dictates, thoughts can dictate our mental and emotional state. Mindfulness opens up a space between you and your thinking mind. Continuing with the analogy above, it’s letting go of the leash, even briefly, to give the deeper you a break from the thinking you.
It begins to make sense then that experiencing a reprieve from the constant pull of thought would positively affect a person’s emotional and overall health. A common example used to illustrate the benefit of mindfulness is to consider a typical reaction to pain. When one experiences pain they generally suffer twice; first with the initial uncomfortable sensation, and then in their mental resistance to it. Of course, this is only natural, but being aware of it means that one can exercise some control over their experience by letting go of the resistance, and hopefully suffer less for it. In fact, there is research showing that mindfulness helps people suffering with chronic pain experience less pain and an overall improved quality of life. Similarly, anxiety and depression, which are generally at least exacerbated if not caused entirely by our tendency to buy into the negative judgements we hold about a given situation and/or ourselves, also seem to decrease in the light of mindfulness. Some people find that practicing mindfulness results in improved productivity and creativity. Perhaps more surprisingly, there are even studies showing slowed aging at a genetic level in those who practice mindfulness.
For many, mindfulness is synonymous with mediation, and this can be a great way to practice mindfulness and experience its benefits. However, some people find the idea of meditation intimidating. It does not need to be. Consider starting a daily practice of just 5-10 minutes in which you sit quietly and practice being aware of the present moment (emphasis on practice). If such a proposition still feels out of reach, try incorporating mindfulness into your life in other ways. This can mean developing mini mindfulness habits, like being consciously aware of any sensations experienced during daily activities like showering, or taking a few deep breaths to center yourself while waiting in line. Mindful eating, or putting one’s full attention on the flavors, aromas, colors and textures of the food being eaten, while also being aware of the body’s responses, can help prevent overeating and encourage healthier food choices. Many people find being in nature conducive to a mindful state, so consider establishing a regular walking or hiking routine. In addition, consider limiting use of devices (smart phones, tablets, and so forth), which are essentially instruments of distraction and quickly take you out of the present moment. Don’t be discouraged when you repeatedly find yourself lost in thought: that realization is the practice! Much like exercising a muscle, mindfulness becomes easier the more one practices.
There are many books, classes, apps, and more available to help one become more mindful. However, the best thing about mindfulness is that it is available to everyone, everywhere, at any given time. You do not need to be a yogi, get special training, or spend any money at all to start practicing. That’s not to say that maintaining a mindful state is easy. It’s not, and many people find resources like those listed above helpful in developing a mindfulness practice (a short list of such resources can be found here).
Few tools in the health and wellness world are as meaningful yet as simple and accessible as mindfulness. Developing a practice now can benefit you for the rest of your life. All you have to do is start.
1. Hilton, L., Hempel, S., Ewing, B. A., Apaydin, E., Xenakis, L., Newberry, S., … Maglione, M. A. (2017). Mindfulness Meditation for Chronic Pain: Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Annals of behavioral medicine: a publication of the Society of Behavioral Medicine, 51(2), 199–213. doi:10.1007/s12160-016-9844-2
2. Hofmann, S. G., Sawyer, A. T., Witt, A. A., & Oh, D. (2010). The effect of mindfulness-based therapy on anxiety and depression: A meta-analytic review. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology, 78(2), 169–183. doi:10.1037/a0018555
3. Epel, E. S., Puterman, E., Lin, J., Blackburn, E. H., Lum, P. Y., Beckman, N. D., . . . Schadt, E. E. (2016). Meditation and vacation effects have an impact on disease-associated molecular phenotypes. Translational Psychiatry, 6(8), 880. https://doi.org/10.1038/tp.2016.164
4. Tolahunase, M., Sagar, R., & Dada, R. (2017). Impact of Yoga and Meditation on Cellular Aging in Apparently Healthy Individuals: A Prospective, Open-Label Single-Arm Exploratory Study. Oxidative medicine and cellular longevity, 2017, 7928981. doi:10.1155/2017/7928981