In today’s hectic, connected world, we’re so busy and distracted by all the information coming at us, that we’re just living on autopilot and don’t realize that our nervous systems are stuck in the “fight or flight” stress response. When we’re in this mode, we’re producing cortisol, which is really detrimental to our minds and bodies. What we need is a way to turn off our stress response by switching to the parasympathetic “rest and digest” arm of our nervous system. The antidote is practicing mindfulness.
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is not complicated as it really just involves focusing our attention in a particular way. It’s open, receptive awareness to what’s taking place around us. More precisely, according to John Kabat-Zinn, author of Full Catastrophe Living, it’s “a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations.” Being mindful helps you stay in the present moment and become skillful at observing yourself nonjudgmentally.
Is Mindfulness Meditation?
The two terms are used interchangeably, so essentially yes. The difference to me, being somewhat new to mindfulness myself, is you can make the effort to be mindful while doing daily activities, where you’re fully engaged doing one thing, such eating, driving, or brushing your teeth. Whereas the practice of meditation helps you become more aware and thus more mindful over time; it usually involves sitting down for a period of time and focusing on your breath, a sound or an object. However, that being said, there are some forms of movement that are considered meditation, such as yoga, tai chi, and qigong. There’s also even a walking meditation. So if you’re the restless type who can’t sit still to meditate, you might want to give them a try.
Some people are turned off by the word “meditation” as they associate it with religion or think it involves having to spend many hours sitting on a pillow chanting mantras. But it doesn’t have to take a lot of time out of your day and you can just sit on a chair or do it lying down (be careful not to fall asleep, though).
Benefits of Mindfulness
Obviously, there’s something to it given all the celebrities and Silicon Valley CEOs who are practicing mindfulness today.
There are many studies showing that mindfulness can reduce stress, help sleep, improve memory and problem solving, enhance immune function, reduce inflammation, lower blood pressure and much more. The medical community is even behind it, as the benefits are backed up by science using MRIs to measure people’s brains.
My coach training included an 8-week mindfulness training, and I still make time for it every day. I believe it’s helped me become calmer, more focused, and less reactive.
How to Get Started
Here are some short practices you can try:
Short 5-minute Mindfulness Exercise
Find a quiet, comfortable spot, either sitting or lying down, and relax any tension in your body. You can close your eyes or leave them open. All you need to do is pay attention to your breath and breathe normally. Our minds are never still so don’t get discouraged if you get distracted. If your mind wanders, just keep bringing your attention back to the breath. Observe your thoughts without judging or trying to change them.
Belly Breathing (5-15 minutes)
Proper breathing is important as it ensures we get enough oxygen into our bloodstream. However, most people don’t think about how they breathe and take shallow breaths. If you’re breathing correctly, your belly should be moving in and out with the breath, not the chest. Try this exercise to retrain your breath:
This can be done sitting or lying down with your hands on your belly. Take a smooth, slow inhalation through the nose, ensuring the diaphragm (not the chest) inflates with enough air. Breathe out naturally and slowly, and repeat. You should feel your belly rising up and down.
You can do this sitting or lying down. Start by slowly focusing on the toes of your left foot, then move to the sole of your foot, to the top of your foot, whole foot, and ankle. Then work up the leg and then repeat on the other foot, leg, and hip, relaxing any tension or discomfort as you go. Next, extend your attention to your fingers and up your left arm and alternate. Then move up the back of the body and up the front of the body until you get to the top of your head. This should take 20-30 minutes.
This meditation uses words and feelings to evoke loving kindness and friendliness toward oneself and others. In her 2008 study, where meditation novices were trained in LKM for six weeks, Dr. Barbara Fredrickson found improvements in resting vagal tone (the gut and brain communicate through the vagus nerve) and toning the vagal nerve is associated with lower systemic inflammation. Therefore it may be a helpful practice for people suffering from the chronic illness caused by inflammation.
Say or think these affirmations (intentions) a couple of times with a few breaths in between (15-20 minutes):
May I be well
May I be happy
May I be safe
May I live with ease
Then extend the sayings to another person; for example, a loved one (“May you be well…,” etc.). Next, you can extend it to someone you don’t know that well that you have neutral feelings for. Then extend it to someone you find difficult to deal with. From there, you can extend it to others in your household, your neighborhood, your town, all beings, the universe, etc. You can change the phrases to something you like better, if these don’t resonate with you—they’re really just kind intentions.
Most of the time we gulp our food down without even thinking about what we’re eating, which is terrible for digestion. Try eating while not reading, watching TV, or looking at your phone or computer. Instead, enjoy the scenery or the company of others you’re eating with. Slow down so you can pay attention to what you’re eating: first look at your food, notice the texture, the smell and taste; savor each bite. Take breaks between mouthfuls and chew your food thoroughly, which helps start the digestive process. You may find that you’re satisfied eating less this way.
As you can see, there are many ways to be mindful–just find something that’s right for you. Start small with a few minutes day and work up. Make it fun! There are tons of videos, scripts, and apps available.
However, mindfulness is not something you get from reading a book or watching a video, you have to practice it regularly. Attention is something that can be strengthened through exercise, just like we exercise our muscles at the gym. Decide your practice is going to be a priority and keep doing it consistently enough to where it becomes a habit.
If there’s no way you can even find short periods of time to meditate, you can still get many benefits of mindfulness by just paying attention to your breath throughout the day. This will give your mind a break and bring you into the present moment. Try it when you’re stressed, before speaking or making a decision.
I hope you find these tips helpful in your journey to be more mindful.