We hear this word a lot these days, but what does it really mean to be “mindful"?
Let’s start this by debunking some misconceptions. Mindfulness is not:
Being "zen" 24/7
Avoiding pain and negativity
Having no thoughts or feelings --> this is a process of denial, in which you end up burying or avoiding your feelings
Being totally objective all the time --> you're not a bad person for having an opinion, feeling or judgment about something! You are human!
Jon Kabat-Zinn says that "mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”
In other words, mindfulness is about being intentional with your attention; noticing what is happening in the present moment, and accepting what you notice.
Acceptance is a key component to mindfulness because it is the antidote to judgment.
For example, accepting a scenario might sound like this: “I notice that someone is looking at me”, whereas making a judgment on a scenario may sound like: "I see someone looking at me. Something must be wrong with me. Are my pants undone? Is my hair a mess? Is there something in my teeth? What is wrong with me?"
Another example of an accepting moment might be: “I’m noticing that I feel anxious right now, what might I need in this moment?”, whereas a judgment may be: “I’m feeling anxious right now. Oh no, not again. I thought I worked past this. I hate this. This doesn’t feel good.”
Notice how much more distressing it is when we create a narrative about ourselves. The stories that we tell ourselves are exactly what take us out of the present moment and into a state of worrying about hypotheticals or self-criticizing. It is a habit that many of us form in this fast-paced world, which is why mindfulness must be a practice. It has to be exercised in order to become stronger and more effective.
What are the benefits to practicing mindfulness?
As I mentioned above, practicing unconditional acceptance for yourself and your experiences will allow you to reduce perceived stress, stay present, and empower you to choose your response rather than instinctively react to life.
Furthermore, reducing the stress response can create changes on a physical and neurological level. Just like any other exercise can change our muscles over time, this mental exercise can actually change the structure of the brain!
Studies have shown that engaging in mindfulness can lead to:
Improvements in emotional regulation and processing
Greater connectedness to the self and your bodily experience, such as physical sensations and emotions tied to them
Increased compassion and empathy
Decreased levels of stress
The beauty of this is that we are all capable of living this way. The events in our lives may not shift drastically, but the way we relate to them can change and impact our lives for the better!
Ways To Practice Mindfulness
I believe that mindfulness can be practiced anywhere, anytime! It doesn’t need to be used strictly as a coping mechanism for stressful moments. In fact, if you start to mindfully engage in neutral or positive activities, it may be even easier to apply when you are in a moment of distress.
For example, you might practice mindfulness while:
Driving: avoid distractions of the radio or your phone; take deep breath; notice the colours of what’s around you, notice how your body feels on your seat, how the steering wheel feels in your hand. Stay attuned to what you see, feel, and hear.
Washing dishes: turn off the TV or music and be fully present; see the bubbles, smell the soap, feel the warm water; let this activity fully absorb you.
Walking: notice the sights, sounds, smells of your surroundings; feel your feet contact the earth with each step
There are also specific mindfulness exercises that can be done, such as:
Journaling: get in touch with your inner world by writing down your thoughts and experiences non-judgmentally. You can even do this about moments that may have triggered you; expressing it on paper can help you find compassion for yourself in those moments, and understand what your needs are.
Breathing: there are many different breathing techniques that can be done as their own exercises, rather than while driving or walking. For example, box breathing, belly breathing, and alternate nostril breathing are great ways to bring your attention to the present moment and relax your body.
Meditation: by listening to guided meditations, your attention will be drawn to one particular thing to focus on; this level of intentional awareness increases your ability to sit consciously with something, and can even improve mood depending on the theme of the meditation.
What are your thoughts on this? Have you experienced any of the benefits of mindfulness? Are there any particular techniques that you enjoy? Comment and share your thoughts below!