Mindfulness is, in the simplest sense, being fully present in whatever moment or situation you are in, without letting it overwhelm you. In this article, we’ll cover the basics of mindfulness, the benefits of practicing it, and how to start a regular practice.
To give you a better grasp of what mindfulness involves, let’s do a quick, one minute experiment.
Take right now, this moment. Notice the ground beneath your feet, the way it feels. Notice the way your clothes feel against your skin, the subtle differences in material, in temperature. Notice how your chest rises and falls as you breathe, the way the air that enters your nose is cooler on the inhale than the exhale. Sit with these sensations for just ten more seconds..
Great! You’ve just done a mindfulness practice! How did it feel?
What makes mindfulness great is that you’re already doing it. Everyone everywhere is. The issue we run into generally is getting lost in other thoughts that take us away from the moment. We start thinking about our next meeting, that embarrassing moment from six years ago, the bills we have to pay, what we’re going to have for lunch, and we get pulled out of the moment.
Another great thing about mindfulness is that it can be cultivated. There are things you can do, like meditation, to improve your mindfulness and stay grounded in the present. The number of benefits to be gained from mindfulness practices are, frankly, too numerous to count. And there are even many scientific studies to back it up. It’s something that everyone can benefit from.
5 Reasons to Practice Mindfulness
1. Deal with Depression
Nearly one in twelve adults in the US has dealt with or is dealing with depression. That’s a staggeringly large number. Mindfulness is a side-effect free method of helping people with depression work through and overcome their illness. In fact, mindfulness-based practices are at the heart of one of the most common treatments for depression, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, which is a form of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).
Certain studies have even found that mindfulness meditation practices can be just as powerful as therapy. It can even help people who have already experienced a major depressive incident avoid relapsing just as effectively as antidepressants.
2. Stress Less
Stress comes with a whole host of other issues that build upon one another. On a chemical level, our bodies can’t tell the difference between the stress of life or death situations and the stress of a confrontation with a boss. The physiological reaction is the same. Chronic stress causes you to age faster, disrupts your immune system, and increases the risk of depression and anxiety.
No matter who you are, mindfulness practices can help you stress less. Healthy people benefit just as much as those dealing with chronic illness and even their doctors! Mindfulness gives you more control over your emotions and reactions by training you to recognize and step back from negative emotions.
3. Focus Better
At any given moment, you likely have a bunch of different things vying for your attention — email, Snapchat, your dog, spouse, not to mention whatever activity you’re trying to pay attention to. It can be overwhelming to try to focus your attention on the task at hand.
Studies show that experienced mindfulness practitioners were better able to demonstrate focus and cognitive flexibility through a range of tests. This means that by becoming more in tune with the processes behind our thoughts through mindfulness practices, we learn to stay focused on the tasks and projects that are actually important to us.
4. Sleep More Soundly
Keeping your body healthy comes down to three main things: nutrition, exercise, and sleep. In spite of its hugely important role in keeping us functioning at our peak, it frequently gets pushed aside in favor of waking activities. Your body needs its sleep to repair itself and maintain your physical and emotional well-being. We all know what the morning-after-a-late-night brain fog feels like, and it’s not good.
If an active mind is keeping you awake at night, you may find that mindfulness meditation can help you sleep better at night and function better during the day. Even if you are dealing with insomnia, mindfulness practices can help!
5. Increase Empathy
At the heart of mindfulness practices is the process of putting aside of judgement and simply accepting thoughts as they are. We start by practicing with ourselves and our own thoughts and habits. When an intrusive feeling or thought comes up, we learn to step back from it instead of letting it define us. Before we are able to feel empathetic towards others, we have to recognize our own worth.
By beginning with yourself and demonstrating empathy towards your own thought patterns, you can gradually learn to better understand the perspectives of others. If your goal is simply to understand, rather than to judge, putting yourself in someone else’s perspective becomes an easy, low-risk activity.
How to Practice Mindfulness
One of the simplest ways to practice mindfulness is to set aside time each day where you have a few uninterrupted minutes. In the beginning, that’s all the time you need. It can be done anytime and anywhere. The important thing is to just build it into your daily routine.
Step One: Begin by sitting in a comfortable position. Because mindfulness is a process for calming the mind, it helps to start off in a peaceful and comfortable state. However, even if the only seat available is an office chair or a bench on the subway, the practice will still have a positive impact.
Step Two: Move your awareness throughout your body. Notice any places where you feel tense or tight and try to relax them. Start with your toes and move upwards through every part of you, through your legs up into your torso, relaxing each place as you go.
When you reach your chest, move your awareness up your spine to your shoulders, then out through your arms, relaxing each finger and joint.
Finally, bring your attention up through your neck and to your face. Relax your jaw, loosen the muscles around your eyes, nose, ears, and forehead.
Step Three: Bring your attention to your breath. Feel your chest rise and fall as you breathe without disturbing your natural rhythm. Try to just notice what your body is already doing. When you notice that your mind has wandered to something else, take note of where it has gone without judgement.
Step Four: Notice your thoughts and emotions. Adopt an attitude of non-judgment. Whatever thoughts arise are neither good nor bad, they simply are. It’s okay for your mind to wander, but when it happens, gently back to your breath.
Whenever you feel yourself getting stressed out, you can take a few moments to center yourself using the mindfulness practice above. Breathing practices have the added bonus of stimulating your vagus nerve, which will literally slow your heartbeat down and prevent you from having a stress reaction to difficult situations.
If you’re short on time, it’s okay to skip the body relaxation part and jump straight to step three.
Words of Encouragement
Taking the time to cultivate mindfulness in your own life will open you up to a whole new world of physical, emotional, and mental wellbeing. Practicing mindfulness meditation for just a few minutes every day will bring you many benefits, and you’ll find it easier and easier to maintain a state of mindfulness in everyday life as well!