There's a lot of buzz around mindfulness and meditation these days, and for good reason. Mindfulness is a simple yet profound way to improve your life by actively cultivating peace, deepening your relationship with yourself (and likely with others), and taking the edge off of anxiety, depression, and stress. In this blog post, we'll discuss what mindfulness is, how it works, and what are the benefits of practicing it.
What is mindfulness and how can it help you live a better life
More likely than not, you’ve heard instances of mindfulness popping up in everyday dialogue.
“I’d like to be mindful of the time, so I’m going to wrap this up,” or “Hey, let’s all remember to be mindful of the noise–Grandpa’s trying to get some rest.”
Of course, this is a kind and perfectly acceptable way to speak. However, is this mindfulness? In these instances, the concept of “mindfulness” operates as kind of a vague stand-in for being respectful of whatever we’re talking about, a sort of quiet consideration or observation of expected behavior. You’ll hear others use their own private definitions: that mindfulness is a state of supreme bliss, mindfulness is the ability to sit without the presence of thoughts, or mindfulness is a near-mystic ability to become unfazed by the inevitable ups and downs of life.
Each of these descriptions contain a kernel of truth. Along the journey of cultivating this thing called mindfulness, one might develop a sense of respectful awareness toward one’s inner life, but that’s not the sum of the practice. You might become aware of feeling blissful from time to time, but that does not define the experience. And as per stopping thoughts, that only happens once you die. To clarify, we mean something quite specific when we talk about the practice and the state of mindfulness: that is, simply paying attention to your present moment experience with curiosity and without judgment. That means being aware of your thoughts, feelings, and sensations as they unfold in real time without getting caught up in them or reacting to them as if they were inherently negative or positive.
The Three Core Elements of Mindfulness
There are three aspects that are essential to mindfulness: Present focus, Non-judgmental attention, and awareness of thoughts.
When you're mindful, you're not trying to push away your thoughts or feelings, or make them go away. You're simply observing them without judgment.
More often than not, our minds are panning between the past and the future: we continuously revisit regrets, ruminate on cringy things we’ve done or said, or relive favorite memories. We worry about the future, plan for what to have for dinner, imagine what our friend might say about our new haircut, or wonder if our parents will approve of our partner. For most of our waking lives, our minds are anywhere but grounded in the present. Mindfulness involves gently practicing a continual return to the immediate moment after noticing when our minds inevitably drift into future worries or plans, or past memories or regrets.
Our minds are continually applying labels to what unfolds within and around us. So instinctively, so seamlessly does judgment follow perception that there is no distinction between the two. To see another is to react with “she’s cute,” “he’s boring,” “they’re interesting,” and to experience ourselves can feel like “this pain is bad,” “this thought is embarrassing,” “this feeling is unacceptable,” “this memory is bliss.” The mind’s tendency to judge is so constant and automatic that we tend to react more to our judgments of things than to the things themselves. An important aspect of mindfulness practice is to deepen our capacity to notice this pull of judgment in ourselves and to allow our thoughts and feelings to unfold as they are without the story we tell ourselves about them.
Awareness of a thought (versus thinking a thought):
Awareness is a quality of attention that requires an object, a thing to be aware of. For our purposes, this includes thoughts, feelings, and sensations. This is the aspect of the practice that builds the recognition that thoughts and feelings are not necessarily as truths to be believed. Rather, our thoughts and feelings are just that: thoughts and feelings, mental weather. They may be accurate, they may not. When we are lost in our judgements, daydreams, or worries, they can feel real. Cultivating awareness of thoughts and feelings shifts us from being lost in a memory about a day on the playground in 2nd grade to becoming conscious of the fact that we are daydreaming, for example. A metaphor may help to illustrate this: more often than not, we are swept along in the river of our own impressions, thoughts, emotions, sensations, and so on. Awareness is your climbing up on the riverbank, watching. From the bank, you are not swept away in the force of your experience, nor is there any need to stop the river from flowing. Instead, you watch your own experience unfold with an abiding curiosity.
Benefits of Mindfulness
Mindfulness is a specific way of being with yourself and with your experience. In time, the practice leads to becoming less reactive to your internal world-your memories, regrets, anxieties, hopes, fears, and daydreams. You become less reactive to your external world as well–the traffic jam, the lousy song on the radio, the things your friends are doing and saying. These things start to be felt with a bit more equanimity, a bit less angst or rawness. As a result, your stress, anxiety, and depression may diminish. In practicing mindfulness, one begins building the skill of sensing their thoughts and feelings not necessarily as absolute realities (we've all been mistaken in what we think, right?) but as “mental weather.”
The benefits of mindfulness are vast and well-documented. Mindfulness has been shown to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression, improve sleep quality, boost immune function, and improve the experience of chronic pain. In addition, practitioners often find improved quality of sleep, improvements in mood, increased focus and attention span, and enhanced relationships with others.
These are just a few of the ways that mindfulness can improve your life. If you're interested in learning more about mindfulness and how to start practicing it, read on here. Additionally, if you want to begin working with a therapist who can incorporate mindfulness into your therapy (either in practice or theory), please reach out to schedule a phone consultation.