BY: MJ Harford, LPC
Mindfulness is something many of us have heard of: it’s on the news and in the media here and there, some schools are implementing mindful moments during the school day, and doctors are recommending it to patients to support everything from stress reduction to diabetes management. Mindfulness is an ancient practice with roots in Buddhism philosophy that helps us access the present moment, the “Now” of life; it allows us to be alert and engaged with ourselves and the world around us without judgement.
The concept of mindfulness may sound silly at first, maybe even unnecessary or irrelevant: “Why would I need a practice mindfulness to help me be present? Don’t I do that all the time already?” The truth for many of us is that if we look closely, we are so stuck thinking about the past or worrying about the future that we don’t spend much time in the present moment at all.
In the past day or so, have you noticed you were having a conversation with someone and suddenly realized you were making your grocery list? Maybe you were in a workout class and couldn’t remember the last thing the instructor said because you got swept up in thoughts about a recent work project. Our kids experience the challenges of being present too; they can get just as stuck in and preoccupied with difficult emotions or worry. The tools and the practice of mindfulness are helpful for all of us because they are radically simple and transformational. When we are able to be present with ourselves, which means listening, being curious, and paying attention, we are able to truly connect with the people and the spaces around us. As a mindfulness teacher, I’ve seen mindfulness transform the experience of folks from preschoolers to grandparents.
The definition of mindfulness that I find the most useful is a combination of the definitions created by Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD (founder of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) and Elijah Goldstein, PhD (psychotherapist and founder of The Center for Mindful Living), which is:
Mindfulness is paying attention in the present moment, on purpose, with an engaged curiosity.
This definition holds the two main components of mindfulness: awareness and acceptance. Awareness is the attention to the here and now, and acceptance is the absence of attempts to change the here and now (like with worrying, judging, thinking of the past or the future).
Four Mindfulness Exercises You Can Try Anytime, Anywhere
Getting started with a mindfulness practice doesn’t have to be complicated or time consuming. Here are four brief exercises you can try at any time, in any place.
You can do this exercise anywhere, anytime, with your eyes open or closed.
Begin by bringing your attention to your breath.
Without trying to change your breath, see if you can fill your attention with how your breath feels, its quality, how long or short your inhales and exhales are.
Slowly shift to deep, full inhale and exhales.
As you breathe, move through the body with full and curious attention, starting from the bottoms of your feet all way to the top of your head.
Stop and investigate parts of the body that may be bringing up judgements like “tense,” “sore,” or lack of feeling.
If you get stuck or find your attention has wandered away (it’s highly likely it will!), bring kindness to your mindset, refocus on the body, and continue to move through the body.
Take a breath
Observe: Thoughts and feelings (Do you notice any emotions? Any tension in your body? What kind of thoughts are you repeating to yourself?)
Proceed (Return to whatever it was you were doing with a renewed sense of awareness, repeat)
This exercise comes from Alan Marlat, PhD and Mindfulness Based Relapse Prevention for the treatment of addictive behaviors. It can be useful for all of us trying to reshape habits, such as when the temptation to look a cell phone during dinner, smoke another cigarette, or reach for another dessert hits strong and hard.
- Focus on the area where you are having the craving.
- Acknowledge how you are experiencing the craving.
- Release tension as you take deep breaths.
- Repeat focusing each time on an area of the body or particular thought that is experiencing the craving.
This is a technique developed by Tara Brach, PhD that is especially helpful for when difficult emotions arise.
- Recognize what is happening
- Allow the experience to be there, just as it is
- Investigate with interest and care
- Nurture with self-compassion
Free Mindfulness Resources
Smartphone Mindfulness Apps