Mindfulness is the latest craze that has, in all truth, been with us for eons. It is the practice that begs us to pay attention to this moment – to feel, see, smell, hear, and taste this very moment without any judgment of what we should be doing, or shouldn’t be doing, how it could look or might be…just to be here. It is the simple idea of connecting to our experience of living. Before you roll your eyes, before you decide mindfulness is not for you, before you recall that one time you tried meditation and nearly lost your mind after sitting for only 30 seconds – promise me, you’ll read this.
Why? Because we are a society with increasing pain – we are surrounded by people and gadgets and demands that take us away from the present moment. We are getting increasingly stressed out and sick by the moment. As a coach, the number one reason clients give for seeing me is that they feel a painful loss of joy. They report being too busy and too stressed to live the life they want. They are not alone. According to the American Psychological Association, 34% of Americans reported an increase in stress (and that was pre-election). Stress is also connected to major health issues including heart disease, anxiety, depression, diabetes, and exacerbation of caner. Stress also takes credit for daily discomforts like eye twitches, sleeplessness, and headaches (Dunn, 2017).
To be clear, mindfulness practice will not result in floating serenely on silver-lined clouds with raindrops of joy. However, its increasingly growing list of profound well-being benefits cannot be overlooked. Studies continue to point to mindfulness practice as treatment for anxiety, pain, and depression (Williams, 2017). Recent research out of the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, demonstrate that mindfulness practice has the ability to calm the brain’s amygdala – reducing the time we spend in our stress-inducing survival mode, known as fight, flight, and freeze (Williams, 2017). Just in case you needed a bit more evidence, it’s worth mentioning that the practice of mindfulness has been connected with improved memory, better sleep, mood stability, ability to make decisions, cognitive function, and an over all improvement of our ability to handle stress (Fields, 2016).
Any mental load we carry diminishes our ability to fully experience this moment – we become less exploratory and more exploitatory (Lombardi, 2017). Dr. Bar, a Neuroscientist and Professor at Harvard Medical School explains that our brain normally switches between these two states, exploratory and exploitatory. When we are focused on being present (say in new situations or while traveling) we naturally switch to an exploratory state – we are open to new experiences, learning, becoming more creative, and being willing to take risks. However, when we are in exploitatory mode we tend to rely on what we know and do what we think is predictable and safe. When our minds are full and our bodies are stressed, we function in the exploitatory state. We lose creativity and curiosity. When we commit to mindfulness, we are able to force stress’ death grip to ease up a bit and live a life that looks less drone like.
Of course, the goal is not to aim for exploratory functions 100% of the time. We need predictability. We need comfort zones and autopilot. The issue arises when we realize how much stress we carry and how many hours of every single day we carry said load. We get comfortable with stress and after a few years (or decades) we look up to realize not only have we not been in exploratory creative mode for a very long time – In fact, we can’t return at will.
Starting a mindfulness practice can seem daunting, especially as most of us read this from an exploitatory mind stet. We’re too busy. We don’t have time. However, incorporating mindfulness into our lives is simple as it can be built into things we’re already doing (like breathing). To boot, the stress relieving practice of Mindfulness is forgiving. Honestly, it’s kinda hard to screw up. Having drifting thoughts and demands that pull you from the present moment is not a failure, not concrete proof from the universe that you are not made for mindfulness. Rather, the practice of being able to realize you’ve drifted – that you are no longer present, is success. And, just like each and every push up builds strength – each and every moment we practice mindfulness strengthens our ability to be present, to release a bit of stress, and find our way back to exploratory states.
Here are three habits to build your own mindfulness practice.
- Own Your Breath – Deep breathing alerts the parasympathetic nervous system to activate its anti-fight or flight serum – in essence, calming down your sympathetic nervous system. Deep breathing also gets your vagas nerve involved, lowering blood pressure and heart rate, while focusing energy and inducing calmness. Mindfulness Practice – Find a comfortable position you can stay in for 2-5 minutes. Next, pay attention to your breathing. REALLY pay attention your breathing – Feel it as it enters your body, then your chest and then your belly. Deepen your breathing if you’d like and continue to just take notice of how your body feels during the inhalations and exhalations. Your mind WILL wander. Great! Invite it back to the experience each and every time it gets distracted. Afterwards, consider how can this can be built into a daily practice – Your work lunch? Before you get out of bed? While you wait for the coffee to brew?
- Own Your Experience – Emotions are normal. Negative emotions are healthy. Mindfulness is not about living in an eternal state of happiness. Rather, mindfulness practice brings awareness to the ever-changing emotional state and allows you to choose a response. By naming and experiencing your emotional state in the present moment, you prevent the denial and packing of intense emotions that nearly always result in less than ideal situations, while inducing illness and festering into larger (and more painful) situations. Mindfulness Practice – Bring awareness to intense emotions with RAIN:
- R– Recognize. Press pause on the chaos and recognize the intense emotion. Without judging yourself or identifying as good or bad, simply turn towards the emotions.
- A – Allow. Ease the mental resistance to the current situation. Acknowledge that whatever is happening, is happening. You don’t have to like it or even approve of it – just honor that it is your currently reality.
- I – Investigate. Approach the situation with curiosity. These questions may help: How does this feel in my body? What do I need right now? What self-nurturing step can I take to stay present?
- N– Non-Identification. Gently remind yourself that you are not, nor are you defined by, your emotions. Instead, you are awareness, stillness, and perspective.
- Own Your Time – The average person checks their phone over 150 times per day (Fields, 2016) and consumes an average of 13 hours of media a day (Williams, 2017). Each and every time you check email and scroll social media you open yourself up to surrendering focus and energy. You may, for example, be feeling creative and inspired, only get completely sidetracked by an email notification regarding some family issue. You’re reminded of the situation, begin feeling frusterated, and respond to the email. It’s gone – that moment of creativity and inspiration. You gave it away. Mindfulness Practice – Where appropriate, turn off your “push” notifications on email, facebook, youtube, twitter, instagram, etc. Consider turning off text and phone calls during times you want to fully engage with something. Choose when and how you will engage with these platforms. They are amazing and wonderful AND designed to suck you in and monopolize your time.
Three small choices can become transformative mindful habits. Remember, the more you practice mindfulness, the better you get. Engaging with the present moment is a powerful gift to yourself and quite honestly, the world.
Mindfulness Practitioner, Writer, Facilitator, Coach, Consultant
Evolutionary Consulting. Neuroscience for Everyday People.
Dunn, J. (2017). Save Yourself From Stress. Time Mindfulness; The New Science of Health and Happiness .
Fields, J. (2016). How to Live a Good Life. Carlsbad, CA: Hay House, Inc.
Lombardi, L. (2017). Being Here. Time Special Edition: Mindfulness; The New Science of Health and Happiness .
Williams, M. E. (2017). Why Every Mind Needs Mindfulness. Time Mindfulness; The New Science of Health and Happiness .