Mindfulness: It’s a term that’s used a lot, but our understanding of what it actually means can be vague. Plainly put, mindfulness is focusing your attention on the present and experiencing it on a moment-to-moment basis. It’s being aware of your thoughts and sensations – what’s happening in your mind, your body, and your environment – but observing them without judgment.
Staying focused on the now can be difficult in the midst of a busy, stressful life – which is why mindfulness is often referred to as a “practice.” But forget the old adage; this is one practice that’s not intended to make perfect. Instead, it’s an approach you can engage in on an ongoing basis throughout your life.
One of the most common ways to practice mindfulness is through meditation, which typically involves sitting quietly, focusing on your breathing, and observing the sensations in your body. But mindfulness can be practiced in other ways, including through physical activities that involve meditative movement, such as yoga, tai chi, aikido, or walking. You can also be mindful while you are going about your daily life: washing dishes, folding laundry, driving to work, or spending time with others.
Why practice mindfulness?
Some of the benefits of mindfulness and meditation are immediate: You may feel less stressed, more physically relaxed, and calmer of mind. But research suggests that mindfulness-based practices can help with a number of other aspects of physical and mental health, including:
- High blood pressure
- Weight management
- Scientists continue to study the potential for mindfulness practices to help in other areas, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but more research is needed.
Tips for practicing mindfulness
An easy way to start is with a seated meditation: Sit in a comfortable position in a quiet place. Focus on your breathing as you slowly breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Note the physical sensations as you inhale and exhale. It may help to put a hand just below your rib cage, so you can feel your stomach rise and fall. Repeat this three to five times. You can also do this kind of mindful breathing anytime you want to feel calmer and more centered – for example, before an important meeting or while you’re stuck in traffic.
Here are some other mindfulness techniques to try:
- Eat mindfully: Research has shown this can help reduce binge or emotional eating. Chew slowly, paying attention to the colors, aroma, taste, and texture of your food. Put your fork or spoon down between bites, to help you slow down and savor the experience.
- Take a walk: You don’t need to have a destination to do meditative walking; you don’t even have to leave home. Just find a quiet place without interruptions where you can walk several paces in one direction. Walk slowly, noticing as you go the way you shift your weight, the changes in your balance, the rhythm of putting one foot in front of the other. If you need to, turn and walk in the other direction – or do a few turns around the room, paying attention to the sensations as you do.
- Spend time in nature: Whether it’s a forest, the oceanside, your neighborhood park, or your own backyard, taking a few minutes to appreciate the sights, sounds, and smells of the outdoors can help center you in the present. (Read more about the mental health benefits of spending time in nature.)
- Take a moment of gratitude: Set aside time to reflect on your reasons to be grateful. You may want to write them in a journal. This will help draw your attention to your current state, rather than to worries about what may come or what’s still to be done. As a bonus, studies show that focusing on gratitude can improve your mood and energy level.
- Do one thing at a time: In a world of distractions and demands on our time, multitasking can become second nature. (Even if you’re only doing one thing, you may be thinking about three others.) So, practice focusing solely on the task at hand. To extend this to your relationships, focus on listening attentively when you’re in conversation with someone else.
How a therapist can help
If you think you could benefit from practicing mindfulness but aren’t sure, a therapist can help. They can talk you through a guided meditation or help you set goals for your mindfulness practice. Or your therapist may incorporate elements of mindfulness into your therapy – for example, by asking you to focus on the present the moment or on your breath as ways to help regulate your emotions. Some therapists use an approach called mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) to treat depression and anxiety. MBCT combines mindfulness practices with the principles of cognitive therapy, which helps you learn to recognize thinking patterns that are unhelpful or unhealthy so you can work to change them.