What does it really mean to be mindful? Mindfulness is a term that you may hear or see in so many different settings, given its current popularity. And yet, there are many different ways we can start a conversation about mindfulness, and many different ways to define mindfulness also. Although mindfulness might seem “trendy” these days, it is backed by neuroscience as an evidenced based intervention for a number of problems, like stress, pain, depression, anxiety, and substance abuse.
Mindfulness is the state of being present, aware, of our internal and external environments, in a non judgmental, compassionate way. It is simply being in the moment, and knowing that we are in the moment. It is recognizing that we are in the shower, when we are in the shower. It is recognizing that we are eating, when we are eating. It is recognizing that we are sad, when we feel sad. We don’t have to judge ourselves or our thoughts and feelings. We simply bring our awareness to them, with kindness and recognition.
It is just as important to know what mindfulness is not. Mindfulness is not a self improvement project, or one more thing to add to your to do list. That automatically assumes that we somehow want to change ourselves, or be different than we already are. Mindfulness is not religious, or even spiritual, although it may enhance religious and spiritual practice. Mindfulness is not something reserved for seasoned meditators. It is available to all of us, in all walks of life, all ages, all demographics, and is free.
So how can we start a mindfulness practice for ourselves? There are two important components, although each person’s practice will look different. The first is a sitting practice of meditation. You don’t have to sit for long periods of time. Even sitting (or laying) down, just for a few minutes a day, and focusing on the sensation of your breathing, in and out, in and out, is all that it takes.
If you have a thought or feeling arise, wonderful! Simply notice it, let it go, and come back to the breath.
The second component is the informal practice, that we weave throughout our daily lives. This is simply using all of our senses, or our awareness of our breathing, to engage in our regular activities. For example, when you are washing the dishes, instead of letting your mind wander to the next day’s meeting or activity schedule, engage all of your senses to become aware of washing the dishes. Feel what the water feels like. Observe what the transparent soap bubbles look like floating in the air. Hear the sound of the sponge scrubbing against the dishes. Your senses and your breath are always available to you, and the quickest way to bring yourself back to the present moment.
Perhaps it is most important to remember that mindfulness is a practice. There is no way to be good or bad at it, and your practice will be yours, uniquely individual to your needs and lifestyle. The moment you start to feel stressed about needing to be more mindful, is the moment to start fresh. You don’t need to be or do anything. You are simply waking up to your internal and external world, one breath at a time.