You may have heard of mindfulness as a form of meditation, or a tool you can use in daily life to lower stress, improve focus, or treat anxiety or depression. You can use mindfulness when you are stressed out about an exam, anxious in social situations, and many other difficult times. But what is it exactly?
What is mindfulness?
One simple definition is by Jon Kabat-Zinn, one of the main teachers of mindfulness in the United States:
- “Paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally, to the unfolding of experience moment to moment.”
In other words, mindfulness means focusing on what is happening right now, rather than replaying things that happened in the past or worrying about what’s going to happen next. Sounds simple, and it is. But that doesn’t mean it is easy! It’s really hard to stay focused on what’s happening now, and not get caught up in the past or future. It takes a lot of practice to build the mindfulness habit.
How do people practice mindfulness?
Meditation. Some people practice mindfulness meditation, which generally means sitting still with eyes closed for anywhere from a few minutes to an hour or longer, simply noticing their breath or other inner experiences happening in the present moment.
During your day. Other people use mindfulness principles when doing other activities in their daily lives, like eating, talking to friends, exercising, etc. When you notice your mind jumping ahead to worries about what you are going to do next, or stressing about whether your friend thought your last joke was funny, you bring your attention back to what’s happening right now.
Here are some common mindfulness practices.
1. Mindful eating: In this practice, you slow waaaay down and spend about three minutes eating a single raisin. It may sound silly at first but it is a powerful exercise! Give it a try:
- Step One: First hold the raisin in your hand, and spend a full minute looking at it, feeling the texture on your fingers.
- Step Two: Then place the raisin in your mouth and feel the texture on your tongue before you start chewing.
- Step Three: Chew very slowly, and notice all the flavors and sensations before swallowing. Pay attention to each bite, the way the food looks, smells, and tastes.Take at least two minutes to hold, chew, taste, and swallow the raisin.
You can also use mindful eating techniques when you are eating your regular meals. People often report enjoying their food more and reducing overeating when they practice mindful eating!
2. Mindfulness of breath: This is a beginner practice to build basic mindfulness tools, increase focus, and help you feels less stressed.
- Step One: Find a comfortable place where you can sit and close your eyes for a few minutes.
- Step Two: Bring your attention to your breath. Don’t try to change anything, don’t make your breath any deeper or slower, simply observe what is happening.
- Step Three: Whatever you focus on, try to observe ten full cycles of breath, in and out.
- When focusing on the breath, you can try paying attention to the experience of your lungs filling and emptying, your belly rising and falling, or the feeling of air going in and out of your nostrils.
- If your mind wanders to something else, don’t worry about it or beat yourself up, that’s part of the process! Just notice that you wandered and return to focusing on your breath.
3. Body scan: This practice helps you build awareness of what’s going on inside you.
- Step One: Find a comfortable place where you can close your eyes for a 3-5 minutes (set a timer if you’d like).
- Step Two: Start by taking a few deep breaths. Bring your awareness to your feet, feel the sensation of them resting on the floor.
- Step Three: Slowly bring your awareness up your body, noticing how your lower legs feel, any tension or relaxation there, then upper legs, back, belly, chest, shoulders, arms, and ending with your neck and head. Spend at least ten seconds on each area, more if you like.
- Step Four: When you have scanned your whole body, take another three deep breaths and then open your eyes
It’s important that you don’t try to change anything, judge any feelings as good or bad, or try to figure out why you feel a certain way. If you notice yourself thinking or judging, simply remind yourself that you are here to observe only and return to your mindfulness practice.
4. Grounding: This practice will help you build your awareness of what is happening around you, in your environment.
- Step One: Sit or stand comfortably, with both feet on the ground.
- Step Two: Look all around the room, silently naming what you see: blue wall, tall plant, open book, etc.
- Step Three: Pause and listen to all the sounds you can hear too: traffic outside, hum of air conditioner, the sound of your own breath or heart. Notice any smells, any sensations (breeze, heat, etc), name those too.
- Step Four: To end, return your attention to the feeling of your feet on the ground.
The benefits of mindfulness.
So why do any of this stuff? Here are some of the benefits of mindfulness:
- Improves focus, attention, memory
- Lowers stress
- Increases ability to feel happy, enjoy the good in life
- Helps you spend less energy worrying about what might happen in the future
- Reduces rumination, or endlessly replaying things that happened in the past
- Helps you identify your emotions, improving self-awareness and your ability to communicate with others
- Increases your understanding of your body
- Research shows that mindfulness can have a significant impact on depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and other mental health conditions
Resources to learn more: