Mindfulness has become a thing in the world of the 21st century. It has the power to relax you, calm the mind, and increase resilience.
The American Psychological Association defines mindfulness as “awareness of one’s internal states and surroundings. The concept has been applied to various therapeutic interventions—for example, mindfulness-based cognitive behavior therapy, mindfulness-based stress reduction, and mindfulness meditation—to help people avoid destructive or automatic habits and responses by learning to observe their thoughts, emotions, and other present-moment experiences without judging or reacting to them.”
There are various other definitions of what mindfulness means, but in the end, it all comes back to paying attention to what is going on with you and in your surroundings at any given moment—the opposite of being mindless, or on autopilot.
Benefits of mindfulness
The practice of mindfulness has its roots in the Buddhist concept more than 2,500 years old. Mindfulness is a state of mind and also practice. It is not a trait or something that people either have or don’t. Everyone can learn the practice to achieve the state.
Various disciplines can help with mindfulness, such as tai chi or yoga. The most frequently used one is meditation. The ability to train yourself to focus your attention and awareness to have your mental processes under your control leads to concentration, clarity, and calmness. When you get your cognitive processes under control, you can also get your emotional states under control.
According to Daphne M. Davis and Jeffrey A. Hayes, mindfulness brings a number of benefits:
Reducing rumination – mindfulness helps to remove negative thoughts and depressive symptoms and helps with sustaining attention on the task at hand.
Reducing stress – a meta-analysis of 39 studies on the effects of mindfulness showed that it can alter cognitive processes that are underlying various clinical issues. It decreases anxiety and negative affect.
Improving working memory – research shows that meditation can increase working memory capacity.
Improving focus – it helps to focus attention and reduce distracting information. It helps people to disengage from emotionally upsetting reality and enable them to focus even under stressful conditions.
Increasing cognitive flexibility – people become less reactive and have more cognitive flexibility. This manifests itself in the ability of self-observation and faster recovery times after dealing with stressful situations.
Increasing relationship satisfaction – those with the ability to be mindful also have more satisfying relationships. They are able to respond better to relationship stress and can communicate their own emotions better.
And then there is the overall psychological and physical health. Mindfulness has a general positive benefit on our well-being. For example, mindfulness can, to a certain extent, also eliminate regret. If you are fully present when deciding to do or not to do something, then you are fully aware of the consequences, and you are more committed. Why should then there be any regret at all? It is when you make mindless decisions and only, later on, stop to think about them when regret kicks in.
Introducing mindfulness into your life
Introducing mindfulness into your life doesn’t necessarily mean you have to join a yoga class and meditate a couple of times a day. Start small.
I’m someone who believes that every minute should be lived fully and shouldn’t be wasted. When I eat breakfast or dinner, I tend to use the time to read. When I ride on a bus, once again, I tend to read or listen to audiobooks. That is not mindfulness.
However, I can make a small tweak and immediately include mindfulness in my life. I tend to do it when being on vacation or traveling to new places. My mindset totally changes. When I eat a new exotic meal, I fully focus on that activity. I savor every bite. I think about how it looks, smells, tastes. I truly enjoy not just the food but the experience. The same when I ride on a bus in a foreign country. I don’t sleep. I don’t talk to other passengers. I look out of the window and deliberately notice what’s going on outside. I marvel at nature, observe the animals, notice how people behave, what they wear, what they do, I focus on details. I’m in the moment, and I mindfully process the world around me.
You don’t need any training to do this. You just need to decide and do it. And if you do it on vacations, what prevents you from doing it every single day when you are back home? You can’t use the excuse that you don’t have time. The meal will take the same amount of time. The commute won’t get slower. Only your attention will shift. You are not changing the world around you. You are changing your thoughts and perceptions of the world you live in.
And then you can continue with the meditations. Mindfulness meditation involves sitting comfortably, focusing on your breathing, and focusing your attention on the present—no thoughts about the past or the future. Focus on now. This needs a bit of practice as our busy minds find this concept foreign. This is close to the Buddhist version. I’m not going to argue with experts, and I will concede that it has a positive effect on your brain.
Mindfulness is not free. If you want to reap the benefits, you need to pay the price. The price comes in the form of time and focused practice. Like any other skill, you need to work on it if you want to master it and enjoy the benefits.
Rasmus Hougaard, Jacqueline Carter, and Gitte Dybkjaer made several suggestions on how to include mindfulness in your days. Starting with the ten-minute mindfulness meditation, through avoiding reading emails first thing in the morning and turning off notifications to avoid distractions, to stopping multitasking.
Hougaard and Carter then suggest a couple of tips on how to structure your day to fit in time for mindfulness and get the most of it.
Most of the stress hormones are released into our bloodstream during the first thirty minutes after we wake up and start thinking about what is ahead of us. We think about all the problems we will have to deal with, and that triggers the release of cortisol and fight or flight response.
By merely giving ourselves a couple of minutes before we get out of bed to focus our mind on our breathing and deflect the thoughts of worry. After getting to the office and before diving into an email and the actual tasks take another ten minutes for mindfulness. Once again, the breathing exercise will do the trick. The idea is to start your day with a refreshed and calm mind. When you start your day with a razor-sharp mind, you are able to ignore or remove distractions.
As you go through your day, make an effort to focus on the task and hand, and don’t be seduced by multitasking. If you talk to someone, ignore the email. If you write an email, don’t pretend to listen to the presentation. If you are in the meeting, don’t play with your phone. Always be fully present in whatever you do.
Every time you catch yourself that your mind starts to wander, take two minutes to practice mindfulness, and get your thoughts back to focus.
End your workday as you started with a short mindfulness practice. Depending on how you commute, disconnect from the stresses of the work when you get out of the office.
Tom Ireland describes an example of another type of mindful meditative exercise. Wiggle your toes and focus on how it feels, how they interact with the shoes, the weight of the feet on the floor. Think about it and feel it. Don’t think about anything else. Focus fully on your toes and how they feel right now.
Amy Jen Su talks about other ways how mindfulness works. When you encounter adversity that triggers an adverse reaction in you, take a deep breath, and ask yourself these questions. What triggered this reaction in you? What body sensations did you experience? What was the perception going on in your head? What emotions did you experience? How did you react? This can help you be more aware of self, of how you behave.
There is a pause between the event and your reaction. In that pause, you can then use the knowledge of self to have a more positive or productive response next time a similar trigger happens. You can choose to interpret the event differently. You can choose a different response. You can choose to be mindful instead of mindless.
Maria Gonzalez suggests another mindfulness exercise that you can do during your day without stopping whatever you do at the moment. In fact, that is the whole point. Focus fully on every second of a particular activity you do. For example, if you are in a meeting and someone speaks, focus on every single word they are saying. If you catch yourself that your mind is wandering, which happens all the time, force yourself again to focus on the speaker and every word and sentence they are saying. Stop thinking about what you want to lunch or even about what you think about what they are saying. Be fully immersed in their words. You may find that this is pretty difficult to do, especially when you are tired, or when you are under stress. Again, that is the whole point. This type of exercise will train your brain to be more focused and stay calm when encountering adversity.
Putting it all together
There are many other exercises you can come up with. When you carefully examine your days, you will find many opportunities for how to include bits of mindfulness here and there. All it takes is commitment and deliberate focus on making it happen.
Mindfulness is not going to solve all your problems. It is not going to make you the happiest person in the world. All it does is to help you focus on the task at hand. It will help you to remove distractions, to minimize anxiety, to pay attention to what you are experiencing, to be in the moment. Over time you realize that it has a positive effect on your satisfaction with life and even on your happiness.
What are your thoughts on the topic? Have you ever tried any mindfulness exercises? What were the results? What problems have you encountered? What benefits did you see?
Photo: Binja69 / Pixabay.com