What is mindfulness?
“Mindfulness is a state of relaxed and alert attention of the present moment. It involves focusing just on what’s happening now,” writes clinical psychologist Sophie Henshaw. A lack of mindfulness manifests in several ways: constant racing thoughts, a negative or critical voice in your head, and/or using past experiences to project what will happen in the future without any attention on the present. “Physiologically, the body reacts in the same way to what we imagine as [it does] to what is objectively real. The end result is a body that finds itself in a continual state of alarm and tension as we continually prepare ourselves for the worst,” she explains. (Henshaw, 2015)
In this age of multi-tasking and constant input, our attention and focus is often fragmented. We can never be truly calm if we are doing one thing (or several things) while simultaneously thinking about all the other things on our plates. Oddly, doing just that has become a badge of honor, or a sign of how hard we are working, or even a measure of success, when, in truth, millions of truly successful people incorporate some type of daily mindfulness practice into their lives.
Not just for the touchy-feely crowd
More and more work settings, business leaders, workers and HR departments are using mindfulness training to reduce workplace stress, improve focus, communication, creativity and productivity. Schools, colleges and universities incorporate mindfulness practices to help teachers and students improve their attention and understanding of others. Mindfulness is a powerful tool that is increasingly used in the treatment of mental disorders such as anxiety and depression, as well as physical medical conditions such as diabetes, fibromyalgia, hypertension and insomnia and to improve the symptoms of stress. (Matta, 2013)
Who is in control?
“Many of us think that we have control over our reactions, but the reality is most of the time we are walking around reacting to all kinds of things,” writes Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. and author of several books on mindfulness. The media (social and otherwise) endlessly nudge us toward thinking and acting in certain ways. Family, friends, coworkers and bosses also find their way into our thinking. So how do we tune out that external voice and find own our true inner voice? In a recent blog post, Goldstein offered suggestions for gaining control over your thoughts and actions during the holidays, but here we are adapting them for every day:
Set an intention
Take a moment to really consider how you want to be each day. If you’re going to be with others, how would you like to be with them (e.g., present, listening, playful, focused, confident)? How can you be gentler and less judgmental of yourself and others?
In order to pay attention to your intention, it is important to integrate some practice that brings you to the present moment, such as focusing on your breathing, closing your eyes listening to sounds, or taking a moment to look at all the sights around you.
You can find meaning in simple things every day. Spending time – even a few minutes – in a quiet place like a park, a church, or a hot bath can be a powerful way to slow down and order your thoughts.
We focus so much on what we have to do, sometimes we forget about the things we want to do. As a result, we kind of sleepwalk through life and miss the small moments of joy. Pick up the camera more, reconnect with old friends, read a pleasurable book, or take a 2-hour date with yourself or others. Do something out of your routine that feeds you.
Calming the waves of uncertainty
Life has a way of shaking us up with the unexpected. Adversity, loss, and change can derail us because suddenly what we thought was so isn’t so. Uncertainty generates fear, and fear takes us completely out of the present. We wonder what we could have done differently (past), and what will happen (future), as we lose total sense of what is actually happening in the present – the only thing we have any real control over.
“We filter the external facts through the internal lens of thoughts, feelings, beliefs and body sensations. In this way, our fear creates our reality, locking us in anger, powerlessness, and blame,” says Lynda Klau, Ph.D. Mindfulness is a way to release that fear and shift our orientation, making it “possible to deconstruct, recontextualize and reframe our original fear-based feelings and reactions, honoring and embracing them without being their victims,” she adds. In the heat of the moment, it is natural to let fear take over, but it is possible to regain your equilibrium and see things more clearly. Klau offers this simple exercise:
- Sit in a quiet room where you won’t be disturbed.
- Close your eyes and focus your attention on your breath.
- It’s natural for your attention to become distracted. When that happens, simply return to your breath.
- While focusing on your breath, allow your thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and body sensations to enter your awareness as you perceive the external situation.
- Now ask yourself: What are the facts of the situation? What are my thoughts, feelings, beliefs and body sensations? How am I responding?
Remember to be kind and compassionate with yourself as you go through these steps. Mindfulness is a process, and like any other skill, takes practice. (Klau, 2013)
Developing the mindfulness habit
Mindfulness is helpful in all aspects of life, not only when you are in crisis. It can help you transform those big goals you set into manageable steps and keep you motivated as you acknowledge that both your progress and your setbacks are part of your overall success.
Polly Campbell shares the benefits of mindful eating. “When we eat mindlessly, not only do we not enjoy our food, but we also are developing habits that could harm our health and lead to weight gain,” she says. “When we slow down, deliberately prepare and eat our food mindfully, we tend to make better food choices.” (Campbell, 2015) Mindful eating nourishes us mentally and spiritually as well as physically.
Mindful listening – something of a lost art – is essential for meaningful communication. It is the key to connecting with others, and fostering empathy and mutual respect. “Effective communication begins with the core skill of listening. Mindful listening includes focusing on what the other person is saying, as well as their facial expression, gestures, and the volume and tone of their voice. Awareness and observation are the first steps in refining your listening skills,” says Frances Hennessey, LICSW. (Hennessey, 2014)
While you can certainly practice mindfulness on your own (there are many books and online resources), you will improve your experience with a mindfulness training program. You can find resources through work, through your doctor or mental health professional, or even through yoga studios that offer specific classes in mindfulness or meditation. (Matta, 2013) A key to integrating mindfulness into your life is in building the habits that let you stay centered throughout the day. The guidance of someone experienced and trained in mindfulness is a huge help in building those habits so that mindfulness improves your daily life on a continuing basis instead of merely being a passing benefit.
Henshaw, S. (2015). The Silence of Mindfulness. Psych Central. Retrieved on January 5, 2016, from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2015/04/15/the-silence-of-mindfulness/
Matta, C. (2013). New to Mindfulness? How to Get Started. Psych Central. Retrieved on January 7, 2016, from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2013/06/03/new-to-mindfulness-how-to-get-started/
Goldstein, E. (2015). A Few Tips for a Mindful, Meaningful and Fun Holiday Season. Psych Central. Retrieved on January 7, 2016, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/mindfulness/2015/12/a-few-tips-for-a-mindful-meaningful-and-fun-holiday-season/
Klau, L. (2013). Mindfulness: The Art of Cultivating Resilience. Psych Central. Retrieved on January 6, 2016, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/mindfulness-the-art-of-cultivating-resilience/
Campbell, P. (2015). The Benefits of Mindful Eating. Psych Central. Retrieved on January 5, 2016, from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2015/02/09/the-benefits-of-mindful-eating/
Hennessey, F. (2014). The Skill of Mindful Listening. Psych Central. Retrieved on January 5, 2016, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/the-skill-of-mindful-listening/