What is mindfulness? And how can it help me?

Mindfulness has become a popular word, used in several contexts. Often when I ask people if they have ever heard of mindfulness, they will refer to being told to "be mindful" of their actions or behavior. I'd like to write about mindfulness in a basic context, stripping away the idea that there is a "right action." I find it most helpful to think of mindfulness as paying attention, on purpose, to the present moment, without judgement. So let's break that down further:

  1. Paying attention: It's seems like a very basic thing to do, right?! Just pay attention. Well, it's not very easy to do with our human minds. Our minds would like to think about anything else but the present moment! "What's for dinner tonight? I hope I make it to my appointment on time. I can't believe I made that mistake yesterday..." 

  2. On purpose: Paying attention isn't about turning the chatter off; it's about purposefully and intentionally choosing to focus. 

  3. Present moment: We mostly live our lives in the past or future. Depression is all about thoughts of the past and anxiety is all about thoughts of the future. Mindfulness is about making a conscious effort to be and live in the present moment, as it is happening, now, now, now, and now.

  4. Without judgment: No aspect of mindfulness is easy. But letting go of judgment may be the most difficult. It's about allowing whatever is here to be here, in this moment, and neither fighting to make it go away or deeming it unacceptable. If, as you are reading this, you say "I hate this font," see if you can let go of that thought and return to reading. If, in this moment, you notice that you are sad, allow yourself to be sad without judging yourself for it. 

Yes, some moments are easier to "be in" than others. But mindfulness can be practiced and cultivated in any moment. Mindfulness can be practiced both "formally," for example, by engaging in a sitting meditation, or "informally" by noticing how your foot touches the ground with each step you take on the way to the train. For guided mindfulness exercises, visit my resources page for a link. 

But maybe we should step back and look first at WHY one would practice mindfulness. If it's not something that comes naturally, then why commit to practicing mindfulness? Well, there is significant research evidence to support regular mindfulness practice. For example, 

  1. Practicing mindfulness changes the brain in such a way that make it easier for us to cope with and regulate our emotions. That means unwanted emotions become less distressing and we feel more at peace.

  2. Individuals who go through mindfulness training courses are signficantly less stressed, anxious, and depressed afterward. 

  3. Mindfulness has been shown to protect against emotional stress in relationships (for example, after a conflict). 

  4. People who practice mindfulness tend to have more empathy and compassion for self and others. 

  5. Mindfulness can boost your immune system, helping to prevent illness and recover more quickly from illness. 

This list is certainly not comprehensive, but should give you a sense of how developing a mindfulness practice could be beneficial to you! Contact me if you'd like the original research references or you would like additional information about mindfulness. More to come in future posts on ways to practice mindfulness!