Want to be More Mindful? Start Small.
Mindfulness is all the rage nowadays. As a practice though, it’s nothing new. Mindfulness practices date back thousands of years, but in our modern era many people are learning about mindfulness for the first time. A quick internet search will reveal all kinds of information about mindfulness; from how-to strategies, to the benefits, local groups or teachers, classes and workshops, and books and apps. There is also a growing wealth of research on the benefits of mindfulness, and even modern therapists and counselors (myself included) have started incorporating mindfulness concepts, principles, and practices into our work with clients. Why? Because it helps. In fact, some entire models of therapy have mindfulness as a core component (eg: Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy [MBCT], Acceptance and Commitment Therapy [ACT], Dialectical Behavior Therapy [DBT]).
Present Moment Awareness
At its core mindfulness is simply about present-moment awareness; awareness of our thoughts, feelings, and experiences. That’s it. Nothing mystical, nothing complex. However, research continues to demonstrate that the more we develop the capacity to be fully present to and aware of our emotional, mental, and physical experiences, the better we feel as we gain more insight and clarity and increase our capacity to accept and tolerate distress.
Being mindful doesn’t eliminate distress (which is a normal part of our human experience) or keep it from happening, but instead it allows us to see the distress without it taking over, building in us the capacity to experience our distress while still maintaining a place of centeredness and calm. Mindfulness enables us to not get lost or caught up in our emotions, or get lost in our thoughts of the past or in our worries and fears of the future- especially if there is nothing to be done about the past or the future. Mindfulness is about right now. But being mindful doesn’t just help us deal better with pain and disappointment and frustration, mindfulness also helps us to enjoy and experience more deeply the pleasures and joys of life, and helps us to be more attentive and focused.
Sounds nice, right? I certainly think so…which is why for the last several years I’ve maintained my own practice of mindfulness. While mindfulness and meditation are two separate entities, meditation is an effective tool to start building and maintaining a mindful life. So, how do you start a meditation practice to building mindfulness?
Starting a meditation practice for the cultivating of mindfulness always encounters the same problem: time. Most of us lead busy lives, and fitting a meditation practice into our lives can be a challenge. So start small. Steal away time where you can throughout the day; 2 minutes here, 5 minutes there, 10 minutes another time. All you have to do during this time is bring your awareness to what thoughts, feelings, or sensations arise. Don’t judge them, don’t get caught up in them. Just notice them. If you have anxious or angry thoughts, just notice the thoughts. If you are feeling pain in your body, just notice it. Sometimes it’s helpful to label it (eg: “I’m having an anxious thought,” or “I’m feeling pain in my knees.”). You can even do this throughout the day when you notice you are having an intense feeling or sensation. See it and label it. The more you practice taking time to meditate and just observe in this way, the more you’ll find yourself noticing things throughout the day, and the more you’ll notice the subtle things you might ordinarily miss- things that could escalate into bigger and more powerful experiences later. But you’ll also notice the little joys that you might also ordinarily miss. Over time, this leads to a sense of peace and calm in the presence of distress rather than a way to avoid or eliminate it. It can also lead to our ability to tolerate pain in a way that we not have believed we could do, and enjoy the little things of life that we never really paid attention to.
While you can always start a formal sitting practice, you don’t have to in order to start building mindfulness. Sure, it can help accelerate this process, but it isn’t necessary. If your thoughts race, that’s ok, just notice that your thoughts are racing. Label it “racing thoughts.” If you get distracted, notice that you’ve gotten distracted and just come back to observing.
If you want to take your practice to the next level, consider finding a local meditation group. An internet search for meditation groups near you may be useful. You can also consider downloading a mindfulness or meditation app for your phone that can assist you. There are hundreds of apps out there, so take a look and try a few in order to find the one that best suits you.
So if cultivating more mindfulness in your life is something you want to pursue, then start small and build from there. And, if you would, take just a moment right now to pause and check in with yourself to see what are you thinking and what are you feeling, and then decide if there is anything you need to do.
There…you’ve just practiced mindfulness!