Mindfulness has become quite the buzzword, in fact, it seems to have become a favorite adjective for marketing copywriters. No wonder, as the mindfulness market is now estimated to be worth more than one billion dollars. Everyone is tapping in (yes, there’s even a mindful Barbie doll now). It’s important in the middle of the hype to remember that mindfulness is something very legit that has been around for thousands of years. And while it certainly is coming more into fashion, it’s not a fad. Wise men and women through the ages have practiced mindfulness and understood the benefits far before research scientists got involved. It’s not surprising in our current reality of social media, mobile devices, never-ending amounts of content, and through-the-roof stress levels, that more and more of us are turning to mindfulness.
What is mindfulness? There are varying definitions, but none are too different from each other. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the creator of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program and author of Full Catastrophe Living defines mindfulness as, “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” Another well-known mindfulness teacher, Sylvia Boorstein describes it as, “the aware, balanced acceptance of the present experience, opening to receiving the present moment, pleasant or unpleasant, just as it is, without clinging to it or rejecting it.” I’ll add that it’s also bringing curiously to your experience. When we are curious, it’s harder to immediately judge an experience to be good, bad, right or wrong.
It’s not surprising in our current reality of social media, mobile devices, never-ending amounts of content, and through-the-roof stress levels, that more and more of us are turning to mindfulness.
The benefits of practicing this cultivation of awareness and learning to be open to the present moment – whatever it may be – can include reducing stress, anxiety and depression and improving concentration, memory, interpersonal relationships and emotional regulation. Developing this ability to be able to be with your current experience also strengthens something most of us can use more of: Resilience, the ability to “bounce back” from difficulty.
The most well-known way to cultivate mindfulness is meditation. This is a formal practice of mindfulness and is what most of the research to-date has focused on. As a new meditator, even five minutes of sitting in silence can feel challenging, but over time, it gets easier. When practicing sitting mediation, the goal isn’t to not think, but rather to be aware that you are thinking. It can be helpful to have an anchor for your awareness, such as the sensation or rhythm of the breath, the feeling of body sensations or sounds that are present. The practice is simply noticing thoughts and then gently bringing the awareness back to the anchor you’ve chosen. You can take it one step deeper by noticing if your experiences while in meditation are pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.
Meditating is a formal way to practice mindfulness, but mindfulness can also continue ‘off the cushion’ in informal ways. Here are five ways you can cultivate mindfulness in your everyday life:
Mindful Walking – While most of us walk less than our ancestors, we still walk multiple times throughout the day. Depending on what our activities are, we may walk both inside and outside. Have you noticed that when you are walking, your mind is often somewhere else? Have you ever gone into a store and forgotten where you parked your car? There’s a good chance that the mind was somewhere else when you left your car and walked through the parking lot.
Mindful walking is the practice of being present in your body as you walk and tapping into the senses. What do you see, smell, hear? You can feel the sensation of your feet on the ground, notice which parts of the body are working to help you put one foot in front of the other. You can also notice what draws your eyes while walking and, perhaps, step in to take a closer look. You may find things that have always been there and you’ve just never noticed them. If you are walking for a more extended time, you may invite yourself to notice when your mind wanders away from the current experience and, like in sitting meditation, bring it back to your present experience.
Mindful Eating – How many times do we throw down a meal without really tasting it fully? When we are eating alone, we often get lost in our thoughts, and when we eat with others we can be more focused on our words than our food. As one wise person once said, “Eat your food, not your words.” While it might be difficult to eat every meal as mindfully as we are able to, you can start by just trying it with a snack or meal a few times a week. How to do it? Take some time away from distractions – put the phone on silent, step away from the computer or the TV, and allow your attention to be with the food on your plate. Tap into your senses – What is the aroma of the food? What are the shapes and colors? If it’s something you can hold in your hand (not soup!), pick it up and notice what it feels like. Does it have a texture? Is it heavy or light? When you put a bite in your mouth, chew slowly and notice the subtly of the flavors. Perhaps notice if your various experiences while eating are pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. Be curious about your experience and see what you might learn about a food that you’ve eaten many times before.
Mindful Driving – If you live in Nashville, you could probably really use this one! Traffic can be a little tough in this town and driving, in general, can be a pretty mindless activity. If we already know where we are going, it’s easy to move into autopilot and, once again, the brain begins thinking about the past, or the future or working on the narrative of our lives. Mindful driving means being present for the experience you are having, even if it’s unpleasant or neutral. Notice the sounds of being in the car (tires on the highway, wind whipping past, big truck passing), noticing the various vehicles around you and the people in them, notice the condition of the sky (clouds, no clouds, blue, gray), notice the position of your body and any sensations that are present, as well as thoughts and emotions. Notice when the mind drifts into the thinking, note “thinking” and then gently come back to the felt experience of driving.
Mindful Listening – When someone is telling you a story of something that happened to them, have you ever noticed a tendency to want to jump in and share your own experience? It’s easy to say, “I totally understand! That happened to me too!” Or maybe you’ve noticed that you are already planning something you want to talk about and are no longer listening to the person talking. We do these things without even thinking (are you seeing a theme here?). A mindful listening practice is making a choice to give your full attention to listening to what someone is saying without responding. You might do some nodding to show you hear them, but not give a verbal response. You may want to try this with a partner or friend and see if they would mindfully listen to you as well. You can set a timer for five minutes each. Afterwards, you can ask each other some questions. What was that like being listened to in that way? What was it like being the one listening and not responding? Did you notice a desire to respond? Was this different from or the same as your normal habits? You can also just try it on your own at work or at home. Simply tune in and notice thoughts when someone is talking, being aware of any tendencies to want to jump in or jump to conclusions about what they are saying. See what you learn about yourself and the person you’re listening to.
Mindful “anythinging” – Yes, a made-up word, but you get the idea. You can bring mindfulness to any activity including snuggling with your kids, playing with your dog, taking a shower, unloading the dishwasher, folding laundry, cleaning, cooking, making a cup of tea, working on an expense report and more. The invitation in these moments is to allow yourself to be in the present with whatever the experience is, whether it’s pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. Sensing into the experience – noticing the softness of your child’s hand in yours, the warmth of the dog as she lies sleeping on your lap, the smell of each of the ingredients of the meal you are making, the texture of the clothes you are folding, and so on. Also, noticing thoughts and emotions that might be present. Simply noticing with curiosity and openness.
Trying some of these practices can help you to slow down so you can move out of thinking mind and be more present in a moment. Our life is made up of moments. We live moment by moment and breath by breath. By practicing mindfulness, we begin to have richer and fuller experiences in the moments, not by entering a fantasy world, but by seeing how much is already here, things we just hadn’t noticed yet. What do you notice?
Amy Black is the co-owner of Nashville Tai Chi & Wellness where she teaches mindfulness and yoga. She also teaches mindfulness classes at Vanderbilt’s Osher Center for Integrative Medicine and runs the website mindful615.com. She will be teaching a 6-week course called Living Mindfully at Mindful Nashville in Germantown starting March 30. The course will explore many of the practices written about in the article. To learn more visit www.nashvilletaichiandwellness.com/mindfulness or email Amy at firstname.lastname@example.org
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