Here is a summary of what the underlying principles of Mindfulness are, and how you might go about incorporating it into your own life and self-care practice.
Mindfulness has its roots in eastern and Buddhist philosophy. Jon Kabat-Zinn was the founder of the modern form of Mindfulness and he was also the founder of the Mindfulness-based stress reduction clinic. Kabat-Zinn is a Professor of Medicine and a Molecular Biologist. Although he has been trained in Buddhist principles, he doesn’t actually follow the Buddhist religion and prefers instead to think of himself as a scientist. He published a book about Mindfulness in 1991 called Full Catatrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness. If you want a really deep understanding of Mindfulness and the mind-body connection, I’d highly recommend getting your hands on this book. However, there are some other books around now which are more concise and perhaps easier and quicker to read. I’ll suggest a few of my favourites at the end of this article.
What is Mindfulness?
So, you’re probably wondering, what is Mindfulness about anyway?
Kabat-Zinn defines it as “paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally”.
The purpose of mindfulness is basically to bring a greater sense of awareness to the present moment. When life gets busy, we get so caught up in thinking, planning, remembering and worrying that we often get stuck in autopilot mode and we forget to check in with the present moment. Mindfulness therefore gives us the tools and skills to be able to do this effectively and to gently pull ourselves out of the vortex that is our mind.
It’s important for me to clarify a few points:
The goal of Mindfulness is not relaxation. Although relaxation can be a bonus benefit of engaging in a regular mindfulness practice, it’s not the goal. The thoughts that Mindfulness brings into our awareness are not necessarily always pleasant, however, Mindfulness does help to give us some distance from them, and it also brings a greater sense of acceptance to them.
Acceptance does not mean “liking” or “approving” of what comes into your awareness, it simply means, “sitting with” the thoughts, without a struggle. The struggle with your thoughts is what is said to create the suffering. Thoughts are just thoughts. It’s getting caught up in them, becoming preoccupied with them and consumed by them that causes problems. You see, as the saying goes, “pain is inevitable, suffering is optional”. You don’t necessarily have a choice about what comes up, but if you notice it, you do then have a choice about whether you engage with it, struggle with it or simply allow it. You don’t have to control it or change it. If it changes by itself, that’s ok, if it doesn’t change, that’s ok too.
The goal of Mindfulness is not to stop your thoughts or to stop your mind from thinking. That is impossible. Not even Zen masters can do this. The goal is to simply notice your thoughts and to bring a greater sense of kindness and compassion to those thoughts. It’s about being open to, and curious to, whatever comes up.
Why should I practice Mindfuless?
Well, why not? Struggling with painful or unpleasant thoughts is not fun! Besides this obvious point, stress is actually quite damaging on the human body. It stops your body from functioning normally. When we are stressed, our sympathetic nervous system is activated in what’s sometimes referred to as the “fight or flight” response. This is an evolutionary response to a perceived danger or threat. Our body cleverly channels all of our energy into fighting or fleeing a danger or threat, and while it does this, the parts of our body that are not needed are simply shut down. This means that our digestive, immune, growth and reproductive systems are all hindered during stressful times. This is a pretty handy thing for our body to do, especially if a tiger is chasing us. It’s a system which is in place to protect us, except that, in our modern lives, this system is being activated by things such as deadlines, running late, fighting with your partner, being cut off in traffic, overworking and other such things. It’s basically turned into a sensitive car alarm, which is going off when it shouldn’t. We all need a little bit of stress to get things done, but when it’s happening too much and too often, that’s when it can be damaging to our mental health and general wellbeing. It can cause stomach ulcers, heart problems, lowered libido and other illnesses.
While stress triggers a fight-or-flight response, Mindfulness activates the parasympathetic nervous system, or the “rest and digest” system. Our heart rate slows, our breathing slows and our blood pressure drops. Mindfulness is therefore restorative and benefits our wellbeing.
The benefits of Mindfulness are also well researched and empirically supported. In fact, a scholarly search on Mindfulness brings up a wealth of empirical evidence to support its benefits, effectiveness and usefulness.
How can Mindfulness help me?
Reduces Stress. People who practice mindfulness meditation regularly have reported feeling less stressed and more emotionally balanced, and, according to research by neuroscientists, as you continue to meditate, your brain physically changes! How amazing! The part of the brain that reacts to stress was found to be less reactive in those who practiced mindfulness regularly.
Enhances focus and concentration. Mindfulness helps you to focus and concentrate. Being able to focus and defy distraction is linked to our ability to control our impulses, emotions and achieve our long-term goals. Remember, being able to focus on your goals is one of the keys to finding success.
Improves your relationships. Finally, it also improves your relationships. Not just with those close to you, but also with everyone else you meet. As you become more comfortable with yourself, it makes it easier for you to get along with others, and you may find it easier to accept them as they are too. Mindfulness is therefore not only beneficial for you, but also for those around you!
Now that you know about all the benefits of Mindfulness, let’s get on to the practical side of it all…
How do I practice Mindfulness?
Mindfulness can be practiced formally and informally. The formal practice is usually called Mindfulness Meditation, which I’ll get on to in a sec. Informal practice can be doing things like having a shower mindfully, brushing your teeth mindfully, eating mindfully, going for a mindful walk, or using tools such as the “5,5,5” or the “Stop Practice”, which I’ll also explain in a sec. The important thing to remember is that most of the research on the benefits of Mindfulness is based on the formal practice of Mindfulness Meditation; so scheduling in some time every day to do a formal practice is what’s going to be most beneficial for you. Setting a reminder on your phone may help you with this.
There are 3 basic components to most Mindfulness Meditations: your body, your breath and your thoughts. First, let’s talk about the body – which also involves our environment and how we set it up for our Mindfulness Meditation. You should be in a comfortable and safe environment. With practice, you should be able to practice Meditation anywhere, but to begin with, pick a relatively quiet space, which is a comfortable temperature for you and where you are not likely to be distracted by others. This may be your bedroom, for example.
Some people like to create a meditation space or “altar” and decorate it with pictures, photos, objects that mean something to you or your meditation practice. Sometimes people like to light a candle or burn incense while they meditate, too. All of this stuff is optional and not essential to engaging in the practice, but it may enhance it.
Before you begin, you may wish to set a timer or alarm. If this is your first time meditating, set it for 5 minutes to begin with. As you continue practicing, you may wish to extend this time to be 10 or 20 minutes.
Now that you have the space and time, you will need somewhere to sit. Some people like to sit in chair; others like to sit on a cushion. The main thing here is that your posture is upright but not too rigid. Your posture should be one that is conducive to alertness and awareness. Remember, it’s not about relaxation, so sit naturally and comfortably but ensure that your back is straight and that there is a natural curve in your back. If you’re in a chair, make sure your feet are flat on the floor. If you’re on a cushion, you can sit with them crossed underneath you. You can place your hands on your knees with your palms facing down, or if you’re trying to cultivate a greater sense of openness, you may like to have your palms facing up. Eyes can be open or closed. If you’re just starting out, sometimes having them partially open and focused on a spot can help to increase your focus and limit distraction from thoughts.
Begin by just sitting in this posture for a bit. Just be aware of your body and any sensations you are experiencing right now in this moment. Notice what you can see and hear. Notice what you are thinking right now in this moment. Notice what you are feeling. Just notice. Remember, your mind will wander. This is ok. When you notice that your mind has wandered, gently bring your awareness back to your body, without judgment.
Next, you will bring your awareness to your breath. Notice your breath flowing in and out. Notice it as it enters through your nose or mouth, fills your lungs with air, and then makes its way back out of the body. Notice your tummy rising and falling. Imagine that you have a balloon in your tummy and every time you breathe in, the balloon inflates and every time you breathe out the balloon deflates.
Just keep your focus on your breath for the next few minutes. Use the breath as your anchor to this moment. Once again, it’s normal and natural for your mind to wander. Simply notice the thoughts, acknowledge them and gently bring your awareness back to the breath. Your mind will wander repeatedly. Every time it wanders, notice it and gently bring it back. You can sit and meditate for as long as you like, or until your alarm goes off to signal the end of the practice. Come out of your meditation slowly and gently.
When should I meditate?
You can meditate any time you like, but some people prefer to do it first thing in the morning to prepare them for the day, or just before bed to aid with sleep. It’s really up to you when you choose to meditate, how often and for how long.
As I said, you can also practice mindfulness informally…
Try eating a piece of chocolate mindfully. Pick it up. Look at it. Notice the texture in your hand. Bring it up to your mouth. Smell it. Place it in your mouth on your tongue for a few seconds. Taste it. Feel the texture. Bite into it slowly. Feel it melt in your mouth. Savour the taste.
Try going for a Mindful Walk. Take note of everything you see, hear, smell, taste, think and touch on your walk. Notice your stride. Notice the breeze against your cheek. Notice the birds singing. Notice your thoughts. Feel the ground beneath your feet.
Try taking a shower mindfully. Feel the water soaking your skin. Feel the temperature. Feel the texture of your hair as you shampoo it. Every time a thought enters your awareness, imagine it being washed away.
Try the 5, 5, 5. You can do this anywhere, anytime. It’s a grounding practice. Notice 5 things you can see, 5 things you can hear, and 5 things you can touch. This practice is really good for pulling your mind out of quicksand, that is, when you are ruminating or getting caught up in your thoughts about something.
Try the STOP practice. The STOP practice is really good for stopping you when you’re about to react to something – i.e. you’ve just been cut off in traffic. Instead of reacting, you can:
Stop: Literally stop whatever you’re doing.
Take: A few deep breaths.
Observe: Your thoughts, feelings and surroundings
Proceed: In the most effective way.
Try colouring in mindfully. This is the latest craze and it really is a great alternative to the formal mindfulness practice. Just make sure you choose a colouring book with repetitive and simple patterns, so you don’t get distracted easily by the pictures/design and can simply focus on colouring in.
Some other tools.
My favourite apps on Mindfulness
Headspace is a UK-based Mindfulness Meditation App with guided Mindfulness Meditations.
Smiling Mind is an Australian Mindfulness Meditation App targeted to young people, but it is helpful for all ages.
My favourite books on Mindfulness
Mindfulness for Life by Dr. Craig Hassed and Dr. Stephen McKenzie is a helpful overview of Mindfulness.
The Mindfulness Journal by Corrinne Sweet is handy if you’re wanting to incorporate writing into your mindfulness practice.
The Happiness Trap by Dr. Russ Harris is the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy bible.
The Reality Slap by Dr. Russ Harris is helpful for when there’s a gap between what you want and what you’ve got.
The Little Book of Mindfulness by Dr. Patrizia Collard is small enough to carry in a handbag.
The Mindfulness Colouring Book by Emma Farrarons is handy if you don’t like formal mindfulness practice. Colouring in can be a helpful alternative.
A final note….
Mindfulness practice is not intended to treat acute stress in the moment, but rather, to be practiced daily over time to reduce your overall level of stress, which in turn will result in fewer acute episodes of stress. It is recommended that you practice these exercises daily even when you are not feeling stressed. If you only practice when you are stressed or anxious, you will not get the full benefit of it. Like any new skill, it takes practice to get the best results. Find a suitable time in your day to schedule in your mindfulness practice and commit to it as a daily part of your routine. Setting an alarm or reminder on your phone may be helpful for this. As you start to see the benefits of your daily practice, you are likely to want to continue with this.
Good luck and enjoy the moment.