Looking for a simple intro to mindfulness? Dr. Rona, a mind-body psychologist and registered yoga teacher can take you through the basics. Read on to learn about what mindfulness is and isn’t, as well as tips for getting your own practice started (even if you hate meditation!)
So you’ve heard that meditation and breathing practices are good for you, and you want to know why. Or you’ve heard of the term ‘mindfulness’ and aren’t really sure what that means. As a mind-body psychologist, mindfulness is something that I actively practice, not just in my own life, but also in sessions with my clients. With practice, mindfulness can be a powerful tool for our mental and physical health.
What is Mindfulness?
I think of mindfulness as both an active practice, and an approach to life. This concept become more mainstream in the United States in recent decades, and has been adopted as a part of many modern therapies. But these are not new concepts. The way we practice mindfulness today draws primarily on East and South Asian traditions dating back thousands of years, including Buddhism, Hinduism, and other secular practices.
I like to define mindfulness as: focused awareness, to the present moment, without judgment. Let’s break it down.
Awareness is “just noticing” — noticing your thoughts, your emotions, your physical sensations, the environment around you, and everything in between. How does your body feel sitting in this chair? What sounds can you hear around you? What thoughts are passing through your mind? Focused awareness is the practice of intentionally bringing your attention to something, and even flexing that concentration muscle.
In the Present Moment
The present moment is the here and now. Bringing your awareness to this exact second or moment in time and space. It can be very easy to get trapped in our worries or fears of the future, or to be stuck ruminating on our past experiences. Bringing our awareness and attention to the now allows us to practice letting go of what we can’t control (like the past or the future). Paying attention to the present moment is simple in concept, but can be very difficult to practice! A great resource for learning more about this concept is a book called The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle.
This means observing without bringing any evaluation, good or bad, to what you notice. Your thoughts, emotions, or sensations are not good or bad, or right or wrong, they just are. This can be easier said than done — our minds love to evaluate things! I find it helpful to remember that our thoughts and feelings are not facts. We can work on noticing our thoughts, emotions, or physical sensations without judging them, labeling them, evaluating them, criticizing them, or even believing them. I like to say “see your thoughts” or “meet your thoughts” as they are.
The Benefits of Practicing Mindfulness
Why even practice mindfulness at all? Research has shown that consistently practicing mindfulness leads to many physical and psychological benefits. It can be helpful for lowering blood pressure, decrease risk for diseases like Alzheimer’s, improve our immune system, and strengthen psychological well-being. Consistent practice can even help reduce a person’s physiological pain.
Psychology researchers have also found a variety of benefits for our mental and emotional health. Mindfulness can help us reduce unhealthy stress levels and manage our emotions with less reactivity. Cognitively, it can also help improve our working memory and focus, and increase cognitive flexibility. There is even evidence that it can enhance our satisfaction with relationships!
What Mindfulness Isn’t
Mindfulness isn’t (always) meditation
Mindfulness is not a synonym for meditation, but they are related. Meditation is just one type of formal mindfulness practice. You can think of meditation as an activity, and mindfulness as a state. (So good news for folks who hate meditating – we’ll cover some other mindfulness practices later in this post.)
Relatedly, mindfulness meditation isn’t ‘clearing your mind’ or ‘emptying your mind.’ While that can be helpful and is sometimes the goal of some meditations, mindfulness is about being aware of what is going on from moment-to-moment. You can’t do that if you’ve emptied your mind or ‘checked out.’
If you are interested in exploring mindfulness meditation, there are so many different options to try online for free.. Don’t be afraid to start with really short meditations (even 3 minutes counts!) and experiment to find a guide whose voice and style work well for you.
Mindfulness isn’t a relaxation exercise
You’re not supposed to feel relaxed after practicing mindfulness; at least not always. While feeling more relaxed can happen when practicing mindfulness, it’s not the goal. Remember, your only goal when practicing mindfulness is to be aware of the present moment. If in the moment you’re feeling sad or anxious, you may not be relaxed. That doesn’t mean you’re doing mindfulness wrong.
Some people say “I can’t meditate” or “I’m doing this wrong” if your mind wanders or gets distracted. That is normal for the mind to do. Mindfulness can be the actual act of bringing your awareness back to the present moment, even if you have to do it 100x. There’s nothing ‘wrong’ with that at all!
Mindfulness is simple, but it isn’t easy
The concept is simple enough: focused awareness, to the present moment, without judgment. Although simple, it isn’t always easy. It should feel hard, especially if you haven’t practiced it before. But even for those who have practiced mindfulness for months or years or decades, there may always be times when mindfulness feels hard. And that’s okay! It doesn’t mean you’re ‘doing it wrong.’
Other ways to practice mindfulness (besides meditation)
Just Notice Your Breath
Meditation can be a wonderful tool, but it is only one of many ways to practice mindfulness. A lot of people are familiar with or have heard of doing breathing exercises. While many meditations might include breath awareness, you could also ‘just notice your breathing’ and that would be a mindfulness practice. Bringing your awareness to a body experience (like breathing) is an effective way to anchor yourself into the ‘here-and-now.’ Another body experience you could anchor to might be your heartbeat or your pulse.
Some people say “I can’t sit still for long” (myself included). Others find it difficult to anchor to their breath while being still. This is where mindful movement practices can be a great option! Practices like yoga, tai chi, or qigong are ways you can bring your focused awareness to movement. How about sports! Athletes often talk about being “in the zone” when they play a game or a match or during practice. Likely, athletes are being quite mindful in those instances.
Do Something You Already Enjoy, Mindfully
Do you enjoy being outdoors? Going on a nature walk can be a mindfulness practice. The Japanese have a practice called Shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, which is the simple and therapeutic act of spending time in a forest. By engaging in all your senses, you can actively bring your awareness to what you experience around you.
Do you enjoy art or music? Anchoring your awareness to the act of painting, or photography, or crafting, and listening to or creating music—these can all be mindfulness practices.
In case you haven’t caught on yet, I fully believe that anything can be a mindfulness practice. If you’re engaging in focused awareness to the present moment without judgment, it’s mindfulness. You could be even washing the dishes or folding your laundry, watering your plants, petting your dog, or listening to your cat purr. Anything you do with intention can be an act of mindfulness. It’s accessible. It’s free. And it’s completely up to you to make it your own.
About The Author
Rona Maglian, PsyD is a mind-body psychologist serving clients throughout California as a therapist at Stella Nova Psychology. Dr. Rona integrates mindfulness practice and yoga therapy with other evidence based practices to support her clients’ healing holistically. She specializes in treating chronic pain and illness, trauma, anxiety, and chronic stress. She is especially passionate about working with Filipinx and other AAPI women, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and students and professionals from immigrant families.
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