A quick internet search of the word Mindfulness will yield nearly 150 million results. Local book stores have a whole section dedicated to it, with dozens of titles, including some claiming to be the quick and dirty guide on how to practice mindfulness or claiming to teach you everything you need to know to be a Mindfulness expert overnight. Even the scientific literature has caught on to the trend over the the last few years, with the number of scientific articles published in 2014 reaching slightly over 900, to over 1100 in 2016. But the buzzword deserves more merit than its trendy flavor.
With so much information out there, how do we know where to start and what to believe? I have found that the easiest way to answer the question What is Mindfulness? to my clients, friends, and strangers at coffee shops (yes, why not?)- is to explain what it is not. So, let’s give it a try.
1- Mindfulness is not meditation- while Mindfulness meditation is a type of meditation, the two words are not necessarily synonyms. Although practicing mindfulness and mindfulness training programs certainly include mindfulness meditation, there are other types of meditation, and each person must discover what best fits their needs and personal style.
2- Mindfulness is not a religious practice in and of itself. Mindfulness is a state of consciousness, or a state of being, that emphasizes being aware of the present moment. It’s being right here, right now, rather than stuck in the past that you can no longer change or in a future you can not truly predict (sounds familiar? You are not alone). So, anyone with any religious or spiritual background can engage in a more mindfulness way of being and lifestyle without negating their religious beliefs or values.
3- Mindfulness is not just for gurus - Most of the popular mindfulness practices these days come from vipassana, which is a Theravada Buddhism meditation practiced originated and practiced in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos. But, practicing mindfulness in every day, including mindfulness meditation, is no longer an exclusive practice for monks and has been widely accepted and spread west of Asia.
Now that we have covered the definition of Mindfulness by addressing what Mindfulness is not, let’s talk about how mindfulness can help you experience a better quality of life.
Scientific research has investigated how mindfulness helps mental health since the 70s. Some of the benefits of Mindfulness on mental health include reduction in stress, improvement in mood, decrease in anxiety, improvement in concentration and focus, reduction of impulsive and over-eating, and even management of chronic pain in cancer patients. Practicing Mindfulness techniques helps to improve self-awareness and self-control, which can translate into a calmer state of mind, less emotional reactivity, and less anxiety and worry. When we feel calmer, we also have better ability to tolerate and deal with stressors because we have more mental clarity and compassion.
As a meditation practitioner, I have experienced the positive effects of regular mindfulness practices, and as a clinician I have helped guide dozens of people just like you to introduce and sustain a mindfulness practice into their lives. Why? Because it is the most effective way to help and support those who struggle with anxiety, stress, trauma, depression, low self-esteem, focus and inattention, sleep problems, anger, self-doubt, and myriad of other issues afflicting our lives day to day. In fact, another important research finding is that when compared to groups where individuals received therapy and medication or just therapy to help with their mental health symptoms, the groups that also received mindfulness training often faired equally for better. But the real finding is that the groups that practice mindfulness most often are able to maintain their mental wellness longer after treatment is over and tend to experience fewer relapse episodes. In other words, they don’t only get better, they stay well longer.
Mindfulness meditation is a very affordable way to improve life quality, and a very accessible way to begin meditating because it only requires one tool: you. All you need is a corner in your house or bench at the park to start practicing mindfulness and transforming your life. At Thrivemind, I facilitate a variety of workshops, for beginners, for kids (yes, kids! More on another blog post on Mindfulness activities for kids), busy professionals, and college students who seek to improve themselves and their lives through this practice. I also provide mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (also referred to as mindfulness therapy) for those who are experiencing mental health symptoms.
One of the mindfulness techniques that I teach my clients or those who attend my workshops is to simply slow down and notice their breath. Is it shallow? It is rapid? Are you holding your breath? Then adjust the breath to be fuller and more complete. Another technique it to check in with themselves several times per day. Checking in means noticing how you feel, what is on your mind, anything you may be worried about or feeling distracted by, and then taking a moment to kindly and compassionately acknowledge that feeling. This helps to create more awareness of emotions that you may be ignoring or suppressing and which may lead to feelings of anxiety and restlessness. Keeping a mindful journal is also very helpful. Unlike regular, narrative journaling, mindful journaling allows for much more openness, introspection, and releasing negative or heavy emotions. You can read more about manful journaling on our website (www.thrivemindwellness.com) or by clicking here.
For now, try practicing being mindful of the ways in which you talk to yourself. If you catch yourself self-criticizing, take a moment to pause and soften your inner voice by using more kindness and compassion, in the same way you do for others.
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Priscila Norris, MS, LCSW, RYT
Integrative Therapist, Registered Yoga Teacher