Mindfulness is something you hear about more and more in everyday conversation. Sometimes it simply means being aware of a particular task or fact. More people are also practicing mindfulness, through meditation or other exercises that train your brain to be more self-aware and focus more intently.
Why might this be? Research is showing that meditation–which has been an important part of various religious and spiritual traditions for centuries–provides physical and mental health benefits. In their book Mindfulness, Mark Williams and Danny Penman cite several studies that claim that meditation has the potential to reduce mortality and increase longevity, promote positive self-image and regard for others, and reduce the chance of depression.
If you want to explore a mindfulness practice for yourself, the good news is that it requires very little initial investment: five to ten minutes set aside each day is all you need to get started.
But what, exactly, do you do when you practice mindfulness?
In a recent New York Times blog, J. David Creswell–an associate professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University–defines mindful meditation as “an open and receptive, nonjudgmental awareness of your present-moment experience.” What does this mean?
Open and receptive: you are able and willing to experience the thoughts, feelings and sensations in your mind
Nonjudgemental: you are willing to experience these thoughts and sensations without thinking of them negatively or positively, but simply as a true part of your experience
Awareness: you not only experience these thoughts, feelings and sensations, but you know you are experiencing them
Present-moment experience: all the thoughts, feelings and sensations you are experiencing right now
…if this is unclear, here are some simple steps to start exploring mindfulness for yourself:
- Devote some amount of time to a mindfulness practice, every day if you can.
While some people suggest 15 minutes or more at the start and end of each day, others claim five to seven minutes each day is all you need. Truthfully, any amount of time, no matter how short, is a great way to get started and learn more.
- Find a comfortable space to sit quietly.Don’t worry about findingthe most comfortable or the most quiet spot. Any reasonably comfortable spot will do the trick; as long as you are safe and not overwhelmed by distraction, you should have no problem meditating.
- Close your eyes, “soften” your hearing, and focus on your breath.To start the process you need something to focus on. And while this can be anything, most mindfulness meditation focuses on breathing because your breath is something that is always with you, meaning you can regain your focus on it at any point during the day. Close your eyes, let your sense of hearing recede into the background, and try to focus your mind on only your breathing. You may deepen your breathing, but breathing in any way that is comfortable and natural to you will work.
- Acknowledge when your mind loses focus–and it will lose focus–and re-focus it.You may be surprised just how briefly your mind can focus on just one thing before another thought–maybe about work or bills, or about your family or something that happened to you in the past–pops up in your head. Sometimes it happens after only a few seconds! When it happens, try not to be discouraged. Remember, we are not making judgements about whether your thoughts or feelings are good or bad… they just are. The best thing is to acknowledge to yourself that you are thinking about something else, something that isn’t happening in the moment you are currently in, and then let that thought go. Focus yourself back on your breathing for as long as you can and, when another thought pops up (and it will!), try to do the same.
…being mindful is not as easy as it sounds. In fact, it may even make some people physically or emotionally uncomfortable (and if this is what you experience, use your best judgement about when to stop and whether to continue). That’s why they call it practice. It takes work but, over time, you may find that your focus, your mindfulness, improves.
Maybe it will help you work more effectively, or resist cravings by understanding your emotions and their impermanence. You may find that you are thinking a lot of negative thoughts about yourself and seek to be more self-compassionate. You may just find that a five-minute meditation is a nice way to wake up in the morning. The experience is best when you are not trying to achieve a certain goal or outcome, but simply accepting the practice and any added awareness it may bring. Start small, and find out what’s right for you.