Here’s what I know about you: Even as you read this article, you’ve probably got at least six other things bouncing around in your brain.
You’re thinking about:
- how long it’ll take to read this
- what you need to do right after you get done reading this
- whether or not you’ll even finish reading this piece (see if you can focus enough to read to the end, I dare you!)
- whether you need to stop at the grocery store this afternoon
- that bill you need to pay by tomorrow
- …and maybe even the three text messages waiting for a response in your phone.
I don’t need to tell you, that’s a lot of stimuli to process in your brain from moment to moment.
It’s no wonder it’s so hard for you to just relax!
Advocates of mindfulness claim that it can consolidate your thoughts and bring you a clarity and focus you never imagined, but what exactly is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is discussed in a variety of different ways in popular culture. It’s been referred to as a psychological state of being aware (as in, “They were being really mindful of others”), the activities that cultivate that awareness (“Julia practices mindfulness every morning before work”), a way of processing information and stimulus (“Kirk continued to listen mindfully”), and as a character quality (“Stephanie is the most mindful friend I have”).
These various applications for the word “mindfulness” have to lead to some confusion over what the phrase actually means in everyday conversation. So we need to begin this discussion by answering the question, “What the heck is mindfulness, and why should I care?”
Mindfulness is most clearly defined across the research as “a moment-to-moment awareness of one’s experience without judgment.” Sounds pretty great, right?
To be able to flow through your everyday life without judging or reacting to experiences based on charged impulse or emotion is something you’d probably love to do, if for no other reason than to have bragging rights as “the calmest friend” in your crew.
But is mindfulness all it’s cracked up to be? And what are the proven benefits of mindfulness?
What Can Mindfulness Training Actually Do For You?
The immediately expanded attention and reduced “background noise” in the brain you achieve with mindfulness may be all you’re after, but cultivating mindfulness actually creates even deeper, long-lasting effects as well.
Research shows that people who prioritize mindfulness practices can reduce stress and depression, and create more naturally hopeful and empathetic perspective.
Mindful attention training is even effective on a cellular level. One study followed participants who practiced mindfulness meditation for an 8-week period in 15-minute sessions. The study found that participants experienced a change in the expression of 172 genes that regulate inflammation, circadian rhythms, and metabolism, which in turn created a meaningful decrease in their blood pressure.
Can Anyone Cultivate & Practice Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is a state of being and not a personality trait, which is great news for those of use with high-energy, multitasking personalities.
This means that mindfulness is something which can be cultivated by careful practice over time, so it’s accessible to literally anyone! Mindfulness is not the same thing as meditation, although meditation can help cultivate that state of mindfulness.
Several tools can be helpful for creating a space in your mind where mindfulness can grow.
Breathing is one of the most basic elements of life on this planet, and yet it’s something we often take for granted. To draw your attention away from the shifting quicksand of stimulation and back to simply being, you can always return to your breathing. Becoming more aware of your in-breath and out-breath is a potent reminder of the simplicity that’s accessible beneath all of the chaos.
Try this: with each inhale, count to five in your head. Then on the exhale, use a single word, such as “inward” to de-clutter the mind. Repeat this “1-2-3-4-5…Inward” process for as many breaths as you like until you feel more centered.
Music can be used as a cue for your mindfulness practice, and your brain will begin to associate the exact tunes you use with this calm, centered state after repeating the process over and over. It’s helpful if you choose calming music, rather than more aggressive music if your goal is to improve your focus and clarity.
Another helpful cue to bring your body into a centered state more quickly are mantras, simple sayings which are easy to memorize and repeat back to yourself during challenging situations. These mantras become an auditory way to bring your attention back to your natural relaxed state and recognize the heightened emotions as a temporary wave that’s passing through your mind.
Overcoming Your Biggest Barrier To Mindfulness
You might feel that the struggle to conquer your schedule is your biggest barrier to becoming more mindful. “I don’t have time to meditate before work every morning,” you think.
The great news is that mindfulness can be practiced in the midst of what you’re already doing, so there’s no need to add extra “mindfulness time” to your already-bursting day planner. Simply choose one of the three techniques in this article to find your center during any activity you’re already doing, and see how it affects your overall focus and clarity.