If there was a free pill you could take daily that had the potential to help make you mentally and physically healthier and change your brain for the better, you’d probably take it, right? At least give it a try?
Well, there is something like that, but it’s not a pill. It’s a way of thinking. A mindset.
A kinder, gentler, more aware, and conscious way of moving through life. It’s mindfulness.
With its recent rise to popularity, I’m sure you’ve heard of it. Maybe you’re curious. Maybe you’ve even tried it or maybe you have some apprehension about it — perhaps you think that it’s too “far-out-there” and not backed by science. Rest easy.
Let me assure you that you don’t have to burn incense, sit cross-legged on a cushion, or sign up for a silent retreat (but you can if you want to) to practice mindfulness. It can simply be an effective mental health tool that’s free, easy to incorporate into your life, and available to you at any time anywhere. While supporting science is still relatively new and emerging, it is beginning to be backed by a wealth of valid research showing that it changes your brain.
Very simply, mindfulness is a way of thinking. It’s being aware and being aware of your awareness. It’s training your brain to pay attention and focus and notice what’s happening as it’s happening. It’s learning to direct your attention to your present experience, including your mind, body, and environment.
Mindfulness is both a state of mind and a quality that you develop through practice. Over time, it becomes a way of being and part of who you are. Repetitively and consistently thinking and behaving mindfully alters your brain’s form and function. You may think of mindfulness as a spiritual practice. While it can be, it is not associated with any specific religious orientation nor does it conflict with any.
Mindfulness Is Not Automatically Synonymous With Meditation
Although the terms are often used interchangeably, mindfulness is not synonymous with meditation. Meditation is just one kind of mindfulness practice, and mindfulness meditation is just one type of meditation. However, most of the research conducted thus far has been done using mindfulness meditation. Meditation is an activity, something you do. Mindfulness, in a broad sense, is more of a philosophy that can be carried out in many ways.
Of course, you can definitely practice mindfulness with meditation. But not all meditation is mindful. For example, some meditations guide your imagination through a relaxing scene. But mentally traveling to a different place instead of being here now is the opposite of being mindful. If people think mindfulness always means sitting cross-legged and humming a mantra, then they may be less likely to give it a try or to think they can incorporate into their daily lives. So, it’s an important difference to understand.
How to Build Mindfulness Into Your Day
Mindfulness can be practiced in your everyday activities in your normal life and doesn’t have to take a lot of effort or time. You don’t necessarily have to schedule a time or follow a set ritual time to practice mindfulness. You could be washing your car, having a snack, jogging, playing with your dog, or taking a shower.
Any activity can be done in a mindful way by being fully present and aware at the moment. Take washing the dishes, for example. While you are doing it, you let your mind wander, and before you know it, you’re not washing dishes anymore. You are worrying about the credit card bill. Any activity can be an opportunity to pay attention to the task at hand as an anchor for coming back to the present moment, to your body and mind.
Below are seven ways to build little moments of mindfulness into things you already do every day.
Several times throughout your day, take a moment to become aware of your breath and breathe mindfully. A number of studies have shown that slow, diaphragmatic breathing triggers the body’s relaxation response instantly. Slow breathing is the fastest way to calm your brain and body. Science revealed that neurons at the base of the brain stem have a direct connection to the brain’s arousal center. They can either set off the body’s alarms or keep it calm. When you intentionally slow your breathing, these neurons tell your nervous system to calm down. Here are Six Breathing Techniques That Calm Your Brain and Body Instantly.
Your daily shower is a perfect opportunity to practice mindfulness —alone, quiet, and away from the normal distractions of your life. It can be a time to observe your habitual patterns of thinking. Under the shower, notice the sensation of the water as it falls onto your head and runs down your body. Acknowledge the temperature and texture of the water. Listen to the relaxing beat of the water as it falls, like rain. Showering is also a prime opportunity to practice gratitude. Think of how many people in the world don’t have access to hot water, soap, or shampoo.
Mindful walking is something you can practice as you go about your normal day. It simply means to pay attention as you walk. Most of the time, we walk without giving it any thought. When doing this exercise, you might think of walking as if you are just learning to do. Become aware of the sensations in the bottom of your feet making contact with the ground. Feel the muscles in your legs working. Notice how your arms move rhythmically at your sides. When your mind wanders, use your feet hitting the floor to bring you back into the present moment.
Eating mindfully means slowing down, getting off autopilot, and paying attention during the act of eating. It includes noticing the colors, smells, flavors, and textures of your food, chewing slowly, eliminating distractions like TV or reading, and confronting any emotions about food. Research shows it can even help people lose weight. Mindful eating can be a lengthy process and is not going to be feasible at all meals or with others. When you do have the opportunity, here is an excellent guide on how to do it.
Often, when we are talking with another person, we are lost in our own thoughts or thinking of what we want to say next. Contrary to the whole multitasking myth, your brain cannot pay attention to two things at once. Really listening takes intent, time, and effort, but it is a skill you can build. At its core, mindful listening is just guiding your mind to the present moment again and again. The article, How to Practice Mindful Listening, offers the HEAR practice to develop deeper listening skills:
- HALT — Halt whatever you are doing and offer your full attention.
- ENJOY — Enjoy a breath as you consciously choose to receive whatever is being communicated to you—wanted or unwanted.
- ASK — Ask yourself if you really know what they mean and if you don’t, ask for clarification. Instead of making assumptions, bring openness and curiosity to the interaction. You might be surprised at what you discover.
- REFLECT — Reflect back to them what you heard. This tells them that you were really listening.
Doing one thing at a time
Even when you think you’re multitasking, you’re not. Our brains don’t work that way. Your brain operates sequentially focusing on one thing. What’s really happening when you think you’re multitasking is that you’re shifting your attention back and forth and using short-term memory. Besides, trying to multitask causes stress and anxiety and decreases efficiency and productivity.
Try changing your focus to doing just one thing at a time. Take on each task with full awareness, one by one. When mindfully doing a task, you’re less prone to make mistakes or forget details. You’ll find you can be more efficient with the task, and maybe even finish it sooner without feeling worn out or stressed.
Aimless wandering seems to be the exact opposite of mindfully paying attention. But not if you wander aimlessly with awareness. If mindfulness is “the practice of paying attention to the present moment, on purpose”, here you are guiding the mind with awareness to not focus on any one thing. This exercise is allowing for your mind to be spacious. It’s practiced as part of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) curriculum as a technique called choiceless awareness, which roughly translates into being open to what unfolds in front of you, what emerges in your mind. Aimless wandering emphasizes spaciousness more than focus or concentration. Some think it’s a more advanced mindfulness practice, but, in a way, it’s also the most natural and simplest.