What You’ll Find Inside: New to Mindfulness? Inside you’ll find out what mindfulness IS and IS NOT, some of the amazing health benefits and how you can start a mindfulness practice today.
Chances are, you’ve heard about mindfulness. It’s a popular word right now, being applied to almost anything and any environment. Parenting, eating, living, classrooms, offices. But what does it actually mean?
If you’ve been wondering, you’re not alone. Mindfulness is one of those terms that can seem to be shrouded in a veil of mystery. It’s not always well understood but since it’s a modern buzzword, it’s often used to describe positive thinking, meditation, a religious practice, relaxation or self-analysis.
So What is Mindfulness?
As a practice, mindfulness has ancient roots in many different religions and areas of the world. It is often linked to Buddhism and Hinduism but there is evidence that it was much more widely spread.
Mindfulness is taking a moment in everything you do to be aware of what’s going on and not judging what your awareness finds. To look at each moment, thought and feeling with a sense of caring curiosity and without judgment.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, mindfulness expert, describes it as “… Awareness, cultivated by paying attention in a sustained and particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” (Mindfulness for Beginners)
Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh says being mindful is “….the practice of being fully present and alive, body and mind united. Mindfulness is the energy that helps us to know what is going on in the present moment.” (Lions Roar, 2008)
To be in the present moment could be as simple as stopping right now and focusing on your breathing.
Are your breaths shallow or deep? Long or short? Can you feel your heart beating?
Likely before you’ve even taken a few breaths, your mind has raced off. Maybe to plan dinner, your next meeting or wonder where the kids are while you’re reading this.
Being mindful is just noticing those thoughts and being ok with them. This is the biggest difference between analyzing our thoughts and thought patterns and being aware of them. Analysis brings judgment, and that is precisely what we need less of.
In a Psychology Today article, Toni Bernhard, a law professor, and longstanding Buddhist practitioner adds: “Mindfulness as a practice is inseparable from the intentions of the person practicing it. It is tied to the Buddhist precept of non-harming. The focused attention of a sniper while looking through the sight of a rifle is not mindfulness as it was taught by the Buddha. Mindfulness cares.” Toni is the author of How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness: A Mindful Guide
What Mindfulness Is Not
Mindfulness is not the same as positive thinking, praying or manifesting.
When we are mindful, we look at all states of being and feelings. Positive, negative and neutral. Being mindful is bringing awareness to anything new that arises, as opposed to steering the mind towards a goal, thought or wish.
Mindfulness is not about trying to empty your mind of all thoughts.
Our brain is an incredible muscle. It’s constantly making connections between our environment and how our memories and knowledge shape our perception of the moment. It’s a challenge to shut that off! Being mindful is not about stopping that flow. It’s about watching it happen, naming what you sense with curiosity and allowing it to pass without judgment.
Mindfulness is not a quick fix solution.
Although you can reap some immediate benefits, mindfulness is a practice that takes commitment and time to see lasting change. However, even a few minutes a day while in the grocery store or car can have a positive effect. It takes time to unlearn our patterns and stories, which is why we need to continue the practice.
Mindfulness is not meditation or learning how to relax and sit still.
We don’t need to be meditating or physically still to be mindful. Meditation is often portrayed as sitting still with eyes closed, in quiet and emptying one’s mind. This is not equivalent to mindfulness. It is also not the whole story of meditation either, but we’ll save that for another day! Mindfulness is a practice we can use anywhere and during any activity- quiet and still or in high energy moments.
To live in the moment does not mean YOLO.
I’m sure you’ve heard the acronym YOLO (you only live once) that was popular on social media a while back. You could think of it as a modern version of ‘carpe diem’ (seize the day), but its use just got a little silly, explaining some mindless acts in the name of YOLO. So Mindfulness = being present and aware in the moment. It does not mean you disregard future consequences of what’s happening or what you’re doing in the said present moment!
Mindfulness is not a goal or a linear practice.
We’re used to setting goals and working towards them. Along the way, we pass milestones and get “better” at what we are doing. We get closer to the end goal. Practicing mindfulness works differently.
First, we can consider mindfulness to be more of a framework for life rather than a destination. We want to be mindful along the way, enjoy our children, loved ones, and passions. We take a moment to smell the roses along the path, breathing in their sweet aroma. We don’t ‘complete’ mindfulness the way we would complete our goals.
Second, learning to be mindful is not a linear process and can have many setbacks along the way. We have had much unconscious learning in our lives and have developed many patterns of thought and behaviour.
Each new season in life uncovers memories and painful feelings we must address. Sometimes we can handle these mindfully, sometimes we have to relearn how to apply mindfulness to these new situations.
We all Have Moments of Mindlessness
In contrast, mindlessness is a state characterized by auto-pilot and ingrained habits. Functional fixedness is another feature of mindlessness. This is the mental block that prevents you from seeing how to use something in a different way than its original intended use.
These behaviours occur with little or no conscious awareness. Researchers also describe mindlessness as reliance on conclusions that a person has drawn in the past about the way the world works. This gives us insight into prejudice, bias, ideas about wealth and poverty and many more lines of thinking that we are fixed in.
When people live in a mindless state, they become stuck in a fixed mindset. When we are in a mindless state, rules and routines govern behaviour as opposed to guiding behaviour.
A great example of mindlessness in everyday life is driving on ‘autopilot.’ Most of us can relate to an experience where we have driven for some distance only to ‘wake up’ from a daydream and realize that we’ve been driving on autopilot, without the conscious awareness to the road. These moments frighten us but are great reminders to stay in the present.
Most people live huge amounts of their life on autopilot. We are led unconsciously by patterns and habits defined earlier in life. These may not serve us or those around us. The results can be costly for your health, relationships and your community.
What Can Mindfulness Do For Me?
For decades, researchers have been studying the benefits of mindfulness. The most compelling research suggests that practicing mindfulness can have major impacts on your life. This is by no means an exhaustive list.
Major Physiological Benefits
- Alter how we perceive pain
- Regulate heart rate
- Regulate blood pressure
- Better focus
- Improve working memory
- Enhance immune function
- Fight eating disorders and obesity by practicing mindful eating
- Support for addiction recovery
Major Psychological Benefits
- Help to cope with symptoms of stress (MBSR- Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction)
- Support perception of disability
- Support a healthy attitude toward serious health conditions and disorders
- Ease depression (MBSR and MBCT- Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy)
- Relieve anxiety, fears and worry
- Treat Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
- Increase empathy, leading to more satisfying relationships
- Less emotional reactivity (emotional self-regulation)
Teachers and students trained in mindfulness show more compassion and empathy for each other. A few minutes of mindfulness practice can help students to focus and teachers to cope with stress, anxiety and high blood pressure.
Teaching children mindfulness can enhance learning and behaviour in the classroom and help children to cope with everyday stresses
Mindfulschools.org is a leading non-profit organization focused on bringing awareness to communities and educators as to the importance of mindfulness in schools. They describe themselves as “key player in the movement to integrate mindfulness into the everyday learning environment of K-12 classrooms.”
Need more info? Dive into the Mindful Schools research database of the latest research surrounding mindfulness in education.
Another amazing resource is the MindUp Curriculum created by actress Goldie Hawn’s foundation. Here’s how they describe their program: “MindUP™ is a science-centric, evidence-based program that is grounded in the integration of Neuroscience, Positive Psychology, Mindful Awareness and Social and Emotional Learning sciences and practices.
The program is a framework and curriculum consisting of 15 Lessons that include and specifically address various core topics, such as learning about our brains and expressing gratitude.”
Mindfulness can benefit both parents and children. Mindful parenting is a challenge because we have so many balls in the air and hats to wear. Adding one more thing to focus on can sometimes feel daunting – but it’s definitely worth it. Do you need some inspiration for mindful parenting?
Related Post: Check out my top 10 list of mindful parenting books.
Different Types of Mindfulness Practice
There are two forms of mindfulness, formal and informal. While both are beneficial if you could only fit one into your day, I would recommend an informal practice.
Formal mindfulness practice is closer to meditation and involves setting aside a dedicated time to be still and breathe. This may involve listening to a guided meditation or just being in your own state of meditation for any length of time. By quieting the body and mind you can tune into the present moment.
Informal mindfulness practice is something we weave into the fabric of our days. It involves the awareness of everything around us and in us, each in turn, without judgment. In an informal practice, the goal is not to see “everything” at once, but to be aware of things as they come into focus. I find informal practice easier to fit into everyday activities and more forgiving if you forget. Informal mindfulness comes and goes throughout your day; it may be a focused awareness on a particular chore or noticing your sweet child’s pouty lips when she’s trying to convince you of something, or it may be as breathtaking as basking in the glow of a sunset. Just allowing yourself a moment to take in your surroundings (the sights, smells, sounds, tastes and textures) and noticing your thoughts (without judging) is mindfulness. It’s really that simple.
Mindful Practices You Can Do Right Now
- Pay close attention to your breathing for the next 10 breaths. If thoughts arise, just imagine them as bubbles floating by – acknowledge them and watch them pass by without judging. Continue counting where you left off.
- Focus attention on one area of your body and become aware of how it feels. For example, your hands – are they cold, hot, sweaty, dry? Can you feel your skin? Your muscles? Any aches or pains?
- Feel your surroundings. What do you hear? Close your eyes and take a deep breath. What do you smell? Touch your hands on whatever surface you’re sitting on or notice the ground you’re standing on. Is it hard or soft?
- If you’re having a meal or snack, decide for this meal to “eat mindfully”. Notice the colours and textures of each item on your plate. Think about where the food came from and how many people may have been part of getting that food to you. Take a bite and notice the flavours and texture. Is your food sweet, spicy, salty or bitter? Or something in between? How does the food feel on your tongue? Chew slowly and mindfully.
- Take a nap! We can’t help but stay in the moment while napping, and really, who couldn’t use a nap?
What About You?
How do you stay mindful? If mindfulness is new to you, what part of staying present in the moment do you struggle with the most – and how do you overcome that?