By Zachary J. Thieneman, Psy.D.
Mindfulness: to be conscious or aware of something. American culture teaches us to go and go and go, thinking about the next thing to do, see, or feel. The practice of mindfulness, and make no mistake about it being practice, teaches us to slow down; to be aware of our bodies and minds in a way we often neglect. People tout mindfulness as a way to cure what ails you. Psychologists, yogis, and monks talk about how it benefits mind, body, and spirit. They are not without merit. Research indicates mindfulness-based interventions help with many problems including anxiety, depression, and stress. How does one even begin to learn something like mindfulness? While seeing a teacher steeped in mindfulness is a great way to dive in, being mindful can be as simple as taking fifteen minutes out of your day to simply sit.
Imagine yourself sitting. Just sitting. Free of distractions such as people, television, phones, or other media. You are sitting alone and upright with the goal of being comfortable, but conscious. Awake, but relaxed.
As you are sitting, pay attention to your body. Notice your breath, without trying to change it. There are many techniques for doing this, but the easiest is to simply attend to the sensation of breath entering and leaving your body. If you breathe through your nose, notice the sensation of each breath as it enters and leaves your body. Feel the cool air coming in through your sinuses and the warm air as it leaves through your nostrils. Feel your chest and belly expand with each in-breath and collapse back into your spine with each out-breath. These are the natural, ceaseless, rhythmic sensations of the body.
If you notice your mind wandering (and believe me, it will), it’s okay. Repeat: it’s totally okay. Don’t judge your thoughts, whatever they may be. Even noticing that your thoughts are wandering is a sign you are practicing mindfulness. Rather, notice their content. Does your mind wander to sounds in the room in which you are sitting? What about stressors at work, a big test at school, or difficulties at home? As you notice your thoughts, gently redirect your attention back to your breath. Attend to what you may often ignore- your body and senses.
That’s the basic idea of mindfulness: being nonjudgmentally present with your body and thoughts. By sitting with your thoughts, feelings, and body you become aware of things you were once too rushed to notice. Mindfulness: to be conscious or aware of something. Such awareness teaches you to sit with your own thoughts and allow yourself space to simply be. Less hurry, less go go go. Mindfulness theories suggest that we suffer for many reasons, one of the most prominent being we try to hang on to happiness or pleasure and avoid suffering. But suffering is a part of being, and sitting with it during practice such as mindfulness is a way to not avoid what bothers you.
The practice of mindfulness teaches to let go of moments as they pass in order to be present with whatever is happening. Being present during times of happiness is as important as being present during times of suffering. The first step is simply noticing things you may have missed. Then, with infinite subtlety, mindfulness practice can lead from the ‘what’ of your thoughts to the ‘how’ and ‘why’. This leads to subtle change in who you want to be based on your own insights. In that sense, mindfulness is what you make of it. Just remember: pay attention. Like the last moment, this moment will soon be gone.