Practice Mindfulness, Practically
“Mindfulness works, in part, by helping people to accept their experiences—including painful emotions—rather than react to them with aversion and avoidance.” Source
Mindfulness has been shown to improve physical health, mental health and overall well-being. It does not get rid of stress, challenges, or difficulties. Rather, mindfulness helps us to observe our internal reactions to these external stressors, increasing our awareness of the uncomfortable thoughts and emotions that arise with stress. This increased awareness and tolerance of our thoughts and feelings is what gives us greater choice in responding. Mindfulness literally alters the way our brains work. Consistent mindfulness practice creates new pathways to the parts of the brain responsible for focus and decision-making and redirects activity from the parts of the brain that respond with feelings of fear and anxiety. In short, mindfulness gives us the ability to respond rather than react, to be intentional rather than impulsive.
One way to practice mindfulness, and probably the most commonly suggested way, is through mindfulness meditation. The goal of mindfulness meditation is not to clear your mind or stop your thoughts. It is simply to observe your experience with a focus on the physical body. In this practice, you find a comfortable spot to sit or lay. You might start by focusing on one aspect of your breathing. Maybe it’s the sound, the way it feels as it enters and leaves your nose or mouth, or the well your belly rises and falls with each breath. You can then begin to widen your focus to include other sensations, feelings and thoughts. Observe each sensation, feeling or thought without judgment and then let it go. When you notice yourself getting caught up following a thought, worry or memory, gently bring your awareness back to your breath and body.
While mindfulness meditation is extremely beneficial, it’s not a perfect fit for everyone. There are other ways to practice mindfulness that might be a better fit for your lifestyle. It should also be noted that we don’t want to begin a mindfulness meditation from a place of activation (fight or flight) or collapse (freeze).
Practical mindfulness involves working mindfulness into the activities you already do in a day. In this practice, only focus on one activity at a time by engaging as many senses as you can. If you are cooking, notice the texture of the food as you prepare it. Take time to smell each ingredient. Do they smell different with your eyes closed? Notice the sound of chopping veggies or the sizzle in the pan. Feel the cold water as you wash your hands and the heat from the oven as you place your meal inside. Taste your sauce, and notice the intricate differences as you add to it. Watch the colours change as things cook or mix together.
You might also use practical mindfulness when taking a walk. Notice how your breath changes with the speed or cadence of your walk. Do your thoughts change if you walk faster or slower? Notice how your ankles automatically adjust to the ground below you or how your arms automatically swing as you move. Notice the sun on your face, how bright it is and its warmth. How many different flowers, bugs or birds can you spot? Play around with your experience; how does it change if you stare at the ground? If you look up at the sky or trees? What if you meet the eyes of other walkers and smile?
Acceptance is Key
Whichever form of mindfulness you practice, leave your judgements at the door. You will get caught up in your thoughts and feelings – this will never change. The goal is not to stop getting caught up, but rather to practice bringing your focus back to the present. So, when you notice yourself getting caught up, don’t beat yourself up. Simply notice the thought or feeling that hooked you and bring your focus back to the present.
Mindfulness as a Lifestyle
Mindfulness is not simply a state to practice during meditation. We can practice mindfulness in every moment – and this realization can be incredibly powerful. We get to control how we experience the world’s challenges, pains and joys. However, if we only lived in the present moment, we would likely get very little done – it’s impossible to set goals without thinking about the future. Aim for a helpful balance of forward-thinking, past reflection, and the ability to enjoy, tolerate and rest in the moment.
The benefits of mindfulness increase with the amount of time you practice. However, when you first start to practice mindfulness, it can be overwhelming. We recommend starting with only 2 minutes. Just like learning any other skill, you might feel awkward, like you aren’t doing it right, or frustrated when you start. Remember to be gentle with yourself – this is a learning process!