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What is “mindfulness” besides a buzzword that seems to be on everyone’s lips these days? Fans of it swear by its abilities to ease mental health symptoms, help you remain present in the moment and move toward the rich and meaningful life of your dreams.
How does it work? Is it yet another fad claiming to do something it doesn’t? It’s much more than meditation cushions and mantras. Here’s a closer look at what mindfulness is and how you can cultivate more of it to transform your life.
Mindfulness is both a meditative practice and a way of life. The term refers to both a type of meditation and a method of going about daily tasks with purpose. It’s also a way of differentiating your sense of self from your thoughts and feelings, which may explain much of its power in helping mental health difficulties.
Mindfulness helps you accept two crucial truths necessary to progressing in life:
How does it do this? Through directed practice, such as meditation. For example, the essence of mindfulness meditation is best described as sitting on the banks of a river. Your thoughts are the river as they flow by. Your job is to observe them, perhaps noticing their effect on you, before letting them pass without causing you to jump in the water and sink.
Have you ever wondered how some people have years of therapy but don’t seem to make much progress? Many factors may combine to influence this, from their other life experiences, their available resources, even their diets. However, part of the issue may be assimilating what you learn in counseling instead of rejecting it.
Unfortunately, trauma can make you extremely reactive. Even kind, appropriate and well-meant advice can trigger your HPA axis, making you reject it as a threat despite the speaker’s intent.
Mindfulness creates necessary space for you to notice what triggers anger or sadness and how you react to that emotion in a safe, non-threatening way. Separating yourself and watching your thoughts and feelings drift by as you observe neutrally lets you examine each one without defensiveness. You gradually learn to notice negative emotions and what’s happening inside and outside of you when they occur.
Once you connect your thoughts and feelings to your behavior, you have the power to change it. Changing your behaviors — perhaps by quitting a toxic substance or improving your diet — you’ll notice your ideas and emotions also improve. You create a positivity spiral that eases the symptoms of multiple mental disorders.
Getting started with mindfulness is easy. You only need two things:
How much time do you need? Not much, especially at first. You might find it uncomfortable to sit quietly — it’s amazing how long a minute can feel. Set a timer for only one or two at first, gradually increasing your time to five minutes as you practice the river exercise described above.
In a perfect world, everyone would have access to a therapist. However, most people practice mindfulness without ever seeking professional help.
That said, you might want to inform your therapist if you have an existing mental health condition. It helps to have someone on standby with whom you can talk through any difficult thoughts and feelings that arise. If you’re already working with a provider, ask them for more tips on starting your practice — chances are, they will encourage you.
Cultivating mindfulness is truly a matter of practice, practice and more practice. There is no perfect, but dedicating regular time to mindful activities will begin to spill over into other areas of your life, transforming them.
The beauty of mindfulness is that you can practice nearly anytime and anywhere. However, certain activities encourage it, so try on these exercises and find the one or ones you enjoy the most.
You don’t need money or any special equipment to meditate. You don’t even need a zafu or yoga mat, although it might help to dedicate a quiet corner of your home to your practice to encourage you to stick with it. Invest in a special cushion, line your space with cozy pillows and blankets, add relaxing aromatherapy or a plant or two — whatever makes you want to spend time in your cozy little meditation nook.
Then, dedicate a few minutes each morning or evening to mindfulness meditation. You don’t need more than five, although you can certainly sit for longer or experiment with guided, focused or mantra meditations to refresh your practice.
You might see this exercise in schools and even some work-related functions, but you don’t have to use the sweet stuff if you dislike the taste or texture. Any food you truly love does the trick. Follow these steps:
Cooking a meal from scratch can be a glorious mindfulness activity on nights when you’re too hungry to meditate. Ask yourself the following as you prepare:
Planting a garden is a mindfulness activity, as is tending it. Doing so may force you to spend a few minutes in quiet reflection each day, watching your thoughts drift by as you sprinkle water in pots.
A body scan involves your interoception, your sense of how your body feels inside. It can make you mindful of areas where you hold excess tension, which can lead to chronic pain. Here’s a simple script you can use:
While you do this exercise, breathe into each body part, consciously releasing tension.
Yoga Nidra is an ancient practice some people use to treat sleeplessness and induce deep relaxation. It takes you through several stages to induce a deep state of relaxation. Practitioners claim that it can provide rest equivalent to deep sleep, as it alters your brain waves as you move through each segment.
Yin yoga might not be what you expect from a standard practice. Instead of holding active poses, you’ll relax into passive asanas that may still offer a mental challenge. However, they also provide time for mindfulness as you breathe through them, helping you develop a much keener awareness of your body and where you tend to hold tension. Restorative yoga is another passive style featuring lengthy, mindful poses.
Spending more time outdoors has oodles of health benefits. It’s nearly as necessary as breathing for all its curative powers. It can boost your immunity, ease stress and lessen mental health symptoms with regular excursions.
Hiking is also the perfect place to practice the mindfulness of walking. Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh suggests placing each foot as if stepping into a holy sanctuary, for the planet is your mother. Instead of rushing to elevate your heart rate, spend at least part of your hike mindfully checking in with your surroundings, admiring nature’s wonder and your place in it.
Knowing what mindfulness is helps you see the connection between this ancient practice and mental health. Once you begin to examine your thoughts and feelings, you develop a deeper understanding of what drives your behavior, taking back the wheel and making changes that impact the course of your life.
Begin incorporating one or more of the practices above into your life today. Understanding what mindfulness is and how it improves your health lets you harness its power for positive change.