What’s on your mind? If you’re like the rest of us, there’s a good chance that your mind spends a significant amount of the day wandering around. One moment, you’re kicking yourself about an embarrassing moment from 15 years ago, the next, you’re worried about your upcoming mortgage renewal. Occasionally, in a fleeting moment of awareness, you snap back to the present moment and you wonder: How did my mind get there?! If this is you, then you may benefit from the practice of mindfulness. In this article, we’ll provide a brief introduction to what mindfulness is, what its potential benefits are, and how to start incorporating it into your daily life.
What is Mindfulness?
Throughout the realms of Eastern spiritual practices, peer-reviewed research literature, and modern pop culture, the term “mindfulness” has taken on many meanings. For the sake of simplicity, we will refer to mindfulness as the act of bringing your awareness to the present moment, and to be aware of your experience in a neutral, nonjudgmental way. This concept of mindfulness is loosely derived from the practices of several Eastern traditions, including Buddhism and Hinduism.
Why Practice Mindfulness?
We are a society of wandering minds. One study reported that participants spent about 47% of their day thinking about something other than what they’re doing. There are a lot of reasons for why this happens. Life is as busy as ever, and the present moment often gets lost in the hustle. Some people get stuck in their own heads, constantly ruminating about the past and worrying about the future. Others are struggling with psychological trauma, which can make it really scary to be present in their own experience. In any case, research suggests that it is worthwhile to invite your mind to return to the present moment. A classic study published in 2010 reported that people whose minds spend too much time wandering are generally less happy. Conversely, the study showed that people were generally happier when they were thinking about what they were doing. These findings align with a claim made by many Eastern spiritual practices: happiness is found in the present moment. Moreover, the last 50 years of psychology research suggests that increasing mindfulness might be effective in treating a range of psychological symptoms, including depression, anxiety, chronic stress, and insomnia.
Starting Your Mindfulness Practice: Tips and Exercises!
Life is busy, and it can be really hard to put life on pause to practice mindfulness! We get it, so we wanted to present a few tips that might help you to incorporate moments of mindfulness in your busy life. These ideas are taken from the classic (and beautifully written) book, Peace is Every Step by the late Vietnamese monk, Thich Nhat Hahn.
A Breathing Meditation
One simple and powerful way to return to the present moment is just by taking a few seconds to pay attention to your breath. When you breathe, simply think, “Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know that I am breathing out.”
By simply paying attention to your breath, you are inviting your attention back to the present moment – and you may find that there is great peace and joy in the simple experience of breathing.
A Walking Meditation
When we walk, it is natural for our minds to focus on the destination. On longer walks, sometimes our minds start wandering, worrying, or ruminating. Next time you take a walk, try to invite your attention to the contact between your feet and the ground. I love the way Thich Nhat Hahn described this exercise: “Walk as if you are kissing the Earth with your feet.”
A Hugging Meditation
Sometimes when we hug, we are not fully there. The hug is often used as an expression of affection and love, but sometimes our attention is elsewhere and we don’t truly get a chance to experience the love we feel, or the love that is being offered to us.
Next time you hug someone you’re very comfortable with (ie. a parent, a partner, your children, or a very close friend) – try to take a deep breath while you hug them and bring your awareness to their presence.
A few years ago, I taught my family a simple hugging meditation – and we all had a blast with it. I invited them to take three breaths together as we hugged. In the first breath, we say (silently or out loud), “I am happy you are with me right now.” In the second breath, we say, “I know we will not always be together.” And on the final breath, we return to the present moment and say, “I am so happy you are with me right now.” This is such a powerful meditation – not only because it helps you to be present with your loved one, it also reminds you of the preciousness of your time together.
Mindful Eating And Drinking
Let’s face it, when you’re eating alone, you’re probably pulling out your smartphone (if we’re going to be truly honest, maybe you’re tempted to pull out that smartphone even when you’re eating with others)! For so many of us, eating has become routine, and we need a little extra stimulation to get through the meal without it feeling like a chore.
Next time you eat, try to put your phone away and see how it feels to be present with your food (or drink). As you take your first few bites, bring your attention back to the tastes, odour, and sensations of your food. Be mindful of the feeling of satiety as you swallow your food. You might be surprised how pleasant this can be!
Another simple meditation you can try: As you take your first few bites, contemplate the journey that your food took prior to ending up on your plate. Try to envision how the coffee beans were grown and harvested, how a tree transformed water and sunlight into the orange slices on your plate, or honour the life and death of the animal that provided the meat for your meal. This is a great way to not only be present with your food, but to cultivate wonder and gratitude, and to help you be mindful with your connection to nature.
Mindfulness is one of those powerful and simple practices that have stood through the rigorous tests of time, spiritual tradition, and peer-reviewed science. If you’re looking for an accessible way to improve your mental health, try to invite your awareness back to the present moment! You may find dollops of peace, happiness, and clarity during your visit.
That being said, it is important to note that mindfulness practice can be emotionally difficult for some people. It is recommended for individuals who are struggling with suicidal ideation, untreated trauma, substance abuse, or psychological conditions such as psychosis, to try mindfulness under the care of a trained mental health clinician.