We live in a busy, chaotic world. Amidst all the noise, it's easy to forget to take care of your mind and body. It is increasingly important to pay attention to your needs in everyday life. One way that many people do this is to set aside time to achieve mindfulness every day.
You have probably heard the term “mindfulness” all over the place. However, it seems that everywhere you turn, it has a different meaning. Everything from budgeting better to choosing healthy foods seems to fall under this category these days. But what is mindfulness, and why should you even care about it?
In this post, you'll learn all about what mindfulness is, why you should strive for it, and how to get there. I'll help you cut through the New Age nonsense and academic jargon to help you be your best self.
What Is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness seems notoriously hard to define. To understand it myself, I took a look at what it is and what it is not, and now I'm ready to help you out.
The staff of Mindful describes mindfulness like this: “The basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.”
Attention, focus, relaxation, and presence are all part of mindfulness. When you practice mindfulness, you purposely turn your attention on high gear and become hyper-aware of what is going on around you. The trick is that you need to do this free of judgment or emotion.
While this may sound simple, trying to focus only on the present without any emotion can be challenging. We are always thinking about past and future events, analyzing things that happen to us, and attaching emotion to them. In contrast, mindfulness lets us experience and enjoy what is happening in the present.
We can trace the roots of this practice to Buddhist philosophy as an essential step on the path to enlightenment. If you want to learn more about Buddhism, read No-Nonsense Buddhism for Beginners.
Today, there are more secular definitions of mindfulness. For instance, Harvard psychology professor Dr. Ellen Langer wrote about three attributes she considers the cornerstone of mindfulness:
- Creating New Categories: Rather than sorting events and things under our brain's old labels, paying attention in the moment allows us to see them differently. Opening your mind in this way lets you consider a brick not just as something to build with, but also a doorstop, a bookend, a panini press, and more! If you're not naturally very creative, being more mindful can help get those juices flowing.
- Seeing Other Points Of View: Similarly, allowing yourself to welcome new information can open your eyes to other people's points of view. This skill can help you work through conflicts large and small.
- Valuing Steps Over Outcome: Do you always get stressed over finishing projects? Mindfully focus on each step as you go rather than being anxious about the result. (Lifehacker)
What Mindfulness Is Not
First and most importantly, mindfulness is not only meditation. While mindful meditation is one way to achieve mindfulness, it's not the only way. You can practice mindfulness anytime, anywhere, even without meditating. As you keep reading, you'll learn more about this.
To help you better understand what mindfulness is, let's explore what it is not. When you do any of the things listed below, you are not being mindful.
- Zoning out: During a conversation, in class, while walking to the store, while cleaning, etc. If your mind is blank rather than present, you are not practicing mindfulness.
- Multitasking: When you focus your attention on multiple things at once, you are not truly focusing on any of them. Focus is a crucial component of mindfulness.
- Worrying: Trying to solve past or future problems is in our nature. But when you worry about something, you aren't focusing on the tasks or events that are right in front of you. They require your attention, too.
- Judging and Analyzing: Our brains naturally want to put things into tidy categories so we can understand them better. However, doing this can block our creativity, cause us stress, and damage our relationships.
Why Should I Try To Achieve Mindfulness?
I know what you're thinking.
“That's all well and good, but what's the point?”
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When you achieve mindfulness, you can experience a load of mental and physical benefits. There have been many studies done in the past few decades about the positive impacts of mindfulness, which is why it's gaining popularity.
As you likely expect, many of the benefits of practicing mindfulness are to your mental health. When becoming more mindful, you will feel less stressed while also feeling more creative, focused, and productive. Not constantly worrying about the past or future also often reduces your levels of anxiety and depression. Since it also allows you to consider new perspectives, more compassion and better relationships with others will also come with your practice.
When you achieve mindfulness, you may experience better brain function, too. Being more focused can lead to better decision-making skills. It may also be connected to better short-term memory and even improved academic performance.
Practicing mindfulness will even have physical health benefits. Over time, high stress levels can negatively affect our bodies and cause health problems. By reducing your stress and anxiety, you are also reducing your chance of illness.
Mindful eating has also shown to support healthier food choices and consume fewer calories. When you focus on each bite rather than scarfing it down during a Netflix marathon, you will probably feel more satisfied with less food.
Mindfulness has also been connected to better physical and mental well-being in people with chronic health problems such as heart disease and cancer (Lifehacker). The power of the mind is incredible!
How Can I Achieve Mindfulness?
Now that I've explained what mindfulness is, you might be tempted to run for the hills. The idea of focusing your attention in a world that values multitasking sounds nearly impossible! But I assure you that it's easier than you might think; plus, any challenges are SO worth the benefits you'll experience.
There are lots of different methods of practicing mindfulness—you just have to find the way that works best for you and stick with it!
One of the simplest methods is trying out concentration meditations. This technique requires choosing one thing on which to focus your attention fully and non-judgementally for a certain amount of time. By focusing on breathing or another simple sensation, you can quickly notice when your mind starts to wander. Learning to pull that focus back to your breath teaches you the basics of being mindful.
My next mindfulness tip is to try mindful meditation. This practice involves closing yourself off from the outside world and only observing what's happening to and within you. How your body feels, the sounds around you, what you see when your eyes are closed, the temperature of the air: in mindful meditation, you take it all in without judging or analyzing it. It is a calming and soothing experience.
If you're someone who would rather be guided, perhaps a formal practice is more your style. This method can involve listening to recorded mindfulness exercises or attending a group meditation session.
You can also practice mindfulness anytime. From taking a walk to cleaning the bathroom, doing everyday things while being fully in the moment is considered informal mindfulness practice. Doing this when you're feeling overwhelmed is particularly beneficial.
When you allow yourself to see your life from another perspective, it can open your mind to new possibilities. If you want to make a habit of this, set up cues, such as an alarm on your phone, to remind yourself to pause and be present.
Next time you are brushing your teeth, try focusing your full attention on the activity without thinking or judging. Pay attention to every detail of the experience, including taste, smell, and feel. It's amazing how much information our brains miss when we let our minds wander!
One awesome tool to get you started
One of the easiest ways to start a mindfulness practice is to keep a gratitude journal. In case you've never heard of them, they are a place to jot down a few things you are thankful for at least once a day. Whether you had the best day ever or a day from hell, reflecting on victories big and small feels fantastic. You can read more about gratitude journaling in my post here.
While you can start a gratitude journal in any notebook, The Five Minute Journal lets you achieve mindfulness faster and easier. Simply turn to the day's page and take a few minutes each morning and night to reflect. The prompts allow you to set intentions for the day and look back on what went well and what could have been better. Each page also includes an inspiring quote to help kick-start your awesome day.
The bottom line?
Keeping a gratitude journal is an easy first step to enter a state of mindfulness. No matter how busy you are, you can do this because it barely takes any time out of your day! Journaling focuses your mind on one calming task, bringing you into the present moment and freeing you from distractions.
Need more help?
While some people like to jump right into a lifestyle change like this, others, like me, are a little more cautious. I've always been the kind of person who would prefer to learn everything I can about something before trying it.
If this sounds like you, check out The Art of Stopping Time: Practical Mindfulness for Busy People by Pedram Shojai. This book breaks down how and why you should achieve mindfulness in our busy world. It introduces a Chinese practice of designating a specific amount of time to your daily tasks, called Gongs, to become the master of your own time.
By learning how to focus your attention on the task at hand, Shojai says, you can stop feeling pressed for time. Becoming more mindful using the methods in this book ensure that you are more productive while feeling less anxious and overwhelmed.
This selection is perfect for when you want to get the big picture of practicing mindfulness before you try it. Because it is broken down into small exercises, it's also the perfect way to dip your toe into the pool, if you will, before fully committing. It would also make a great gift for that one friend who is always stressed out and busy!
To further your research, take a look at this TEDx Talk from cognitive neuroscientist Dr. David Vago. In the video, he discusses how you can use mindfulness to quite literally change your brain, leading to major long-term mental and physical benefits.
So what's the point?
When I first heard about practicing mindfulness, I brushed it off as too hippy-dippy. It sounded impossible for someone like me, who is continually planning for the future and worrying about the past. Since then, I decided to give it a try now and then, and I have to say, it feels great!
Focusing your attention only on what is going on around you in that specific moment can transform your perspective, not to mention the amazing health benefits you'll enjoy. In the age of technology that we live in, it's nice to take a step back and indeed be present. I am often scared that I'll forget an experience I've had because I was scrolling Facebook or thinking about something else. This is the main reason I will be trying to achieve mindfulness soon! Are you with me?