What comes to mind for you when you hear the word ‘mindfulness’?
Mindfulness has become an important part of the work I do with my clients. Not only is there an increasing amount of research demonstrating the benefits of mindfulness interventions, but I’ve also found this practice to be incredibly helpful for my own personal and professional life.
However, when I first tell clients that the work we do together is going to include mindfulness, they may respond with objections such as:
“I’m not a spiritual person”
“I’ve tried it and I’m no good at it”
“There’s no way I could clear my mind”
I actually prefer when clients share with me their hesitations about something I want them to try because then we can have an honest discussion about it and see if I can address some of these concerns and help them find solutions.
Misconceptions about Mindfulness
Some of these concerns regarding mindfulness are related to common misconceptions about what it’s all about. For instance, that it needs to involve a spiritual component, or that you’re supposed to completely empty your mind of thoughts. While it can involve a spiritual component, I encourage clients to think of it as “strengthening your attention muscle.” And in regards to clearing your mind, that’s never the goal! It’s actually to learn to be more aware of your thoughts and feelings.
Jon Kabat Zinn, mindfulness expert and founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program defines mindfulness as paying attention:
IN THE PRESENT MOMENT
IN A NON-JUDGEMENTAL WAY
Since I practice mindfulness myself, I understand firsthand just how challenging it can be to sit with all of the difficult thoughts and feelings that may arise. We’re so good at avoiding these things, but when we sit down to practice mindfulness there’s nowhere to hide. This can be scary stuff, but, with practice, it can be an incredibly powerful tool to help you improve your concentration, manage stress, increase your resilience, and more.
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness can be formal or informal (more on that below). In mindfulness practice, there is always something we are trying to keep our attention focused on. Often, especially in seated meditation, this is your breath. But it can also be a sound, the sensations in your body, or the features of a flower you’re looking at. I like to think about this thing that we’re focusing on as the “anchor” of our attention. The goal of mindfulness is to notice when your mind has wandered away from paying attention to that anchor and very gently bring it back to focus on the anchor again.
The gentleness piece of this practice is one of the hardest parts, but it’s also one of the most important! Mindfulness should help you treat your mind in a compassionate and kind way. You’re not meant to treat it like a drill sergeant.
Being Kinder to Our Minds
One way to think of it is like this – imagine that your mind is like a puppy that has wandered off. Do you scold the puppy each time it wanders off? I wouldn’t recommend it! After all, it’s so cute and just figuring things out. Same thing for your mind. It is just figuring out how to do this mindfulness thing and it will need lots of practice. Very gently bring it back to what you were focusing on without getting mad at it.
The goal of mindfulness practice is not to keep your mind focused on the anchor as much as possible. Even seasoned meditators will tell you that they rarely achieve this. The goal is actually to get better and faster at noticing your mind has wandered off and bringing it back to the here and now. So actually, each time you notice your mind isn’t focused on the anchor you can give yourself a pat on the back – you’re strengthening your attention muscle!
Formal and Informal Mindfulness
When most people hear of mindfulness the first thing that comes to mind is seated meditation. This is considered “formal mindfulness” and can be a very effective way to practice mindfulness. However, it’s not for everyone and it can be challenging for some people who are just getting started.
If my clients are interested in practicing formal mindfulness together we explore how to create new habits around the practice so it can become a part of their daily routine. We also look at what sorts of tools may help support them as they’re practicing mindfulness. One of my favorite free tools is the Insight Timer app. It has more guided meditations than you could even complete in your lifetime. I recommend searching for “mindfulness,” “MBSR” or “mindful self-compassion” if you’re looking for some guided meditation tracks to follow.
Mindfulness On The Go
Informal mindfulness can also be called “mindfulness on the go.” This is a type of mindfulness practice that you can do throughout your day, with your eyes wide open. Here are some examples of informal mindfulness practice:
- Mindfully brush your teeth and notice when your mind wanders to your to-do list for the day
- Take a few mindful breaths when you’re stopped at a stop light
- Do a mindful check-in with your 5 senses: notice 1 thing you see, hear, touch, taste, and smell
- Mindfully play with your child or pet. If your mind wanders away just bring it back to what you’re doing at this very moment
- Mindful eating – noticing the tastes, textures, and smells with each bite of food you take
Ideally, we want to practice both formal and informal mindfulness. You can think about it as training for a sport like skiing. Going to the gym and doing cardio and certain focused strength training exercises will help immensely (this is like formal meditation), but outside of the gym, choosing to take the stairs, do a few stretches at your desk, or go on a quick walk will also help you to train for your sport even more.
Getting Started with Mindfulness
If I was going to teach you how to swim I wouldn’t spend 15 minutes discussing the physics of swimming or telling you what it feels like to get wet. Instead, I’d say, “let’s get in the pool and get wet!” The same is true for mindfulness. You can read all about what it’s like and what the benefits are, but if you really want to experience the benefits you need to try it yourself.
I invite you to take the next 5 minutes to get your feet wet with mindfulness practice. Find a place where you won’t be disturbed, turn off your phone, and get comfortable:
When you finish this exercise leave a comment below and let me know what you thought of this exercise or if you still have any questions about mindfulness practice
“Don’t believe everything you think. Thoughts are just that – thoughts.”Allan Lokos
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