What is mindfulness?
The mental skill set that comes from the practice of meditation is known as mindfulness. Mindfulness can be understood as the ability to keep our attention focused on the present moment in a relaxed and nonjudgmental fashion. Mindfulness is associated with a lessened reactivity to stress and an improved ability to focus.
The ancient practice of mindfulness meditation—which has been practiced for thousands of years in parts of Southeast Asia—is the most effective way to become more mindful in our everyday lives. This is because meditating trains us to notice when we’ve become distracted and learn how to “come back” to the present moment. We can also become more mindful by limiting the time we spend multitasking at work, at home, or on the go.
Mindfulness Research and Therapeutic Applications
Clinical research demonstrates that mindfulness is a promising approach for people struggling with anxiety, chronic pain, hypertension, and other medical and mental health conditions. It is also an important component in several kinds of psychotherapy including dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT).
Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) is a program that is based on mindfulness meditation. It is typically offered in a group format that is more like a class than it is like group therapy. Research has suggested it can be helpful for people suffering from problems ranging from stress to anxiety and depression to chronic illnesses.
Psychotherapists will sometimes teach their clients mindfulness exercises because of how helpful it can be for anxiety and emotional health. Many emotional problems can be caused (or exacerbated) by an aversion to certain emotions. This is also true if certain emotions aren’t recognized when they’re occurring. Practicing mindfulness can help increase tolerance for—and awareness of—these emotions, which may improve mental health.
How to Practice Mindfulness Meditation
As mentioned above, the best way to practice being mindful is to do mindfulness meditation. Here is a quick guide:
1. Take a seated position. You can sit in a chair or on a cushion on the floor. Ensure that your back is straight and that you feel comfortable enough to remain in that position for a good while. If you’re in a chair, try to sit up straight without leaning against the back of the chair. Meditate with your eyes closed if that’s comfortable for you; if it isn’t, keep your eyes open but keep them down, centering your gaze on a spot on the floor several feet in front of you.
2. Turn your attention to your breathing. Meditation is not relaxation training; it is attentional training. Therefore, it’s important that we be aware of what we are doing with our attention when we meditate.
Begin by directing your attention to your breath. It’s not necessary to breathe more deeply than is natural; just notice the feeling of the air going in your nose or mouth as you inhale. Notice the feeling in your abdominal muscles as your torso expands with each inhalation. Try to pinpoint the moment when your inhalation becomes an exhalation. Pay rapt attention to the whole breathing process. (As you become more experienced, you can expand your awareness beyond your breath to things you hear, smell, or see.)
You’ll find that focusing on your breathing keeps you anchored in the present moment—this is a key piece of mindfulness practice. (Mindfulness meditation can also use the senses as a focus in addition to the breath, typically sights or sounds. Like focusing on the breath, focusing on our senses also helps keep us in the present moment.)
3. Notice when your mind wanders. Inevitably, within a few seconds of directing your attention to your breath, your mind will lose its focus. You may start to have thoughts like, This is going great! I’m finally meditating! This will really help me out, I’m sure…. or I’m not doing this right—I’m supposed to be noticing my breath but I’m breathing too fast for this to work. Maybe I should slow down…
Regardless of the content of your thoughts, once you’re thinking, you are no longer focused on your breath. That’s the bad news. The good news is that this is very normal and part of the process.
4. When you notice your mind wandering—come back. Noticing that your mind has strayed from its initial focus on your breath and instead become absorbed in thought is an important part of mindfulness meditation.
Once you realize this, try to non-judgmentally redirect your attention back to the breath. Do your best to not get frustrated when you’ve noticed your mind has wandered. Similarly, regardless of what types of thoughts arise, try to impartially observe them for a moment before you return your attention to your breath. Remember, there are no good thoughts and no bad thoughts. There are no thoughts that make you special and no thoughts to be ashamed of—they’re just thoughts.
By practicing not judging our thoughts we become less reactive to them, which is one of the most helpful aspects of practicing meditation and has numerous positive consequences. One such consequence is that over time, with regular practice, our judgments (of ourselves and others) become less reflexive—even when we’re not meditating.
Try sitting for 5 minutes at first and then gradually work your way up to more time. Mindfulness meditation is ideally done on a daily basis. It’s better to do a little each day than to do a lot on rare occasions. For more on how long to meditate, see this post.
How to Practice Mindfulness in “Regular” Life
You can also practice mindfulness when not meditating. Look for things you do regularly that are solitary and not very mentally demanding—like eating, taking a shower, or washing the dishes. Try to keep your attention fully and completely on the task at hand. Focus on how it feels/sounds/tastes to do the task—and only that task. When your thoughts wander elsewhere, bring your attention back to whatever you’re doing.
Taking a shower is a great example. How often have you become so lost in thought in the shower that you forgot what you’ve already washed and what you haven’t? This is what un-mindfulness feels like. A shower is a great chance to practice mindfulness because there is nothing else you need to do when you’re in the shower besides… taking a shower. To practice mindful showering, start at the moment you step in and turn on the water. Notice your reaction to the water first hitting your body. Notice what your mind does once you’re in the shower. Does it turn to what you need to do later that day? Does it review something aggravating that happened earlier? Does it try to make important future plans? Notice this pull into distracted thought, and when you do, return your attention to the sounds and sensations of the shower. Rest your mind on these sensations and let your attention focus on them. When you notice you’ve been caught up in thought again, repeat the process of bringing your attention back to your senses, similarly to what was described above for meditation. (For more mindfulness tips, see this post.)
Mindfulness and Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy
Stress and anxiety conditions can be worsened by difficulties with concentration and relaxation. We can reduce anxiety by practicing our inherent ability to be mindfully present, focused, and relaxed. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) also offers many effective techniques to reduce anxiety. At the Manhattan Center for Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy some of our therapists specialize in combining MBSR and CBT. Dr. Visvanathan and Dr. Greene specialize in this work. For those who are seeking the traditional class-like group format of MBSR, we recommend the NYC Mindfulness Collaborative.