What is mindfulness?

We’ve talked a bit about mindfulness before, but if you’re new here let’s go over the basics again! 

The basic idea of mindfulness is to focus on the present moment.  According to PsychCentral, the act of mindfulness is “paying attention in the present moment, on purpose, nonjudgmentally.” The keys to mindfulness are awareness and acceptance. 

Mindfulness teaches us to be aware of what’s going on in our own inner world. The other key part of mindfulness is acceptance –  do your best to shut down any judgment of what’s coming up for you. And mindfulness can be extremely beneficial to your health. It’s benefits include: 

  • lower stress
  • fewer depressive symptoms
  • lower blood pressure
  • more curiosity
  • more creativity
  • better problem-solving skills
  • better cardiovascular health
  • more successful emotional regulation
  • better academic performance
  • lower risk for burnout 
  • less chronic pain 
  • better sleep

So how does it work?

It sounds wonderful in theory, but what does it mean to shut down judgment and focus on the present moment and our own inner world? How do you even do that?

Mindfulness, at its core, is an exercise for your brain. And just like any other type of exercise, you’re not going to be able to jump in at level 10. You have to build up the skill, like you’re building up muscle strength: with lots and lots of practice, starting where you are instead of where you want to be. 

Instead of trying to jump directly into an advanced meditation practice, take some time to reflect on where in your mindfulness journey you are.  Ask yourself: 

  • Do I find it hard to focus on one thing at a time?
  • Does sitting still for an extended period of time make me uncomfortable or anxious?
  • Do you find it difficult to let unwelcome thoughts go as they come up, and instead find yourself fixating on them?

If your answer to those questions was yes, don’t worry! That’s where most of us start out. But it also means there is some foundational mindfulness work that you should practice before jumping into a more in depth or advanced practice. 

The easiest way to do this is to introduce what I call a 5 Minute Mindfulness practice into your daily life. With this practice, I encourage you to find small moments in your day in which to practice mindfulness. When you get more comfortable with the practice, start to build it up, getting longer as you get more practice, and eventually, without a background activity to ground you. 

But as you get started, take a few minutes to think about all the “mindless” tasks you do during your day. This can be things like: 

  • Brushing your teeth
  • Doing the dishes
  • Commuting to work 
  • Getting dressed
  • Checking your mail 
  • Feeding a pet 
  • Taking a walk 
  • Eating a meal 
  • Cooking a meal 
  • Making your bed
  • Drinking your morning coffee

All of these things are things we do so often that we probably don’t need to think about them any more–they just happen on autopilot. 5 Minute Mindfulness is about taking those opportunities throughout your day, and turning them into moments of mindfulness. In order to do that, pick one of those “mindless” activities in your everyday life and: 

  • Challenge yourself to stay fully in the present moment as you do it.
  • Consider your senses. What are the smells, sights, sounds, tastes, and textures that you notice during this activity?
  • Try to banish stray thoughts–this doesn’t mean you block them from popping up, but when you notice your mind wandering, say to yourself “That is a thought for another time. I will set it down for now, and get back to the task at hand.” 
  • Focus on your breathing–if it gets hard to focus on what you’re doing, focus instead on your body. Breathe in and out deeply, noticing your breath each time. Scan your body and see what other sensations come up. This can be an easy and effective way to refocus yourself when your mind wanders. 

Every day try picking just one thing, one moment of your day in which to be mindful. Spending just  five minutes of your day practicing mindfulness can actually make a big difference! Remember, the most important thing is to keep trying until you find a way that works for you. The more you try, the easier it will be to slip into a mindful state.  If you’re looking for ways to practice mindfulness that are specific to you, our counselors can help you develop your own mindfulness practice. 

-Brice N. Sanner, LMFT