By Ginny Hain- Contributing Blogger
To me, the term 'mindfulness' always used to conjure images of wise-looking humans swathed in linen, seated with their eyes closed in the lotus position. It was something for yogis, gurus and women who owned a lot of flowing skirts. It was not however, for space cadets like me who check my phone a zillion times a day, can't meditate to save my life, and often have to pull myself out of la-la-land.
But when I dug a little deeper to into its practice and aim, I realized that actually, I am exactly who mindfulness is for. I bet you are too.
So, what is mindfulness anyway and why is it for us? At its core, mindfulness is about living in the moment, and I don't mean like in a YOLO way. It's about being aware of your thoughts, feelings, and environment and experiencing them as they happen, not on re-play.
It can be a little tough wrap your head around at first because while on the one hand mindfulness is paying attention to what's going on around us, on the other it's not letting the million distractions that come at us each day completely take us out of the 'now'. When it comes to thoughts and feelings, mindfulness is stepping back and experiencing emotions individually without deeming them right or wrong. This can mean feeling sadness without self-loathing, anger without need for vengeance, and joy without the worry that it will end soon.
To sum it up, mindfulness is kind of like working to declutter the brain of extra baggage. And decluttering is never a bad thing, right?
Especially when it leads to so many benefits for the mind, body and soul.
Let's start with the mind: Practicing attentiveness makes the gray stuff between our ears denser in areas linked to memory, learning, emotional regulation and even empathy. It strengthens our focusing skills, giving us more power to tune out unnecessary distractions and to make decisions as to what is worthy of our attention. Added bonus: mindfulness also cultivates an ability to think creatively and pragmatically.
Moving outwards to the body, a study conducted by Harvard Medical School found that women who practiced mindful eating, paying attention to each bite they ate, took in fewer calories than a control group even though they perceived themselves as being more hungry. The same applies to snacking. By taking our brains off auto-pilot when it comes to reaching into a bag of chips, we're less likely to end up accidentally finishing a family-size portion. Interestingly enough, even our immune functions get a boost when we're mindful.
What about the soul, sister? Research has shown repeatedly that practicing mindfulness can lead to lowered levels of anxiety, stress and depression. In one study—this one of folks diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder—those who used mindfulness-based stress reduction tools showed a significantly higher reduction in anxiety levels than the control. Another looking at people with clinical depression showed a decrease of 40-50% in the frequency of depressive episodes. By taking more control over our thoughts and actions, we siphon the flood of worries, to-do's, and should-woulda-couldas that fill our day, allowing us to stress about them less and to get down to the business of living!
This all sounds great, but how exactly does one cultivate mindfulness? It's actually not as difficult as you might think (and it doesn't even have to involve mountains nor linen...unless you want it to). Take a moment to think about how you're sitting right now. Are you slouched? Are your legs crossed or next to each other? What's the temperature like next to your skin? Asking yourself questions like this a few times a day is a great way to start tuning into the present.
So is spending a few minutes a day completely focused on what you're doing. Start with a low-stress activity, like brushing your teeth or making a cup of joe. Try to clear your mind of other thoughts by turning your attention to the taste of the toothpaste, the smell of the coffee, the feeling of the brush next to your gums, the color change as you stir in half-and-half. If your mind wanders to other thoughts (which it inevitably will at the start), no worries, just gently steer it back to the moment at hand. When it veers astray again, guide it back with the same gentleness.
Moving your mind back from its wandering is key. The more you practice it in simpler situations, the easier it'll be to bring yourself back to center when you find yourself daydreaming at work (or replaying the fight you had with your Sig-O last night).
Finally, try to note at least 5 pleasant thoughts or sensations that you experience each day. These can be anything from the joke that made you laugh out loud to the feeling of sun on your face. Giving these experiences a few seconds of your time opens up the pathways in your mind to allow you to more easily notice other good things around you.
In writing this, practicing mindfulness has meant noting how quickly the keys rebound with each finger stroke and steering my mind back from wandering at least a hundred times. It's tough stuff, but I already feel more accomplished. Once you start, I'm sure you will too. Your body, mind, and soul will thank you.