Mindfulness may have links to Buddhism, but there’s really nothing ‘spiritual’ about it.
Mindfulness has been becoming a bit of a ‘thing’ over the last few years and I think in many ways is becoming one of the next new buzzwords.
I’m conflicted in how I feel about this – on one hand I think mindfulness applied properly is an extremely useful tool in improving people’s lives and is genuinely something I feel everyone should practice, on the other hand I’m concerned about the corruptive process of becoming a fad.
Given the new interest in it, I thought this was as good a time as ever to explore the basics of mindfulness and introduce one of my absolute favorite techniques for cultivating it – moving meditation.
What is ‘Mindfulness’?
Mindfulness, put simply, is a complete and nonjudgmental awareness of your experiences occurring in the moment.
There are at least two key parts to this. We’ll start with the end and work our way back. Mindfulness occurs in the moment. That means that when you’re being mindful you aren’t thinking about things in the past or the future. In fact, true mindfulness means not even recognizing at the time that the past or the future even exist.
This is probably the hardest part for most people to master – the majority of people dwell heavily on the past (regrets, nostalgia, & what-ifs), on the future (hopes, worries, goals & fears) or both that existing completely in the present is a big change. This isn’t to say thinking about the past and the future is inherently destructive, just that most people take it to the extreme.
It is important to learn from your mistakes, but once you’ve learned from them you need to let them go – not chain yourself to regret over something that is long gone and beyond your control. Similarly it is important to plan for the future and to anticipate problems that may lie ahead, but once you’ve planned for them continuing to worry or fear things that haven’t yet and may never happen only wastes your time and makes you miserable.
Regardless to be truly mindful is to recognize that that neither the past, which is gone forever, nor the future, which may never come at all, don’t really exist for you – only the moment you are occupying right now.
The second key part is a complete and nonjudgmental awareness of your experiences. That means not only being completely aware of as much as is occurring to and around you, but also not making any kind of judgement of that experience – simply acknowledging it as it is.
This is not as easy as it sounds either, particularly since we are fairly well wired to make some kind of value judgement of every single experience we have. From an evolutionary perspective this makes a lot of sense, we tend to immediately categorize things at the very least into positive/pleasant or negative/unpleasant stimuli.
Mindfulness lets go of this instinct to judge. When practicing mindfulness you aim to be aware of as much as humanly possible occurring around and within you, but to not categorize anything as positive or negative. When mindful you become aware of something, acknowledge it and move on.
In many ways this makes mindfulness very similar to standard meditation. The main difference being that in standard meditation you want to acknowledge thoughts and feelings then dismiss them until your mind is empty – when practicing mindfulness you want to do the same except to hang on to the thoughts about what’s occurring in the moment and to dismiss thoughts of the past, future, or those straying from what’s around and within you.
The very best example in my opinion of someone who is completely in a state of mindfulness is a pro athlete who is in ‘the zone’. Being ‘in the zone’ or in a state of Mushin means that the person’s mind is not thinking about the past, or the future – they’re really not even thinking too hard about what’s going on around them- they’re simply aware of it and their actions flow freely as a response to stimulus with no decisions or judgment going on.
Imagine a professional boxer in a fight. She isn’t thinking about her next career move, she isn’t wondering if she picked the right coach, and when she sees a punch coming she doesn’t deliberate what would be the best thing to do or think, “Oh man, that’s a good hit, didn’t see that coming,” – the punch comes and she moves. Instantly. Instinctively. There is no decision to move, it just happens. She doesn’t think about striking back, her fist moves of its own will.
That is an expression of mindfulness.
Why Practice Mindfulness
You might be saying to yourself, “Ok, that’s cool and all, but why should I care? This mindfulness stuff seems really hard.”
It Lowers Stress – Practicing mindfulness (and meditation in general, actually) helps reduce stress in a handful of ways. The first is that the clarity of thought existing in the present moment brings helps you think through the things that would normally stress you out and let them go. On top of that, mindfulness practice actually helps you perform better at everything you do – when you aren’t distracted by everything else and can focus on each task as it comes it’s a lot easier to give 100% on each one.
Being able to perform better means less worries, failures and problems to stress you out. On top of all that, you don’t just feel less stressed – mindfulness practice reduces cortisol levels meaning you’re less chemically stressed too. Your hormones, particularly cortisol, can make or break your efforts to change your body composition.
It Rewires Your Brain – In a study by the University of Oregon researchers found that mindfulness practice actually resulted in physical changes in the brain. Not only was axonal density improved meaning there were more signaling connections formed in participants’ brains, but also increased development of myelin sheaths around the axons in certain brain regions.
What does that mean in plain English? It means mindfulness practice physically changes your brain to work more efficiently and be better protected from mental illnesses such as Alzheimer’s and dementia. You think better, more clearly and are at a significantly reduced risk for illness – sounds worth it to me.
It Improves Sleep – How many times have you been stuck tossing and turning because you just can’t shut off your brain? That kind of insomnia can shave more than a few hours off your total sleeping time, which adds up to a lot. In one study as little as two fewer hours of sleep in a night led to an average of a 20% reduction in a maximal bench press test. It also pushes your cortisol up and causes havoc with the rest of your hormones making it extremely difficult to put on muscle, lose fat and recover from exercise. Sleep deprivation is also linked to depression, reduced immune function and lots of other unpleasant things.
Sleep is really important.
Mindfulness training teaches you to master your thoughts and where your attention focuses. Combine that with the reduced stress levels and that means no more monkey mind and a much, much easier time slipping off to sleep when you actually want to.
It Increases Mental Control – The journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience reports that mindfulness training actively increases your conscious control over your mind’s cortical alpha rhythms. The reason this is important is that your alpha rhythms are largely responsible for determining what it is you’re paying attention to.
Increased control over your alpha rhythms means practicing mindfulness brings a heightened ability to ignore or tolerate pain, control emotions and make more rational decisions. It also helps serve as the ‘off switch’ to dismiss any thoughts that might be worrying you, keeping you up at night or making you depressed.
How to Practice Mindfulness
Practicing mindfulness is simultaneously easy and difficult. It accomplishes this contradiction by being an extremely simple process that anyone can learn that is so contrary to the standard mindset that almost no one ever actually does it.
Mindfulness can be practiced in a variety of ways. The first that most people think of is zazen, or seated meditation. If you’re a complete beginner to meditation then zazen may be a good place to start if you want to be a bit more traditional or just think it looks cool to sit on a pillow in the middle of a room and burn incense.
Another option though that I honestly find to be a much better expression of applied mindfulness is moving meditation.
Moving meditation, also sometimes called active meditation, entails entering a state of mindfulness while engaged in an action. That means being fully engaged in the present moment with a complete and nonjudgmental awareness of what you’re experiencing as it pertains to the action you’re taking. It means being deliberate and purposeful in everything you’re doing.
A good mental image is to picture a tai chi master flowing through a set of forms or a yogi going through a set of asanas. They aren’t thinking about something that happened yesterday or worrying about what they’re going to do tomorrow, their thoughts are focused entirely on the precision of their actions, the smoothness of their movements, the reaction of their bodies and the tempo of their breathing. They are fully and totally engaged in that single action in that single moment.
The reason this is so difficult for a lot of people is it’s the direct opposite of what I consider to be a standard of distracted half-assery prevalent in modern culture. We multi-task as a rule, we’re constantly distracted by our phones, checking social media, planning for tomorrow, thinking about a thousand other things that we’re rarely completely focused on the thing we’re actually doing.
An easy introduction to active meditation is to practice a little mindfulness with your next meal. This is most easily done when eating alone, you can certainly do it while carrying on a conversation but it will add a bit more difficulty.
Sit down with your meal, with no other distractions, and really focus on eating that food. Do not turn on the TV. Do not touch your phone. Experience your meal. Take the time to smell it, to pick out the different scents of the ingredients. Chew slowly and deliberately. Pay attention to each of the separate flavors and how they combine and contrast with each other. How does it feel to chew it? What’s the temperature of the food like? What are you hearing around you? You get the picture.
In essence, savor your damn meal.
You’ll find that this attention to the task at hand, being fully present in the moment, really enhances your experience of the meal. Even if that meal is cold McDonald’s take out in a back alley.
Once you’ve mastered this process with meals – which I find to be the best way to start for most people – extend that same frame of mind to other tasks. Even if it’s something as mundane as walking out to the car to go to work, be all in about it. Are you stomping out or dragging your feet? How much noise do your footsteps make? How do you feel at that moment? What do you see, and smell and hear?
This type of mindfulness practice can be applied to any action, or even every action throughout your whole day. It makes everything you do feel deliberate and purposeful and, through reflection and refinement, eventually it will make every action better.
Do you practice mindfulness? Have you tried any types of meditation, active or otherwise? What’s been the biggest challenge for you in becoming more mindful? Share it with us in the comments! We love hearing from everyone.
Photo Credit: Ornoth