What is mindfulness and why is it useful?
“Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” - Jon Kabat-Zinn.
This definition encapsulates all of the important tenets of mindfulness, which is intention and a neutral reaction to — and thus acceptance of — our reality. Mindfulness is a way to connect to the present moment, and through this awareness we can gain more insight on both our emotional state and our physical body. We can then use this information to address issues like stress, anxiety, or depression by figuring out what needs to be healed or explored further.
What is the difference between mindfulness and meditation?
Mindfulness is a state we can enter through meditation. In other words, meditation can be a vehicle towards mindfulness. But you don’t need to meditate to be mindful. You can mindfully walk, eat, and brush your teeth, among other things! Being mindful simply requires your full attention on the task at hand, and softening your mind to be nonjudgmental about the process. We take away the labeling of “good” or “bad” and just accept what is. This, of course, takes practice!
Self-Compassion: The Essential Element
In order to cultivate non-judgement and acceptance in our lives, it is important to have a strong sense of self-compassion. Why? Because as humans, we are naturally inclined to criticize and be hard on ourselves, especially when we fail or things go wrong. Without self-compassion, we have nothing to counter the inner critic with. This may worsen already negative experiences, and dim the light on positive ones.
“But isn’t my inner critic motivating?”
The short answer? NO! Would you "motivate" a friend or loved one by being hard, mean, or critical of them? Probably not. We know that reacting to them in this way would likely make them feel worse, thus less motivated. If we approach ourselves with kindness, support, and reassurance, we are more likely to progress and move forward.
Think of two different coaches and you're the athlete. Imagine being a complete newbie at whatever sport you're playing, and already feeling fear, insecurity, and intimidation. Coach #1 is harsh and aggressive; he yells at you to BE BETTER, DO BETTER, DON'T MESS UP OR ELSE. YOU'RE A FAILURE IF YOU DON'T GET IT RIGHT. He is constantly breathing down your neck, making you feel even more nervous than you already are -- which causes you to stress out. And what happens when you're stress level is high? You mess up.
Coach #2 is motivating, but compassionate. He reaffirms that you're human, and when you mess up, he acknowledges it as normal and part of the process. He also builds you up, highlighting your successes (however small they may be) and reassures you that all of it is part of the process -- it's all practice, so it's all good!
Now, which coach would you rather have? Pretty easy to choose, huh? Coach #2 is what it sounds like to approach yourself with self-compassion. Not only does it feel better, but it's actually leads to greater productivity!
Now, let's get down to mediation basics:
The following is a very simple form of meditating, and a good one if you are just starting the practice:
Sit up tall, crown of the head reaching towards the ceiling. Lean back and align your spine and head right over your pelvis. Let your hands relax on your legs (palms down on knees or folded in lap), let your shoulders soften, and your face and jaw be soft. Close your eyes, and take three clearing breaths, sighing out audibly with each one.
As you move through the first part of this exercise, notice when your mind begins to drift away or “gets hooked” by a thought. When this happens, gently acknowledge that it has (you can simply say “that's a thought” to yourself) and bring your awareness back to the breath and body.
Begin first by noticing your body through your senses:
What does your seat feel like on the chair/cushion? What does the texture of your clothes feel like on your skin? Does the temperature of your skin feel cold or warm? How do your feet feel inside your shoes? Continue this way throughout the whole body.
Now, what sounds do you hear? Can you hear all the different ones in the room, even the most subtle? What about the sounds outside of the room? Can you hear your own breath?
Notice any smells in the room. How many can you notice? Without labeling them as pleasant or unpleasant, just notice. If there’s no smells you recognize right away, can you feel the coolness of the clean air as you inhale?
Finally, notice what you see on the screen of your eyelids. What colors, shapes, lights, or splotches appear, if any? If it is just dark, can you notice that?
Now that you are relaxed and focused on the present moment, you can start your meditation. Begin to breathe deeply and rhythmically, trying to even out the inhales and exhales to about equal in length (4-5 seconds is a good place to start). Focus all of your awareness on your breath — how it travels into the body, the sensations as it moves past the nostrils, down the throat, expands the lungs and ribs, lifts the chest. Then follow it back out; notice the stomach softening, the ribs and lungs relaxing, the shoulders soften, and the warm temperature of the air as it exits the nose.
REMEMBER: Keep the focus on your breath, and again, if the mind wanders (which it will) simply acknowledge that it has, and gently bring your focus back to the breathe (even if you do this 1,000 times!) This is the key. Having a “blank mind” is impossible, so don’t make that your goal. Let yourself come back again and again to your point of focus (in this case the breath) and eventually, the span of time in which you leave your focus will slowly begin to shorten. There is no right way to meditate — like everything else, practice will make your experience with it a more fruitful one!
Counting and Mantra Meditation
Everyone finds different ways to drop deeper into their meditation. For some of us, counting the breath works well to keep our minds on track. Simply count the duration of your inhale in your head as you draw in (e.g. “one...two...three...four...”) then pause at the top for 1-2 seconds, counting those as well. Then exhale for the same amount that you inhaled, counting that out too. When you reach the bottom of your exhale, pause again for 1-2 seconds. We call this “box breathing,” and it can be useful not only in centering your focus, but in calming the nervous system and alleviating symptoms of anxiety.
Mantra meditation (some people may call it transcendental meditation) is similar to counting, but instead of numbers, we repeat a word or phrase to ourselves as we breath. It is useful to pick two words that compliment each other, to use on the inhale and exhale. For example, you can say “in” on the inhale, and “out” on the exhale. If you want a word or phrase with deeper meaning, feel free to come up with something more personal. One of my favorites is the Sanskrit mantra of “Soham,” which translates into “I am.” As you inhale, you’ll say “so” and as you exhale, “ham.” Play with different variations and find one that works best for you!
Mindful meditation can be explored and practiced in many different ways. Using a few or maybe all of the above techniques, you can begin to incorporate small bits of this practice into your daily life. Start small — maybe 5 minutes of seated meditation in the morning right when you wake up, and see how that feels. Set a short term goal, and write down how you feel after each try. Even the smallest steps towards mindfulness can cultivate big results!
Good luck & happy meditating!