Last week I saw a fast food menu that displayed lower calorie options under the statement “Make Mindful Choices.” It seems the terms mindful and mindfulness are everywhere these days. But what do they really mean? Dictionary.com defines mindful as attentive, aware or careful. That makes sense on the restaurant menu, then, but I think even last year it would have said healthy, not mindful. So even the fast food places are recognizing this is a buzz word. Mindfulness means different things to different people. It is a Buddhist practice, a form of meditation, and a way of living in the moment recommended by everyone from yogis to TV doctors.
At its essence, mindfulness is a state of focus and awareness of the present, in which every thought, feeling or emotion that arises is welcomed. It is a non-judgemental acceptance of what is. During mindfulness practice, I may become aware of discomfort or sadness or worry, but I don’t try to change my experience. It’s all part of this moment, which needs no alteration. Mindfulness means being fully present in this moment, which requires me to let go of regrets about the past, and release worries about the future. Neither the past nor the future is happening in this moment, after all!
Mindfulness practices have been shown to improve concentration, reduce reactivity to stress, and improve the mood. There have been positive studies in chronic pain, anxiety and depression. In other words, there are many reasons to learn to cultivate mindfulness. Ideally, we would all meditate daily, but, as I’ve written previously, we don’t have to have an ideal practice to gain benefits. To learn more about Mindfulness Meditation, I recommend reading Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, or Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat Zinn.
Here are two short mindfulness exercises you can begin using right away. After all, mindfulness at its core is simply awareness.
Sensory Awareness: Start by taking a couple of deep breaths to quiet the mind. Then notice 5 things you can feel right now, like your feet touching the ground, the chair supporting your back, your clothes touching your skin. Really feel these sensations without labeling them or trying to change them at all. Then notice five things you can hear, like the ticking of the clock, the hum of the heater or the traffic outside. Listen and really hear the sounds, no judgement, just experience. Proceed with things you can see and smell, and perhaps finish the practice by drinking some water and really tasting it in your mouth. You’ve just been fully present in your body!
Breath Awareness: Sit comfortably and take a few deep breaths to quiet the mind, then breathe normally. Bring your awareness to your breath. Notice how it feels moving in and out of your nose, following it from beginning of inhale to end of exhale. Notice the pause between breaths. Feel the rise and fall of your belly with each breath, without trying to alter it at all. Simply feel and experience the breath. If your thoughts distract you, release them without reaction and return to the breath, over and over again. Try to stay with it for a full minute.
These short exercises allow us to experience mindfulness quickly and simply, without any special props or time commitment. The more I practice mindfulness, the more likely I am to stay present the rest of the day. It’s easier to release unnecessary worry, and let go of minor irritations. Try taking a moment today to be fully present, and see for yourself what all the mindfulness buzz is about.