What Is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness often conjures up images of lengthy meditation sessions or week-long silence retreats. While it is true that these are forms of mindfulness, the practice is generally much simpler than that.
Mindfulness (also sometimes called mindful meditation) is rooted in Eastern spiritual traditions, especially Buddhism. It refers to any technique where you focus on being keenly aware of sensations and feelings in the moment. You do not interpret or judge these sensations or feelings, you simply acknowledge them. In this way, mindfulness helps the practitioner slow down and be present without feeling overwhelmed.
Mindfulness and the Brain
It is easy to get caught up in feeling overwhelmed or stressed about your day-to-day life. We can find ourselves stuck in a loop of endless worrying about what comes next and reflecting on what did not go as well as we had wanted. It is human nature to focus much more on negative thoughts than positive ones; this is hard-wired into us as a survival tactic. In fact, we even have a name for this phenomenon: the negativity bias. Mindfulness exercises help us divert our attention away from these forms of thinking.
Research shows that even very brief mindfulness exercises can significantly reduce stress and lead to an increase in overall wellbeing, especially if you do them on a consistent basis. They lead to improved sleep, decreased job burnout, and decreased depression and anxiety. Mindfulness techniques have also been shown to lead to increased attention. This is why many athletes use these methods just before a big competition.
Mindfulness and the Body
There are many ways to practice mindfulness and access the state of being mindful. Many forms of meditation are based on mindfulness, and the practice of yoga uses mindfulness as a foundational way to experience and be attentive to body movement or breathwork. Other body-based mindfulness exercises include mindful walking, mindful eating, body scanning, and various breathing practices.
Mindfulness has been shown to have a positive impact on our physical health. Research has shown that mindful meditation has a positive impact on several conditions:
- Acute and chronic pain
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease
- GI difficulties
Though the research is more preliminary, mindfulness is also believed to help with asthma and fibromyalgia. This is only the tip of the iceberg: as medical professionals continue to study the positive effects of mindfulness upon medical conditions, meditation will likely be linked to better outcomes for many different conditions.
There are many ways to practice mindfulness. Any time you are fully focusing on and engaging at least one of your five senses or any time you are engaged in deep, non-judgmental metacognition, you are being mindful.
Here are some exercises you can try:
- Ring a chime, a bell, or a gong, and listen to the reverberations all the way until you can’t hear even the faintest sound anymore.
- Take deep breaths and while you do so, pay attention to the sensations involved. Listen to what your inhalations and exhalations sound like, feel your chest and stomach rise, notice where your breath hits as it leaves your nose or mouth, etc.
- Eat a snack and while doing so, instead of letting your mind wander, notice the sensation of different tastes and textures in your mouth.
- Close your eyes and visualize a place, object, or person you really enjoy. Focus in on as many details about this person, place, or thing as you can: the colors, the textures, the smells, the sounds, and more.
- Put your pointer finger on your wrist and draw the number 8 repeatedly. Focus in on the sensation on your skin. Set a timer to do this for a certain amount of time and be sure not to stop until the timer goes off.
- Close your eyes and think about a strong emotion you are feeling, such as anger. Observe the emotion without judgment, simply acknowledging its presence. Visualize the word for the emotion in your mind, noting what color it is, what font, etc. It may be helpful to repeat a mantra, such as “My anger does not define me” or “Everyone feels anger.”
Research suggests that doing any of these exercises while outside heightens the positive effects even more, so consider taking your mindfulness to the Great Outdoors.
How Often Should I Practice These Strategies?
One of the great benefits of mindfulness techniques is that they can be done in a very short amount of time, even a minute or less. They can even be done while you are in class, at work, or around your roommates! Soon, you will likely notice that mindfulness becomes more of a habit that you incorporate into parts of your day, such as taking a few seconds to really listen to the sound of your ringtone instead of immediately answering your phone. Research supports the claim that even these small moments have a major impact on wellbeing.
Some people find that they are good at concentrating intently for short bursts right away and then their mind begins to wander. For them, starting with a quick one- or two-minute exercise is very appropriate, and they can work to build stamina. Others find that it takes them several minutes for their minds to finally settle into a focused state, so they feel the need to set aside more time, especially at first.
In today’s fast-paced society, especially in college, mindfulness techniques often do not come to us naturally. They take a little practice, and they will likely seem different, even unnatural at first. But you will quickly get used to them and when you do, you will likely notice yourself feeling calmer, happier, and more attention every day.
More on Mindfulness
Ackerman, Courtney E. “22 Mindfulness Exercise, Techniques, and Activities for Adults.” PostivePsychology.com, 16 October 2020, https://positivepsychology.com/mindfulness-exercises-techniques-activities/. Accessed 26 July 2021.
“Benefits of Mindfulness.” Harvard Health, HelpGuide.org, https://www.helpguide.org/harvard/benefits-of-mindfulness.htm. Accessed 7 August 2021.
“Getting Started with Mindfulness.” Mindful, https://www.mindful.org/meditation/mindfulness-getting-started/. Accessed 6 August 2021.
“Mindfulness Exercises.” Mayo Clinic, 15 September 2020, https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/consumer-health/in-depth/mindfulness-exercises/art-20046356. Accessed 6 August 2021.
Van Gordon, William, et al. “There is Only One Mindfulness: Why Science and Buddhism Need to Work Together.” Mindfulness, vol. 6, 2015, pp. 49-56. doi: 10.1007/s12671-014-0379-y. Accessed 7 August 2021.