What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is a practice that has roots in Buddhist principles of being acutely aware of one’s own internal and external experiences. In The Wisdom of Insecurity, Alan Watts describes that attending to the future and past tends to lead to emotional turmoil because we are so focused on what could happen and what already has happened. It is only when attending to what is happening in the present moment that we can truly experience life for what it is.

Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn is a founding father of mindfulness practice in the way that it is practiced in psychological treatment today. He defined mindfulness as “an awareness of the present moment and its sensations, in a non-judgmental manner”. To explain further:

Mindfulness is a full awareness of experiences, both external and internal. Being mindful means being aware of experiences that are happening outside and inside of ourselves. For example, noticing the greenery as you walk through the park, the feeling of our feet as it steps on the ground, or smells of the chicken tikka masala you just made. Internally, it may mean being aware of the thoughts in our mind and the feelings we are experiencing.

Mindfulness is in the present moment. When we are engaging in mindful behaviours, we are less worried about the future and the past. We are simply focused on what is happening in the here and now.

Mindfulness is non-judgmental. We are simply attending to experiences inside and outside of ourselves and noticing them in a way that is open and objective regardless of whether they are pleasant or unpleasant experiences. For example, noticing the chair you are sitting on to be ‘bumpy’ would be an non-judgmental interpretation whereas thinking “the chair is so uncomfortable and I hate it” would be a subjective interpretation.

Benefits of mindfulness

There are numerous benefits of mindfulness. Below, I list a few benefits of mindfulness based on my work with patients and the theory/science of mindfulness.

– We enjoy activities more. When we are present and fully engaged with the activities, we are better able to attend to and enjoy our current experience. For example, truly tasting your food, getting lost in the music you are listening to, or noticing the beautiful scenery around us. A former patient of mine found that mindfulness was helpful to slow down time and get her really into the activity she was engaging in.

– Mindfulness reduces emotional turmoil. Through non-judgmental acceptance of our experience, we also paradoxically reduce the amount of emotional turmoil when negative events happen to us. This is because we reduce the power that our thoughts and emotions have over us when we simply notice and accept them (letting them go in the process), rather than reject or fall into a vicious cycle of further overthinking and ruminating.

– Mindfulness improves psychological and emotional well-being. Over the years, mindfulness has been seen to improve a number of mental health challenges, such as depression, anxiety, insomnia, emotion-regulation, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. In this way, mindfulness can be described as a transdiagnostic construct – the benefits of mindfulness are relevant in many areas of functioning.

– Mindfulness allows us to respond, rather than react. From a behaviour perspective, mindfulness gives us an ability to respond to our emotions, rather than react in an automatic way. This can be helpful because our emotions can sometimes make us do something that is not consistent with how we want to act, such as yelling at a loved one or using substances in response to stress. Mindfulness is helpful to give us a moment to stop and observe our experience, and respond in a manner that is most consistent with our goals and values.

Guided meditations for mindfulness

There are several ways to practice mindfulness. Guided meditations are helpful for those who want a more structured and consistent practice for mindfulness.

There is no shortage of guided mindfulness practices online. They vary in their duration and type of practice. I would experiment with a few and choose the one that you enjoy and can stick with.

Mindfulness meditations and relaxation meditations can appear similar, but they have different purposes. The purpose of relaxation – as the name suggests – is to relax you. On the other hand, the purpose of mindfulness practices is simply to be aware of the experiences. In this case, the experience itself can be positive or negative. The important piece is to be able to sit with these experiences in a non-judgmental manner.

Here’s a short mindfulness practice that I personally enjoy:

Mindfulness in everyday life  

Besides structured mindfulness practices, mindfulness can also be practiced in everyday life! Oftentimes, we go through life on somewhat of an ‘autopilot mode’. We are not very present going through the mundane parts of life, such as driving to work, eating our dinner, or taking a walk.

There’s a lot of beauty in life. And incorporating mindfulness practices in our daily lives can be a great way to appreciate each and every one of these moments. This can be as simple as really being present when we are engaging in a hobby (e.g., painting, cooking) or taking a moment to notice what’s going on around us when we are going on our regular evening walk. You don’t have to mindfully engage in every activity; choose a couple that you think would elevate your experience and take you out of autopilot mode.

Here’s an article on the What and How of mindfulness if you’re interested in learning more about what mindful behaviours are and how to engage in them!

Potential barriers to mindfulness practice

1. Boredom. Some people may find guided meditations to feel boring and quit because of this feeling. That’s okay! Some strategies I would consider would be to try out a few different meditation practices to see which ones feel good for you. Or to keep them a bit shorter. Being able to sit with boredom and notice these feelings can also be a great way to reduce reactivity to these feelings and see what it’s like to simply observe them.

2. Busy-ness in daily life. Sometimes when we are always on the go, it can be hard to take a moment to find time to practice mindfulness meditations. Mindfulness meditations can be as short as a few minutes, so if having mindfulness in your life is important, I’d encourage you to protect a few minutes in the morning or evening to practice. Having a routine will help with ensuring consistency!

3. Feeling as though it’s not working. Patients will sometimes let me know that they feel like mindfulness isn’t working because they feel anxious or distressed during the practice. In response, I always say I wouldn’t want mindfulness to always feel good. Not because I’m a psychopath, but that it can actually be helpful to experience negative feelings during practice because it allows to learn to sit with these unpleasant sensations. Our brain is not always going to be our best friend, and learning to be able to sit with negative thoughts and feelings can be beneficial outside of practice.

4. Other better things to do. Although I think everyone can benefit from mindfulness, some individuals may not feel mindfulness is right for them or feel an urgency to work on other tasks. For me, I always encourage my patients to only engage in meditation if it feels right for them and adds to their lives. Sometimes it can be difficult to ascertain whether something is helpful or not through only practicing once or twice. In this case, I might take a curious scientist approach and try out brief mindfulness practices every day for a week and then reassess whether mindfulness adds value to your life.  

I hope this post was helpful in getting started on your mindfulness journey! If time and interest permit, I would encourage you to try out a brief mindfulness exercise or engage in one activity in a mindful manner this week.

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Best wishes,