Mindfulness is a topic that my clients frequently mention during our online counselling sessions, whether it’s as some variation of “mindfulness doesn’t work for me, I just can’t do it” or “I know I should start practising that, but I just don’t have the time or energy”. But, when I ask them what they believe mindfulness actually is, they often stare at me with a blank face and go, “well, it’s like meditation, no?” or “hmm, I don’t really know, actually”. So, today, I would like to dive a bit deeper into the topic of mindfulness, why and how to practice it, and how it can help improve our mental health.
Photo by Artem Kovalev, Unsplash
What exactly is mindfulness?
Let’s start with the question of what mindfulness really is: It’s the idea of being fully present in the moment and aware of one’s feelings and thoughts. Mindfulness is not about “emptying our minds” or “not thinking anything”, it is about being mindful of what is happening in our surroundings and what is going on in our mind and body. We become aware of everything without being judgmental. This ability helps us connect with ourselves and the people around us in a deeper and more meaningful way.
We all know those moments where we aren’t focused on the past or the future, where we aren’t worrying or ruminating, but simply enjoying the present moment with all its sensations and feelings. We often struggle to be mindful in stressful times, difficult moments and when negative thoughts or feelings arise. Those are usually moments when we try to numb or distract ourselves instead of focusing on being mindful and present. However, practising mindfulness in all types of situations will help us live a more meaningful and engaged life, even if it might sound daunting at first.
Origins of mindfulness
Mindfulness has its roots in the Buddhist religion, and people have been practising it for thousands of years. Modern mindfulness in the western world became popular through the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, who designed a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program in 1979 that is still very popular today.
The initial goal of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s program was to help patients deal with chronic pain. He noticed that patients avoided the pain, which made them feel mentally exhausted and stressed. He realised that mindfulness helped the patients relieve their mental distress and feel less pain.
In the 2000s, researchers did a lot of work on mindfulness which made it more popular. In this hectic world where burnout and busyness are the norm, this practice provides us with a way to live life better while enjoying its ups and managing its downs.
There are many different approaches to mindfulness today, and it’s a core component of many modern therapeutic approaches, including the Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT) I often work with myself.
What are the components of mindfulness?
Two key components form the foundation of mindfulness.
Staying fully aware
The first component is being aware of our external environment and what we are feeling or thinking in the present moment. We notice our thoughts and feelings, bodies, and environment right now, right here.
Accepting our thoughts and surroundings
In addition to awareness, the other key component of mindfulness is acceptance. Once we notice a thought or a feeling, we don’t judge or pursue it; we simply notice it, accept it and let it go. We don’t get attached to any thought or feeling, we just acknowledge that our mind will keep producing thoughts, as that’s what it’s made for, after all.
Why should you start practising mindfulness?
Mindfulness can help bring a balance to our lives and connect us to ourselves and our surroundings. It teaches us how to better react to stressful situations and conflicts and handle difficult moments, feelings and thoughts.
There are many reported benefits of mindfulness and meditation, including:
- Increased awareness of our physical and mental health
- Better response to stressful situations
- Increased capacity for compassion
- Improvement of chronic pain
- A clearer and more focused mind
- Relief of symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Tips to start practising mindfulness
You don’t need to buy a meditation pillow or find a quiet corner in your house to sit down and meditate to practice mindfulness. Mindfulness is something we can (and should) integrate into our everyday lives, and it’s something we can practice anytime and anywhere. But of course, if you have the time and space to meditate on a regular basis, this is great too!
Practice it in a quiet place
Mindfulness starts with improving focus. As a beginner, it may be difficult for you to practice in a crowded or hectic place with many distractions. Therefore, choose somewhere quiet so you can concentrate better. With time, you will be able to practice also in busy environments like an office, a bus stop, etc.
Choose a comfortable position
If you want to fully focus on your mindfulness practice, choose a comfortable position. It will help to avoid unnecessary distractions. You can practice mindfulness while sitting on a chair, kneeling on the ground, or even lying down.
Pick a daily activity
I often recommend starting your mindfulness practice while doing daily activities. This way, you won’t need to find additional time in your busy schedule, and it will be easier to integrate your mindfulness practice into your daily routine. You could start with brushing your teeth mindfully or doing the dishes while really focusing on what you are doing and noticing the sensations and your thoughts and feelings. Or perhaps next time you have to wait somewhere, instead of looking at your phone, you just sit or stand there and focus on your breathing.
As a beginner, it is better to start slow so that you don’t lose motivation to keep practising for the long term. Start practising it for just a few minutes, then gradually increase the duration.
Focus on your breathing or an object
Whenever your mind wanders (and it will!), keep focusing back on your breathing as soon as you notice it. You may also choose to concentrate on an object. The object can be anything around you. For instance, a picture hanging on the wall, a candle in front of you, or a tree while sitting outside.
Set a schedule
Creating and following a schedule to practise mindfulness will help you make it a habit. Try to practice it daily because the more you practice, the better you learn and the easier it will be to return to your practice.
Be kind to your mind
It will be challenging to stay concentrated and avoid distractions as a beginner. Your mind will keep wandering, which is completely normal. So, do not scold it whenever thoughts arise. Just notice your emotions/thoughts and let them go, like leaves on a stream or clouds in the sky.
Mindfulness has the potential to bring a positive change to our lives. If you are new to it, then start slow. With time, practice, and patience, you will learn to be mindful while eating, listening, walking, or doing other regular tasks. The key to learning mindfulness is consistency, not the duration of practice.
Have you been practising mindfulness yourself? What have your experiences been? Or would you like to try it? How about tonight, when you brush your teeth? Or after you finish reading this blog post, just take a few moments to focus on your breathing, your body, and the present moment.
Photo by Motoki Tonn, Unsplash