What is Mindfulness?
Over the past couple of years or so you may have noticed the word mindfulness getting a lot of attention. It’s the new buzzword, a thing we are all supposed be doing to enhance every aspect of our lives. But what does this concept actually mean? How can we teach ourselves to be mindful? And most importantly how can it improve our lives?
I wanted to investigate this concept. As a busy parent I figured maybe this could help me out. I seemed to always be focused on what I had to do in the next day or the next week, or I was dwelling on the past, situations I could have handled differently etc. I needed to be schooled in mindfulness!
A definition of mindfulness that made sense to me was the one from Psychology Today. It defined mindfulness as “a state of active, open attention on the present. When you’re mindful, you observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance, without judging them good or bad. Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to experience.” The opposite of mindfulness can be described as being inattentive, distracted, unfocused or not engaged.
Let me give you some examples. Have you ever eaten something and before you know it you are staring at an empty bowl or wrapper? What about the times when you have driven somewhere, arrived at your destination but have had no memory of the actual drive? These are common actions of mindlessness. Think of it as going on “auto-pilot”. In our busy lives it’s easy to lose track of the moment. Many of us are constantly thinking about the many things we need to do or worrying about what it is we are not able to do. We are multitasking, our schedules are busting at the seam. It’s all very overwhelming, wouldn’t you agree?
You may be asking yourself “why is it so important for me to live in the actual moment?” Let me next talk a little about the importance and benefits of mindfulness that I learned about.
According to Harvard Medical School, mindfulness improves our overall well-being in the following ways: by allowing us to savor the pleasures of the moment, help us to deal with adverse events, make us less likely to get caught up in worries about the future or regrets over the past, and allows us to form deep connections with others. That all sounds pretty good!
If those aren’t enough benefits for you, mindfulness also improves mental health. Mindfulness meditation has been used to treat depression, substance abuse, eating disorders, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorders and has been used in couple’s therapy. It is thought that mindfulness works by helping people accept their experiences as opposed to avoiding or not dealing with them. Over recent years mindfulness meditation has been proven very effective when combined with psychotherapy, especially cognitive behavioral therapy.
Mindfulness has also shown to improve physical health. Lowered blood pressure, stress relief, chronic pain reduction, better sleep and increase heart health are a few of the proven benefits.
Mindfulness is similar to meditation and the practice is in fact often referred to as “mindfulness meditation”.
The three basic aspects of mindfulness meditation are body, breath and thought.
We connect with the body by how we set up our environment. Mindfulness uses an eye open technique so our environment should be serene and quiet. We do not want anything distracting us like a TV or a noisy road. Some people prefer to light incense or candles. You can put up pictures or photos or if you prefer a plain wall. Our sitting position is also important. A chair or a cushion on the ground is best as long as they are stable and don’t wiggle around. If you are seated on the ground cross your legs, if you are in a chair rest your feet on the ground or on a stool and let your hands rest on your thighs. Your gaze does not need to be completely focused, let your eyes rest on whatever it lands on in front of you. Your posture should be upright but not stiff.
There is no special way to breathe when practicing mindfulness and it doesn’t require a lot of focus on breath, breathing should take up approximately 25% of our attention. It should be relatively natural, focusing on the breath entering and leaving the body.
The basic concept of mindfulness mediation is to sit and focus on our thoughts. As you sit and breathe you will notice many thoughts coming into your mind. Observe them, note how they make you feel and when you notice your thoughts taking control or spiraling you away from where you are and what you are doing, bring your attention back to the breath. Sounds simple, right? It’s not. But eventually it will get easier and you may work yourself up to sitting for up to 45 minutes or an hour.
Here is a nice simple mindfulness exercise to get you started:
Set aside about 20 minutes. Sit on a straight-backed chair or cross-legged on the floor.
- Focus on an aspect of your breathing, such as the sensations of air flowing into your nostrils and out of your mouth, or your belly rising and falling as you inhale and exhale.
- Once you’ve narrowed your concentration in this way, begin to widen your focus. Become aware of sounds, sensations, and your ideas.
- Embrace and consider each thought or sensation without judging it good or bad. If your mind starts to race, return your focus to your breathing. Then expand your awareness again.
So now that you’ve heard about all the great ways mindfulness can improve your life you probably are wondering how to master it. Like any new skill, mindfulness takes practice and the more you practice the better you will be at it. There are many apps, podcasts and on-line resources that can guide you through this practice. Here are a few really great ones to try out:
Headspace ($6.94-$12.95 monthly) – While focused more on general meditation this is a great app for people brand new to meditating. This app provides ten-minute meditation sessions, with the first ten days available free of charge. If you’ve never tried meditation, the narrator’s easy banter and relatable instruction will make the practice more accessible.
The Mindfulness App by MindApps ($1.99) – This app comes with guided meditation practices of 3, 5, 15, and 30 minutes in length. There’s also a silent meditation option and a brief body-scan practice. You can customize your meditation and track your progress.
Stop, Breathe & Think (free) -This app offers a solid sampling of the basics of meditation, featuring a range of exercises at varying lengths including mindfulness meditation, loving-kindness meditation and a body scan practice. This one is ideal for short practices and longer sessions at home. It involves stopping what you are doing and checking in about your feelings, practicing mindful breathing and thinking about peace and calm.
Calm (free) – This app is very simple, and was designed to help you fall asleep faster with over 25 soothing calming sounds which provide relief from outside stress and anxiety. There are three meditation options:
- a) 7-21 days guided meditation programs which keep track of your progress
- b) Unguided meditation sessions; and
- c) Over 25 guided meditation session that last from just a couple of minutes to up to about 20 minutes.
Mindfulness Meditation from Mental Workout – (Lite version is free, full version is $12.99/year) – This app lets you choose from six different lengths of meditation practice including talks, body-scan practices, relaxation exercises and guided practices. The guided practice may be preferable for those who seek instruction but not a constant stream of it.
Here are some other resources for free guided meditations that you can stream or download:
You may also prefer to find an instructor or take a class. Here are some great local resources I found, all of which offer a variety of classes related to mindfulness meditation. Contact them for specific info.
1703 S Oneida St, Appleton, Wisconsin
711 N Lynndale Dr, Appleton, Wisconsin
Mindfulness Center for Wellbeing
Bluebird Court, Neenah, Wisconsin
Jen Van Rooy is an Appleton native, mother of two and a part time Community Manager for a Minneapolis based Social Services Company. Her interests include all things family, reading, writing and being active in the community.
Read more from Jen here.