Mindfulness is a specific form of mental training involving a series of exercises that enable you to focus your awareness on present experiences. It’s a therapeutic technique that can be used both in everyday life and in medicine (i.e. treating depression).
Mindfulness also has a great many benefits for your mental, emotional and physical health.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is the state of being aware or mindful of your sensory experience in the present moment, and paying attention to it in a certain way. For example, a person who is mindful would:
- Focus only on the present and not think about the past or the future.
- Concentrate on their surroundings on purpose.
- Not be judgemental about the things they notice (e.g. not labelling feelings, thoughts and bodily sensations as good or bad).
- Acknowledge and accept things for what they are.
This way, they can appreciate and enjoy the present moment, as well as experience life as it passes.
Who can practice mindfulness?
Anyone can practice mindfulness and be mindful. It’s as simple as paying attention in the present moment, disengaging from mental clutter, and having a clear mind. This way, you can respond instead of react reacting to situations.
Mindfulness has its roots in Eastern philosophy from thousands of years ago, in which the techniques used for mindfulness exercises are based on Buddhist meditation principles. However, it’s not just about relaxing or thinking positively, as it can also be used to treat depression (mood regulation and relapse prevention) and for cognitive behavioural therapy.
It’s only in the past 40 years that western societies have begun to adapt this ancient practice in both medicine and daily life. You can increase your mindfulness in your everyday life by meditating, doing yoga, or paying more attention while you’re eating, walking, driving, and even when brushing your teeth.
Benefits of mindfulness
Mindfulness has many benefits, and these include:
- Helping you cope with stress and pain.
- Managing your depression and/or anxiety.
- Improving your sleep, memory, breathing, circulation, and immunity.
- Helping you to be less angry or moody.
- Making you happier and more emotionally stable.
- Helping you to learn and solve problems more easily.
- Reducing your heart rate.
- Helping to slow down your thoughts and nervous system.
- Helping you to relax and concentrate.
- Improving your decision-making.
- Helping you clear your head.
- Helping you to be more aware of yourself, your body and the environment.
Evidence for the benefits of mindfulness
a) Mindfulness for personal and organisational effectiveness
Senior fellow William George at Harvard Business School wrote in the Harvard Business Review about his regular meditation and mindfulness practices, along with its benefits. His high-blood pressure was reduced to a healthy level, and he also became more efficient and effective at work as a result of being more calm and focused.
b) Mindfulness for better memory and decision-making, improved stress response, empathy, and compassion
Neuroscientist and psychology teacher Sara Lazar, from Harvard University, had the results of her team’s research on neuroplasticity and meditation published in the Harvard Gazette. A group of people who had never meditated in their life were chosen to participate in the study, and half of them were asked to do a 40-minute daily meditation for eight weeks. Once the eight weeks was up, the meditators brain scans were compared to their scans taken at the beginning of the study and the non-meditators ending scans – the results showed considerable positive changes.
The grey matter in the brains of the meditators increased in the hippocampus (responsible for decision-making and working memory) and in the tempo parietal lobe (responsible for empathy, perspective shifts and compassion). Moreover, the amygdala (almond-shaped parts of the brain that trigger the fight or flight response) became smaller, which means that less-damaging adrenaline is released in the body when responding to stress.
The study produced other incredible results, such as the fact that the hippocampus’ grey matter density in the brain of a 50-year-old increased to the level of a 25-year-old healthy brain after doing daily meditation for eight weeks.
c) Mindfulness for calmness and comfort
Recent research has also indicated that just doing 20 minutes of mindfulness practice a day can change how the brain sends messages to your body. For example, the part of your brain that sends messages of anxiety and distress will be less active, while the part that sends messages of calmness and comfort will be more active. This further shows that mindfulness can actually make a positive difference in your life.
Mindfulness exercises enable you to identify, tolerate, and even reduce any negative thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations that you have. Mindfulness allows you to gain control over your own thoughts and feelings, and when you’re in control of yourself, everything will be better for you mentally, emotionally and physically.
Here are some mindfulness exercises you can practice every day (some include links to audios to assist you with the exercise):
- Mindful meditation – Use your body and your five senses (touch, taste, smell, hearing and sight) to help you focus your attention on the present without judgement.
- Mindful of the external world – Use your senses to become aware of and accept the external world in the present.
- Mindful eating – Focus only on eating, including what type of food you choose to eat and how it looks, smells and tastes.
- Mindful walking – Feel the ground beneath you, your breathing, the wind, and the temperature on your skin. Observe what’s around you and let your other thoughts go. You can also walk in your home or in the backyard.
- Mindful breathing – Focus entirely on your breathing, just noticing, accepting, and being aware of it.
- Mindful of your body – Simply accept and notice your body in its comfort and discomfort.
- Mindful of both the external world and your breathing – Notice the world around you and how it comes into contact with your breathing.
- Mindful of thoughts – Pay attention to your thoughts and ask yourself if they’re real or not, e.g. is it a fact or just an opinion or belief?
- Mindful of your thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations – Notice whatever you’re feeling at the moment with a non-judgemental acceptance and curiosity.
- Mindful compassion – Feel more love, kindness and compassion towards yourself.
- Meditating like a mountain – Be aware of the present moment with a straight and dignified posture. Allow your mind to be steady, while knowing that everything around you simply passes you by.
- Alternately breathing through the nostrils – Breathe through your right and left nostrils alternately in a conscious and mindful manner.
- Mindful of physical discomfort – Observe any discomfort or pain that you feel in the present, but don’t think of it as discomforting or painful. Instead, just notice what is present and you’ll find that it’s easier to bare.
- Mindful of difficult or painful thoughts – Be aware of thoughts that you find difficult or painful and accept them without judgement.
- Meditating like an empty bowl – Once you become an empty bowl, you’ll find that everything around you including yourself is still as a stone in the present moment.
- Mindful of stress – Be aware of your stress, what’s causing it, and then let all your negative thoughts and feelings go and just focus on your breathing or take in your surroundings.
- Mindful leadership – At work, imagine that people can see your thoughts and think about it. You’ll find yourself paying more attention to your mind when you’re talking to others or in a meeting. This will allow you to empathise with others and accept new ideas.
Your mind is one of the most important parts of your identity. In other words, it forms a large part of who you are or what makes you you. By being mindful, you can become more efficient and effective and have a more calm and joyful life. You’ll also be able to realise your true potential and become fully aware of who you are as a person. So consider trying some or all of the mindfulness exercises above to become a better you.