Let me start by saying… I have SO much to say!
I can talk about mindfulness forever. I can talk about therapy FOREVER. So, you can only imagine how much I have to say about mindfulness AND therapy! BUT, in an earlier post I made a commitment to you all that I wouldn’t go on and on. So, just know that this is the beginning. There will be many more mindfulness posts, many. I’m going to start with the basics today.
I’ll admit that mindfulness is a bit of a buzzword right now. This happens in therapy (and life), things become trendy and all of the sudden everyone is diagnosed with something, or training in something, or buying something for their office, you get the idea. The irony of this is that mindful practice is almost as old as the mind itself. But then again everything I wore in middle school is back in style; so I guess everything has its time and then comes around again.
So what is this new (old) thing we call mindfulness?
Well, UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC) defines mindful awareness as “the moment-by-moment process of actively and openly observing one’s physical, mental and emotional experiences”. Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (and a HUGE deal in the community) describes mindfulness as an “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally. It’s about knowing what is on your mind.” It’s about being connected in the present moment, and further, being connected to your body and mind in the present moment.
Here’s the trick. We may think we are connected to our mind and body. You may read that and think “I know my head hurts right now” or “My body feels fat in these pants today”. It’s a different kind of relationship. It is a relationship without judgement, in fact, this relationship asks for acceptance. Can you feel these sensations in your mind and body without judging them? Without even thinking about them? That’s why we use the phrase “bring your awareness to…” If you have a headache can you bring your awareness to it without thinking about it (I must be dehydrated) or attaching feeling to it (I’m worried this won’t go away). Just be aware of it, allow it to be what it is, sit with it. (A little secret: you might find that it gets better or goes away, but that’s for a different post).
What can mindfulness do?
Well, research into mindfulness is still new, and some of the kinks are still being worked out. I won’t bore you with research talk, however results are coming in! In their book, Fully Present, Susan L. Smalley and Diana Winston write that research is beginning to show that repeated mindful practice can:
- Reduce Stress
- Reduce chronic physical pain
- Boost the immune system
- Assist in coping with painful life events
- Assist in coping with negative emotions
- Improve attention or concentration (also supported by a study from Smalley et. al)
- Enhancing positive emotions
- Enhancing performance
- Changing brain structure in a positive way
That last one is my favorite! So many people think therapy and therapeutic techniques are “all in our heads”. That it isn’t real. But mindful practices can actually change the physical structure and connections in your brain! I like telling clients that mindful practices are like weightlifting for your prefrontal cortex (I’m a nerd, don’t judge). It also shrinks the grey matter in your amygdala, the part of your brain that contains the fight or flight response, but I don’t want to get to “brainy” on you!
How can you start?
We can start right now. Take a breath in through your nose and out through your mouth. Now take another one but try to feel that breath in your nose, maybe even down through your windpipe and into your lungs, and then try to feel the breath as it leaves your mouth.
You just had a mindful moment. Congrats!
Mindful meditation consists of doing what you just did for an extended period of time. Find somewhere quiet (or if you are a parent like me, relatively quiet will do), breathe normally, and focus on the feeling of the breath, whether it’s in your nose, chest, belly, or mouth. If thoughts enter your mind just gently and non-judgmentally direct your attention back to your breath. Start small and work your way up to longer meditation times.
Please remember that it’s called a practice for a reason. You aren’t supposed to be good at it at first, there is always room for growth. Don’t let it be a time where you beat yourself up.
We’ll talk about more ways to be mindful later, for now here are some awesome resources to help you get started:
Apps- Available in Google Play and App Store
Stop, Breathe, and Think
How to Train a Wild Elephant, and Other Adventures in Mindfulness