How do you practice mindfulness? And what is it, anyway?
Take a deep breath, inhaling for as long as you exhale. Do it again, inhale and exhale, taking notice of how the air feels in your nose and throat.
If you followed along with that paragraph, consider yourself a more mindful individual than you were before.
Let’s first establish what not being mindful looks like; A common example of the mindlessness we should work to curb in adult life comes when you’ve driven somewhere but can’t really recall the journey that got you there. On a larger scale and longer timeline, that distracting mental chatter can lead to poorly-remembered months and years of your life.
It was birthed from the Buddhist method, but modern mindfulness has become a secular practice that can aid you in many ways.
Observing your thoughts with metacognition
Mindfulness seems like an abstract concept to grasp, and that’s why I rolled my eyes at the mention of it for a while. It seemed like too much effort; Just another ‘woo woo’ buzzword that had little intrinsic value in everyday life. I couldn’t have been more wrong in my assumptions.
Explaining mindfulness properly requires some understanding of metacognition, a term that’s easier to remember if you see it as a fancy way to say ‘thinking about thinking’. You’re meant to analyze your thoughts as a way of breaking things down into smaller, bite-sized pieces instead of leaving them as huge, vague and daunting feelings.
We all experience that introspection from time to time, but a greater focus on metacognition – taking a moment to question your thoughts – is key to making challenges, big and small, easier to navigate.
What does it mean to be mindful?
It wasn’t a Buddhist monk or stereotypical hippie who properly introduced me to the idea of being mindful, but a licensed psychologist.
In our first sessions, she taught me about the practice of recognizing the thoughts speeding through my mind without overreacting to them. I learned firsthand that ‘mindfulness’ is more than a hollow buzzword thrown around by self-help gurus.
This didn’t immediately solve my problems or fully connect with me in those first sitdowns, but later mindful practice made slowing down easier. With that practice came proof that I could get better at maneuvering around the noise, and having that confidence in later nervous moments has been immeasurably rewarding.
Five points to aid your mindful practice
- Sit. This helps to relax and narrow your concentration.
- Bring your attention to the present moment.
- Notice the sensations in your body (breathing, touch, etc.)
- Accept that your thoughts will inevitably wander.
- When your thoughts do wander, re-focus on current sensations.
When you’re mindful, you’re able to turn your attention to the present moment without following the thoughts that inevitably trickle in. The thoughts don’t stop, but your reaction to them adjusts.
What mindfulness isn’t
When you’re finally getting better at being mindful, your life doesn’t become perfect or problem-free, but you’re better able to analyze and deal with what comes your way.
Mindfulness is NOT:
- Ignoring your problems or thoughts
- Something you can force
- Becoming ‘blank’ or thoughtless
Applying mindful practice to your daily life
Do you get partway through the week with no awareness of how far the weekend is? I know I can go for several hours without even being aware of what day of the week I just started.
That type of ‘cruise control’ is an easy trap to fall into when society is scheduled to the absolute brink — sleep schedule, work schedule, TV schedule… without any introspection, that only leads to an exhausted mind and something I’ve personally experienced — years that fly by, barely remembered.
To practice mindfulness is to live a life with fewer ‘autopilot’ moments. Still, you shouldn’t venture into this practice with the goal of having fewer thoughts pass through your mind; you’re simply committing yourself to notice and release them as they pop up.
While giving a proper description of mindfulness may feel overwhelming, the actual practice is beautifully simple; You can be mindful at any time by asking yourself “Where is my attention right now?”
Activities that encourage you to be mindful
Really, anything that requires a single focus can be a mindful activity. You can mindfully eat, exercise, even knit. The saying “It’s just a state of mind” is kind of true here, because you’re meant to continue living your life as you work to become more aware of your thoughts and feelings.
Since the term ‘mindfulness’ only started to be used outside of the psychology world more recently, you may not have been familiar with the word. Knowing more about mindfulness now, it’s probably pretty easy to see how some common activities can be done mindfully.
Everyday activities for practicing mindfulness:
- Showering, bathing
- Eating (Slowing down at mealtime is good for digestion!)
- Waking up (mentally scan your body for sensation)
- Tidying your space/making your bed
Make a routine of mindfully engaging in any one of those practices and you’ll be better off!