The practice of mindfulness has gained increasing popularity over the past two decades. Whether you practice this art form daily, or are totally new to the concept, you’ve likely heard the term used in one context or another. Perhaps your boss has asked you to be more mindful of a colleague’s feelings? Or maybe your local community offers a weekly mindfulness class?
The revival of the ancient eastern teachings of mindfulness into modern day western practices has had a substantial impact in the fields of workplace productivity and wellness, mental health, physical wellbeing, education and parenting, just to name a few. But what exactly is mindfulness?
This comprehensive article contains everything you need to know on the subject, from defining mindfulness to introducing it into your daily life.
WHAT EXACTLY IS MINDFULNESS?
Put simply, mindfulness is a state of being fully aware to what is happening in the present moment, without judgment. Too often our minds get caught ruminating about the past, worrying about the future, or making judgments on ourselves and others, as opposed to just “being” in the here and now. Mindfulness involves intentional moment-to-moment awareness of one’s internal and external world. Think of this as noticing or tracking what is going on within you (thoughts, worries, emotions and sensations), as well as attending to what is going on in your surrounding environment (sounds, smells, the words or actions of others). For example, during an important work presentation you may notice (without judgment, remember!) your heart beating quickly, your palms sweating, and worried thoughts circling your mind, while at the same time observing the facial expressions of those in the audience.
What is often described as exercise or hygiene for the brain, mindfulness takes many forms and can be practiced any time and place, by any one.
Is there just the one definition?
The term “mindfulness” can be defined in multiple ways, depending on the field from which it is being discussed. What is common to all definitions is the concept of presence without judgment. A simple Google search generates a host of definitions, some very similar in their conceptualization and others differing slightly in their focus. Early descriptions of mindfulness found in Buddhist texts share both similarities and differences to those appearing in modern psychology textbooks, which again may differ from definitions found in the field of creativity. While a multitude of definitions exist, they can generally be broken down into three main categories, each of which applies the general principles in a slightly different way, for a slightly different purpose: the contemplative form, the creative form, and the conscientious form.
1. Contemplative mindfulness
This form of mindfulness is very much in line with the general definition in the first section of this article, and is what most people are referring to when they speak of mindfulness. While it has roots in ancient Buddhist practice, contemplative mindfulness does not have a religious component in many of its applications today. The simple formula for this school of thought is paying attention, on purpose, without judgment, to something within you (internal environment) or around you (external environment). As modern mindfulness pioneer Jon Kabat-Zinn put it, it is carefully focused attention.
This style of mindfulness is often thought of as training for the brain and mind, and most commonly includes formal practices such as meditation (e.g., mindful focus on the breath), yoga, Tai Chi, Qigong and chanting. That being said, you can make most everyday tasks mindful by slowing down and paying attention to the various qualities or components that make them up.
For example, you can drink your morning coffee in a mindful way by noticing the various sensations associated with the process:
- The temperature of the warm cup in your hands
- The smell of the coffee beans
- The sensation on your lips as they meet the edge of the cup
- The salivation that may occur before you take your fist sip
- The feeling of warm liquid traveling down your throat.
How about if during your walk to work you pay attention to the sensations in the soles your feet as they connect with and disconnect from the ground. Or perhaps you focus your attention on the various sounds you can hear on the commute (e.g., the hum of traffic, birds, music, people speaking).
The point here is that this form of mindfulness is accessible to everyone and can be practiced in most environments in one way or another. It can be as quick and practical as noticing the feeling of the water on your body during your daily shower, or the sensations of taste and smell while you are brushing your teeth. Or it could be more time consuming, such as sitting and focusing on your breath for half an hour in a quiet space. The possibilities are endless and the choice is yours.
2. Creative mindfulness
Creative mindfulness can be defined as moment-to-moment awareness in the creative process, whether that be approaching a new project at work, solving a problem, brainstorming business ideas, mentoring or coaching, starting a new company, or creating a piece of artwork. It prioritises present awareness over old patterns of thinking that ultimately lead to the same outcomes over and over again.
At its heart, creative mindfulness involves remaining open during the task’s process and not coming to premature closures or conclusions based on assumptions of the past. It requires that you let go of certainty and expectation, and let the moment itself inform what you do next. By focusing on process over outcome, our mind becomes open to new ideas and perspectives, thus granting access to our inner creativity.
Harvard Professor Ellen Langer has written a great deal on this form of mindfulness, and argues that creativity is not a gift held by a special few, but a mindset that can be achieved by all. She compares a mindless approach to a mindful approach and the impact each has on creativity. For folks who adopt a more mindless approach, the same old routines will often lead to a predetermined set of outcomes. In other words, these are the people who tend to “think inside the box”, limited by the walls of their own assumptions.
Let’s use the example of an executive coach who is going into the second coaching session with a new client.
- Following the first session, the coach has made a number of assumptions about her client. These assumptions are based on what the client reported, the coach’s experience with other clients she believes to be similar, and her general knowledge of human beings and how they function
- She enters the second coaching session with what she believes to be a clear understanding of the problem and what the client needs to do to fix it
- She communicates her ideas directly to the client around what needs to happen moving forward
In this example, the coach is favouring outcome over process. Her assumptions about her client may block potentially helpful discussions, learning experiences (for both parties), and ultimately alternate (and perhaps creative) conclusions that she may not realise even existed.
Adopting a more mindful approach involves noticing but not automatically acting on assumptions and beliefs, and remaining open to the process as it unfolds. It involves walking in unchartered territory, without a compass, and letting intuition guide the way.
Lets return to our example of the executive coach.
- Imagine the coach is actively working on being more mindful as she enters the second coaching session with her client
- She has some ideas around what may be helpful for him, but instead of marrying to these right away, she explores his struggles further. She is curious to learn more about him and the position he is finding himself in at work
- She is receptive to his ideas and perspectives, and if she does introduce her own views, she does so in a collaborative and tentative way to see how these fit with his understanding of the issue(s)
Here we have a coaching session that may feel less structured, but ultimately is more open, collaborative and likely more helpful to the client. Creative mindfulness is all about applying present awareness to the creative process to make space for original ideas.
This type of mindfulness builds on the principles of contemplative mindfulness and is something we can all work on, whether we are a business owner, manager, employee, coach, established or aspiring artist, entrepreneur, or a university student applying for their first job.
3. Conscientious mindfulness
This branch of mindfulness, coined within the field of mindful parenting, similarly draws on the concepts of contemplative mindfulness, but is more interactive and interpersonal in its focus.It can be defined as being careful, intentional and compassionate in your interactions with others (whether that be your colleagues, children, partner, friends, or family).
At the heart of mindful connection with others is approaching relationships from a place of presence, openness and flexibility. That is, responding to what is happening in the moment, rather than acting from prior held beliefs, assumptions, and behaviour patterns (sound familiar?).
Let’s consider a basic scenario, one which I’m sure you are all familiar with. Imagine you are having a discussion with a colleague on a topic you are particularly interested in.
As they are speaking, you realise that you have something you want to say
You notice that instead of listening and showing genuine interest in the thoughts of your friend, you are more focused on finding a gap in the conversation so that you can insert your idea
This example illustrates a break in mindful connection, where you are focused on your future need to speak rather than what someone is sharing with you in the present moment.
Lets now look at an example of a more mindful interaction.
Imagine you are a manager at your workplace and have to inform an employee that their work is not up to standard. While this is an uncomfortable position to be in, it is certainly a scenario where you can embody conscientious mindfulness.
You prepare by noticing your own anxiety going into the meeting
You start the meeting by showing you care and enquiring about any challenges or obstacles your employee is facing
You really listen
You choose to give the feedback in a kind and constructive way, being intentional in the language you use, your tone of voice, posture etc.
Following this, you work together to find ways to better support the employee so that they can perform to their potential
In this example, you have stayed present (both with yourself and your employee), and have been careful, intentional and kind. Neuropsychiatrist Dr. Dan Siegel is an expert in this area. He speaks of a number of key qualities involved in conscientious mindfulness, two of which are worth mentioning here.
The first is being present (a term which you should now be familiar with) – holding an open, curious and flexible state of mind.
Second is the process of attunement, which means focusing this presence on the inner world of another (their thoughts, feelings, and intentions).
In simple terms, it means being present with the person you are with, and intentionally focusing on what is going on for them (really hearing what they are saying, tuning into their feelings). Of course, it is also important to keep track of what is going on within yourself as well. As Dr. Siegel puts it, the visible signs of mindful connection with another are genuine kindness and compassion.
While mindfulness is often thought of as something humans “do” , the notion
of mindful awareness is a trait that we can cultivate - a way of being in the world, within
oneself, one’s environment and with others.
the history of mindfulness
Mindfulness is not a new concept by any means. In fact, its origins can be traced back thousands of years to Eastern religious teachings.
The relationship between Buddhism and mindfulness is widely acknowledged. In fact, if you have ever taken a yoga class, you will have probably heard the words mindfulness and Buddhism used in the same sentence (most likely during breathing exercises or shavasana/corpse pose). Come to think of it, many yoga studios have a statue of Buddha somewhere or another.
Buddhism describes two types of mindfulness, or mental qualities. Vipassana, or insight meditation, can be thought of as the foundation of all Buddhist meditations. It is a comprehensive practice where the student cultivates a clear awareness of what is happening in the present moment. This technique is described in the seminal ancient text, Satipatthana Sutta ("The Foundations of Mindfulness"). Buddha writes that one must pay careful attention to four key aspects of experience in order to see things as they truly are:
The body (including the breath)
Feelings and sensations
The mind itself
The world around us
Vipassana was taught as a gradual technique, where over the years the student engaged in a series of exercises designed to increase awareness of their own experience. Buddha presented this as a technique to end all suffering, a way to transform the self and reach enlightenment.
The second type of mindfulness practiced in Buddhism is Samatha, or calming of the mind. This practice involves focusing attention on a single point of reference (e.g., one object). In Samatha, the mind is not meant to wander (which is much easier said than done!). The most common example of Samatha is mindfulness of the breath, where one directs and holds their attention on the breath at the expense of other experiences such as thoughts, physical sensations, external stimuli etc. The result of this intentional focus is a restful mind and sense of calm. In fact, it is believed that when the mind can abandon distractions and focus attention, a state of joy can be achieved.
Samatha can be thought of as helping one achieve a “short term" sense of joy (happiness in the moment so to speak), where as Vipassana is a long-term quest for enlightenment. For those of you who do practice mindfulness, you may notice that most modern day exercises are built around the Samatha practice. It is worth noting, however, that regular Samatha style practice trains the mind, making it more likely to function from a mindful state more often. Thus, the short term benefits can contribute to longer term changes.
While mindfulness is most commonly associated with Buddhism, ancient Hindu readings also speak of different forms of meditation and yoga, not dissimilar to those described above. Mindfulness has also played an important role in other religions, including Christianity, Islam and Judaism.
From East to West
So how did the ancient Eastern practice of mindfulness make its way into modern Western life? And how did a traditionally religious and spiritual practice become so popular in secular institutions?
Most people would agree that John Kabat-Zinn, Professor of Medicine Emiratis at the University of Massachusetts (UMass), was the most influential figure in the rise of mindfulness in the modern world. In the late 1970’s, after receiving training in Buddhism from various teachers, Kabat-Zinn founded the Stress Reduction Clinic at UMass. Here he applied mindfulness principles in a medical setting. His renowned Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, an 8-week course designed to help people suffering from chronic stress, pain and illness, shone light on the possibility of using both mind and body for healing. Over the years, Kabat-Zinn’s work has focused more on the science of mindfulness than its Buddhist roots, which some argue has made mindfulness more accessible to the masses. Kabat-Zinn’s early work provided a solid foundation from which further research and clinical applications were built upon.
Mindfulness began to gain popularity in the fields of psychology, medicine, and neuroscience around the world. Clinicians began to use mindfulness with patients suffering from various physical and mental health problems, while researchers worked on testing the effectiveness of mindfulness as an intervention for different patient groups. Early clinical and research results were impressive, which sparked further investigation. Today, mindfulness is used for a multitude of clinical conditions, including fibromyalgia, lower back pain, rheumatoid arthritis, irritable bowel syndrome, depression, anxiety, trauma, and ADHD. Following its popularity in the clinical world, mindfulness gradually spread to mainstream audiences as a practice to enhance quality of life, health and wellbeing,
productivity, and creativity. It is now used in an impressive range of settings, including hospitals,
therapy rooms, youth centers, schools, universities, workplaces, juvenile justice and prisons.
the benefits of mindfulness
In ancient times, mindfulness was promoted as a method to enhance one’s wellbeing and happiness. More recently, scientists have put these claims to the test. Do the benefits of mindfulness really match the hype? The short answer is yes. And there is a ton of research to back it up.
While I won’t go into the details of each study, I’m going to take you through the key research findings on the impact of mindfulness on the brain, mind, body and relationships. We will start with the brain, as it forms the foundation for changes in these other areas. For the science nerds out there, you may like to read beyond this article to really get into the nitty gritty. But for those of you who simply want to know, “what can mindfulness do for me?”, this section is for you.
Research using brain-imaging techniques has revealed that engaging in mindfulness practice brings about a specific state of brain activation (i.e., certain areas of the brain light up when people are practicing mindfulness). Over time, repeated induction of this state can lead to longer-term changes in the brain, or the shift from a state to a trait. In fact, it is now known that the brain is incredibly plastic (or malleable), and mindfulness has the power to create new neural pathways and weaken old ones. Put simply, regular and consistent mindfulness practice can actually change the structure and function of your brain (if you’d like to learn more about how this occurs, look into neuroplasticity). For now, let me provide you with an analogy.
- I want you to imagine that you have just signed up to the gym with the intent of strengthening your bicep muscles. You haven’t worked out in a long term, and your biceps are fairly weak
- The first few sessions are challenging - you can only lift very light weights and complete a small number of repetitions
- Over time, with consistent practice each week, you notice your biceps gradually becoming stronger. The exercises are easier, the muscles fire more automatically, you can lift heavier weights, and you can complete more repetitions
- You also notice your newfound strength outside the gym in your everyday life. People have even commented that your arms have changed in shape and size
Now I want you to imagine that you have a mindfulness “muscle". The process is the same.
- At the beginning, when you are not used to intentionally focusing your attention, it is difficult. Your mind will wander constantly, and two minutes may feel like a lifetime
- The more you practice, the better the muscle gets at focusing attention
- As the weeks go by, you notice that you can intentionally focus for longer periods of time, and your mind is wandering less and less
- You also notice an increase in awareness and focus in your everyday life (i.e., times when you are not practicing mindfulness).
- New neural pathways are being formed and strengthened, and old habitual ones are possibly weakening
- Your brain is changing
As the famous saying goes, “neurons that fire together wire together”. When you practice mindfulness, you are firing certain neurons that make up a neural pathway in your brain (the mindfulness “muscle"). With consistent practice, these neurons will wire together, making the pathway easier to access in the future. Using this same logic, the less you engage in habitual (and unhelpful) ways of thinking, the weaker the associated neural pathways will become. Eventually they will start to unwire, making it more difficult for them to fire together in the future.
A final point before we move on - scans have shown that the resting brain of seasoned meditators looks similar to the brain of “normal” people while they are meditating.
Which areas of the brain are impacted by mindfulness?
Increased neural connections in the brain, which have been shown to help with brain signaling
Thicker corpus callosum, which suggests great connectivity between the emotional side of the brain (right) and the more logical, rational side of the brain (left)
Increased activity in areas of the brain with higher-level functioning, and decreased activity in more primal areas of the brain associated with stress and difficult emotions
Increased thickness and activity in frontal brain regions responsible for decision making, planning, attention, awareness and judgment
Decreased size and activity in the fear center of the brain (the amygdala). The amygdala is a primal area of the brain responsible for the “fight or flight” response – the body’s danger alarm system
Increased activity in the anterior cingulate, which is associated with self-perception, regulation of attention and emotions, cognitive flexibility and impulse control
Increased gray matter in brain areas associated with learning and memory (the hippocampus) and cardiorespiratory control (the brainstem)
Changes in white matter in areas responsible for self regulation
Enhanced activity in the left frontal lobe of the brain. This area has been linked with the tendency to approach, rather than avoid, challenging stimuli (situations, thoughts, feelings, memories), often referred to as resilience
Given Buddha’s early claims that mindfulness was the path to enlightenment, it is no surprise that this technique is widely used by mental health professionals, doctors, prison staff, and teachers (just to name a few) to improve the emotional wellbeing of those they are working with. Regular mindfulness practice has been found to help with the following:
- Improvements in emotional wellbeing
- Decreased anxiety
- Decreased stress
- Improvements in mood and decreased depressive symptoms
- Decreased worry and rumination
- Improvements in body satisfaction
- Improved attention span
- Improved alertness
- Increased ability to focus and concentrate
- Decreased negative self talk
- Increased self kindness
- Experience of feeling calm
- Increased post-traumatic growth (the sense of positive psychological change and self growth following adversity)
- Improved working memory
- Increased cognitive flexibility
Jon Kabat-Zinn was one of the first modern day clinicians to demonstrate the benefits of mindfulness for patients suffering from chronic physical symptoms. Following his early findings, a plethora of research has been conducted which suggests that mindfulness can have a significant effect on one’s physical health. Mindfulness has now been linked to a number of positive physical outcomes, some of which are listed below.
- While people frequently report feeling less stressed with regular mindfulness practice, research has confirmed that regular practice actually reduces levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) and other stress markers in the body
- Mindfulness has been linked to improved immune function (the body’s ability to fight infection). This effect has been shown in patients with HIV, chronic skin conditions, and some types of cancer
- Reduction in markers of inflammation throughout the body
- Reduced sensation of pain
- Improved sleep
- Reduced fatigue
- Lowered heart rate
- Lowered blood pressure
- Mindful eating has been linked to weight loss
- Healthier Body Mass Index (BMI)
- Mindfulness engages the relaxation response (parasympathetic nervous system) and de-actives the stress response (sympathetic nervous system)
We spoke earlier about cultivating mindfulness in interpersonal relationships (conscientious mindfulness). Here are the findings on the impact mindfulness can have on relationships:
- Better connection with others
- Improvements in compassion and empathy toward others
- Increased relationship satisfaction
- Improved ability to respond to relationship stress
- Improved communication and ability to express oneself within relationships
- Improved social and relational skills
More recently, research has focused on the impact of mindfulness in the workplace. There will be some repetition in this section, but I did want to include how mindfulness can specifically help employees, managers, executives etc. Studies in this area have linked mindfulness with the following:
- Enhanced job performance and productivity (e.g., through improved focus, decision making, working memory, and information processing speed)
- Increased job satisfaction
- Increased resilience
- Lower levels of work stress
- Reduced symptoms of burnout amongst employees
- Decrease in staff turnover when mindfulness is encouraged and/or employed in the workplace (i.e., by leadership staff)
- Improved emotional intelligence (which has been linked to improved conflict resolution and more effective management styles)
- Healthier work relationships and team dynamics
- Enhanced creativity
Who is mindfulness for?
Mindfulness can be practiced by anyone, no matter what age, gender, ethnicity, religious affiliation or circumstance. It can be practiced at home, at work or in public, individually or in a group.
Let’s consider age. Mindfulness is becoming increasingly popular in its use with children. Many child therapists employ mindfulness to assist children with attention, mood, anxiety, sleep and emotion regulation. It is now more and more common to see mindfulness being implemented with children at school. Mindfulness apps (which will be discussed a little later on) are also following suit and including programs for children.
Now consider the other end of the age spectrum. Mindfulness is commonly used with seniors in various settings, including therapy, community programs and nursing homes. Research has shown that while it may be more challenging to rewire the brain as we get older, it is possible. The brain remains plastic throughout the life span, such that novel experiences can form new neural pathways. Given the prevalence of depression, loneliness and cognitive decline in older age groups, mindfulness is a promising intervention.
It is also important to remember that you can practice mindfulness for a variety of reasons. Perhaps you need help with your anxiety levels, or want to become a more effective manager. You may have a goal of becoming a calmer parent, or perhaps you simply want to enhance your general health and wellbeing. Often people implement mindfulness with a particular goal in mind, only to realise later on its impact in so many other areas of their life.
getting started with mindfulness
Hopefully by this point in the article you are intrigued. Perhaps you are thinking you’d like to give mindfulness a try. After all, the list of benefits is certainly impressive. Given new habits are difficult to form, this section of the article offers a quick “how to” guide in getting started with mindfulness.
Find a time and set it aside: picking a particular time and setting it aside each day is the simplest way to begin. There is no issue with practicing at different times each day, but from experience having a set time will help the practice become part of your daily routine
Find a space: a quiet space where you will not be interrupted is best when starting out. The space may be inside (e.g., bedroom, sitting room, lounge room) or outside (e.g., garden, balcony, roof deck), but make sure it is accessible to you each day. A consistent space will also assist in integrating the practice into your daily routine
Find a comfortable seat: sitting is generally better than lying down, as you are less likely to fall asleep. Whether you sit on a chair, the floor, or a mindfulness cushion, ensure that your body is upright yet relaxed
Try and practice daily*: remember the mindfulness “muscle”? Like any muscle, consistent daily practice (even if just for a few minutes) is much more effective than one longer practice once per week. Studies have suggested that even 5 minutes of mindfulness per day can have a significant impact on stress levels. So start small, be consistent, and build up when you feel ready
Recruit a buddy: having someone to hold you accountable is always helpful. If you can start your mindfulness journey with a friend, partner or colleague, then go for it. If you’d rather take a solo journey, mindfulness apps are great at monitoring progress and keeping you on track.*in keeping with the spirit of non-judgment, don’t be hard on yourself if you miss a practice. Just notice the challenge of maintaining a routine and return to your practice when you can
The basic formula (mindful breathing)
Probably the most basic (basic does not mean easy!) and widely used form of mindfulness is mindfulness of the breath. It involves the following three steps:
Find a comfortable seated position
Intentionally settle your attention on the breath
Notice when your mind wanders and gently return your attention to the breath
Your mind is a thought machine, so it will wander, time and time again. Part of building the mindfulness muscle is the act of noticing when your mind has wandered, and consciously yet gently bringing it back. The goal is not to stop thinking, but to notice when thoughts carry you away and come back to the breath.
There are a plethora of audio tracks, videos and scripts that you can follow for mindfulness of the breath. I have included a sample script here to give you a feel for it. If you are a beginner, I would highly recommend using guided mindfulness to begin with – it is easy to follow and will keep your wandering mind on track. One you have the hang of it, you can do mindfulness of breath pretty much anywhere, with or without guidance. After all, your breath is with you wherever you go.
Mindful Breathing Script
I’d like you to find a comfortable seated position, with your spine upright yet relaxed. If you’re sitting on a chair, uncross your legs and gently place your feet on the floor in front of you. If you are sitting on a cushion (or on the floor), cross your legs and gently ground your sit bones. Rest your hands wherever they are most comfortable, perhaps in your lap, palms facing either up- or down-wards. Relax your face and jaw, and let your tongue gently rest on the roof of your mouth.
Take a moment to get present in this posture. Notice your surrounding environment (what can you see, hear, smell?), and any sensations in your body. Notice any thoughts or emotions that are present as you sit here. I’m now going to invite you to either gently close your eyes, or softly cast your gaze downwards. And when you are ready, gently bring your attention to the breath. There is no need to change your breath in any way, just notice it as it is.
As you attend to your breath, bring your attention to your abdomen. Notice it expand with each in breath, and contract with each out breath. You can place a hand on your stomach to sense this movement more fully. Stay here for a few breaths. Now bring your attention to your chest. Notice it gently rising and falling with each breath. Again, you may place your hand on your chest to better experience the movement. Stay here for a few breaths. Lastly, bring your attention to your nose. Notice the air as it flows in and out of your nostrils with each breath. Notice how the air is slightly cooler as you breathe in, and slightly warmer as you breathe out. Stay here for a few breaths.
Now I’ll invite you to settle your attention on of these areas – your abdomen, chest or nose. Continue to notice the sensations in this area as your naturally allow your breath to flow in and out. As you focus on your breath, you may notice you mind start to wander. Don’t worry, this is completely normal. In fact, the mind is designed to generate thoughts, to plan, to make judgments. Each time your mind wanders off, kindly notice what caught its attention (a thought, a worry, a sensation, an emotion), and gently bring your attention back to the breath. You may even like to say “thought” or “worry” or “wandering” in your head as a reminder to return to the breath. Try and stay with your breath for 5 to 10 minutes, gently redirecting your mind back each time it wanders.
Before ending your practice, check in with yourself once again. Notice your body and where it comes into contact with the floor. Notice any sensations, emotions or thoughts that are occurring as you bring your practice to a close. Gently open your eyes or lift your gaze and bring your attention to the room around you. What you can see, hear, and smell. Take a deep breath and thank yourself for taking the time to quiet your mind.
Mindful breathing is a good starting point for many people. However, turning attention internally, especially to the breath, may be challenging, anxiety provoking, uncomfortable, or triggering for some. In these cases, please feel free chose another point of focus (internal or external, whichever feels more comfortable). You will get just as much benefit from intentionally focusing your attention elsewhere. And the same steps apply: intentionally settle your attention on a point of focus, notice when your mind wanders, and gently bring it back. Here are some ideas:
- “Watch” your thoughts as they come and go (you can even visualize them as clouds moving through the sky, leaves flowing down a stream, stars shooting across the night sky)
- Notice your emotions as they come and go
- Body scan (noticing physical sensations in your body, guiding your attention from the soles of your feet, body part by body part, to the top of your head)
- Mindful watching (e.g., a candle flame, a piece of artwork)
- Mindful listening (e.g., sounds around you, a piece of music)
- Mindful walking (great option for those of us who are unable to sit for periods of time)
- Mindful eating (e.g., try this with a piece of chocolate and focus on one of the senses, such as smell or taste)
Other ways to be mindful
The above exercises are all great for starting out – they each involve focusing on a single reference point (e.g,, breath, sound, thoughts) and can be done as a formal daily practice. That being said, there are countless ways to practice mindfulness, not all of which require a single mindfulness object.
You can focus on the present moment for all that it is (noticing thoughts, emotions, sensations, the environment around you etc). You can attend to the person you are with (what they are saying, their body language etc). You can mindfully watch your children or pets play, noticing their movements, sounds, and facial expressions. Try it out next time the opportunity presents itself. Remember, it is all about being in the present moment.
It is also possible to incorporate mindfulness into a busy schedule. Routine activities are a great opportunity to practice, as they are the ones where your mind is most likely to wander. Think about the last time you sat on the train, or did the dishes – chances are, your mind was elsewhere, whether that be deciding what to have for dinner, planning tomorrow’s schedule, or mentally checking off your to do list. The more mindfulness you can squeeze into your day, the stronger the mindfulness “muscle” will get, and the less likely your mind will be to wander off at every given chance. At the start of this article, I mentioned that most routine tasks can be made mindful. Here are some favorites you can try in different settings.
Wake up mindfully: when you wake up, take a few deep breaths, noticing the air as it fills your lungs and belly. Notice how you feel (are you warm or cool, tired or alert?). Stretch your whole body lengthwise, arms and legs reaching away from one another, and then tuck into a fetal position. Repeat this a few times and notice the experience of bringing some movement into your body
Mindfully wash the dishes: notice the water as it fills the sink, the sensations of the water and suds on your hands, the temperature of the water and how it changes over time, the aromas of the dishwashing liquid and any other smells in the air. Pay careful attention to washing and drying each dish fully. Attend to and enjoy any feelings (e.g., calm, achievement, relief) you may get as you complete the task
Mindful shower: start by leaving your electronic devices and any other distractions outside the bathroom. Pay attention as you turn on the tap and notice as the water goes from cold to warm to hot. During the shower, settle your attention on the sensations of the drops of water hitting and falling down your body. Do they make contact forcefully or gently? Which parts of your body receive the most water? If your mind wanders, notice what captured your attention, and then gently bring it back to the sensations of the water. You may like to experiment with temperature and notice how your body responds, physically and emotionally. Pay careful attention as you kindly wash your body (and hair), noticing the sensations of the soap or body wash, and how your hand glides across your body. Following the shower, dry yourself carefully and intentionally
Mindful eating: remove ay distractions and sit down to a set table to enjoy your meal or snack. Notice any sensations of hunger. Really notice the food in front of you – the colours, shapes, and textures. Inhale the smell of the food. As you prepare your first bite, notice any salivation that occurs in your mouth. Notice the taste and texture of the food as you place it in your mouth. Chew slowly and intentionally, and do not take another bite until the current once is finished. Look out for sensations of fullness, and when you notice them, take a break from eating. Note: mindfully drinking a cup of tea/coffee is also a great practice
Give a loved one a mindful hug: set an intention for the hug, and really feel and experience it as you make contact
Take a mini vacation: get under the covers in bed and just “be” for 10 minutes (this is a great one for parents who need a quick break)
Imagery exercise: close your eyes and imagine a calm, relaxing place. It can be real or imagined. Notice what you can see, the sounds you can hear, any smells in the air. Explore this place through your senses and notice how you feel, in your body and in your mind
Lie down outside and mindfully watch the sky: Notice the different colours (blues, greys, whites) that make up the sky. Notice the clouds (their shape, speed and direction of movement)
Take a mindful breathing break (as short or long as you like)
The 555 exercise: pause what you are doing and notice 5 things you can see, hear and feel (add in smell if you can)
Go for a mindful walk to get your morning coffee
Take ten mindful deep breaths every hour (set an alarm on your phone or computer as a reminder). Breath in through your nose, feel your belly expand followed by your rib cage, and slowly breathe out through your nose or mouth. Try and make your out breath longer than your in breath as this will trigger the relaxation response. A good guide is to breathe in for 4 counts, pause of 1 count, and breathe out for 6 counts.
Do a body scan: if you are feeling stressed, take a comfortable seat, get centered and scan your body. Notice where your body is feeling tense and where it is feeling relaxed. Mindfully breath some fresh air into the parts feeling tense and notice what happens
Do a few yoga poses
Start a mindfulness group: recruit some colleagues and start a lunchtime or afternoon mindfulness group. You can used recorded mindfulness exercises, or take turns in guiding the group yourselves. If you are a manager, why not set up a group for your employees
Spend a moment in silence to check in with yourself before attending a meeting or giving a presentation. This will help you feel more present
Take a proper lunch break: you can choose to eat your lunch mindfully, or mindfully engage in conversation with your colleagues whilst eating
Mindfully sip a cup of tea in the afternoon
Mindful listening: mindfully listen to a piece of music between tasks (you can choose classical music for focus, nature sound tracks for relaxation, or something more upbeat for an energy boost)
On the go
Mindful walking: focus your attention on the soles of your feet. Notice the difference in sensation when each sole connects with the ground, and when it leaves the ground
Mindfulness on public transport: you can engage in a number of mindfulness activities while catching the train, bus or an Uber/taxi, such as mindful breathing, mindful listening (e.g., what can you hear, including sounds both near and far) and mindful watching (e.g., take time to notice the people, colours, light and shade, and shapes around you). If you do have other tasks you absolutely must do on your commute, try taking ten mindful breaths before starting your tasks
Take a mindful moment: if you pass a park, church, or any place that captures your attention, take a minute or two to sit down and notice what is around you
There is an abundance of excellent resources on mindfulness out there. In this article, I have attempted to give you a fairly thorough overview of everything you need to know to get started. I encourage you to try it out for yourself, reading and exploring further if you'd like. Below are some resources you may find helpful.
A great way to get started with mindfulness is to download a mindfulness or meditation app. The apps available today have a number of fantastic guided meditations and mindfulness exercises you can follow along with. They are also a great way of keeping you motivated (through practice reminders, tracking of progress etc.). Here are a few of my favourites:
1) Smiling Mind
Smiling Mind is a free, non-for-profit mindfulness app designed by psychologists and educators. It has a range of exercises, broken down by age group (7 to 9 years, 10 to 12 years, 13 to 15 years, 16 to 18 years, and adults). Programs are tailored for the specific challenges of each developmental period. Programs for all age groups offer between 40 and 70 guided mindfulness exercises, which range from 2 to 45 minutes in duration. The app also tracks your progress within a session and across time, including time spent meditating and ratings of happiness, contentment and alertness. You can also purchase licenses for their Mindfulness in Workplaces and Mindfulness for Schools programs.
2) Insight Timer
An incredibly popular and widely used app, Insight Timer has it all. This app is unique in that it offers a variety of bell sounds that you can use to start and finish your meditations (you can even program a bell to sound in intervals during the meditation to bring you back to the present). It also offers ambient sounds (e.g., raindrops, zen guitar, ocean waves) that you can play on loop in the background during your meditation sessions. Aside from these two more unique features, the app offers nearly 10,000 free-guided meditations for mindfulness, relaxation, anxiety and sleep.
3) 10% Happier
Developed by news anchor and author Dan Harris, this free app was designed with skeptics in mind. It teaches users how to meditate in a simple and practical way, and contains numerous exercises and guided meditations for people with busy schedules. It also includes clear and simple content around a range of relevant topics, such as stress, anxiety, relationships and sleep. Another cool feature – new content is added each week.
Other apps you might like to look into include Inscape (my husband’s favourite, and believe me he has tried a few), The Mindfulness App, Omvana, Aura, Buddhify and Calm. Many of these apps offer free content/a free trial but require a membership to access the full content.
- Mindful is an excellent resource dedicated to providing information, inspiration and resources for the mindfulness community. Here you will find articles written by leaders in the field on a wide range of areas, including mindful parenting, mindfulness and the brain, mindful communication and conflict resolution, working with your inner critic, and fighting stress. There is even a whole section dedicated to mindfulness in the workplace. The website also includes a wide range of mindfulness exercises to try.
- Mindfulness for Teens is a mindfulness website designed for teenagers. My favourite part of the website are the guided mindfulness exercises.
When it comes to books on mindfulness, we really are spoilt for choice. Here are a few great, practical resources for adults and children. Keep in mind, there are plenty of others out there.
For the grown ups
Five Good Minutes: 100 Morning Practices to Help You Stay Calm and Focused All Day Long by Jeffrey Brantley and Wendy Millstine
This book is filled with 5-minute meditation, mindfulness, imagery and relaxation exercises for the busiest of people. The concept of this book is that taking five minutes each morning to be fully present can have a profound impact on your life.
Five Good Minutes in the Evening: 100 Mindful Practices to Help You Unwind from the Day and Make the Most of Your Night by Jeffrey Brantley and Wendy Millstine
Also from the Five Good Minutes series, this book provides the reader with 100 ways to transition from a busy and stressful workday into a peaceful and restorative evening. According to the authors, only 5 minutes stands between the two.
Five Good Minutes at Work: 100 Mindful Practices to Help You Relieve Stress and Bring Your Best to Work by Jeffrey Brantley and Wendy Millstine
Another great tool from the Five Good Minute series, this book is filled with stress-relieving mindful activities to bring calm, balance and focus into a busy work day.
10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works - A True Story by Dan Harris
In this relatable and honest tale, news anchor Dan Harris shares his own story of how meditation helped him live a happier and more fulfilling life. After suffering a panic attack live on Good Morning America, Dan went on a quest to change his life. This is the story of how he learnt to tame his inner critic and find his happiness. A fantastic read for all your high-achievers out there. There is also a 10% Happier Podcast (and an app as featured earlier).
The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment by Eckhart Tolle
This best-selling book provides a guide for living in the present moment. It draws on a mix of spiritual traditions and takes readers on a journey into the now, teaching them to leave behind their analytical mind and find their true self.
Parenting from the Inside Out by Daniel Siegel and Mary Hartzell
Authored by psychiatrist Dan Siegel and early childhood expert Mary Hartzell, this book offers parents an in depth resource for creating loving and secure connections with their children. At the heart of this book is the concept of conscientious mindfulness – learning to be truly present with your children and to parent in a kind, careful and intentional way.
For the kids
Sitting Still Like a Frog by Eline Snel
The book is aimed at children 5 to 12 years, and is a collection of simple mindfulness exercises to help with anxiety, difficult emotions and concentration.
Peaceful Piggy Meditation by Kerry Lee MacLean
This book is a beautifully illustrated guide for young children on learning to meditate.
Puppy Mind by Andrew Jordan Nance
This book is a story of a boy who learns to train his “puppy” mind (which is always wandering) to stay in the present, even if just for a moment.
Ten Mindful Minutes by Goldie Horn
This book provides practical mindfulness techniques for children and their parents, and is based on the MindUP program, which teaches children the social and emotional skills needed to manage stress and be happy.
Each Breath a Smile by Sister Susan, Nguyen Thi Hop and Nguyen Dong
Alongside beautiful illustrations, this book teaches pre-school aged children how to breathe mindfully to calm the body and mind.
Structured mindfulness programs
Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is a renowned 8-week program that uses mindfulness to help people respond more effectively to stress, pain and illness, thus decreasing their suffering. Research has consistency found this program to be effective in reducing a range of physical and psychological symptoms, including chronic pain, chronic stress, and anxiety/panic secondary to a medical diagnosis. In many cases, changes have been maintained years later. It is offered in person, online, or as an intensive 5-day residential program.
Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy is an 8-week group therapy program that was developed for people suffering from recurrent episodes of depression. It is a modified form of cognitive therapy that integrates mindfulness as a way to help people more effectively respond to the negative thinking patterns, worry and rumination characteristic of depression. Some research suggests that MBCT may also help with generalized anxiety, certain addictions and depression resulting from physical health conditions.
There are a number of activities offered in local communities that either directly teach or embody the principles of mindfulness. Practicing with a group can be a wonderful experience, and a great way to expand your practice. Here are a few ideas that are easily accessible to most people:
Meditation classes: meditation classes are frequently offered at local Buddhist centers, yoga studios and therapy practices
Yoga: yoga combines postures, movement and breath to achieve a mindful, relaxed state. It is a great option for those who prefer a movement based practice. I recommend trialling classes at a few different studios to find the best fit for you. For beginners, Hatha and Yin yoga are slower paced options. For more active classes, try Vinyasa or Ashtanga yoga.
Tai Chi and Qui Gong: both gentle forms of exercise combining slow movement, postures, breath and meditation to achieve vitality. These ancient practices have been shown to improve health outcomes and reduce stress. If you are interested in mindful movement and would like something more gentle that yoga, these practices are for you. I often see elderly people practicing Tai Chi in the park near my house and man do they look serene.
Other activities: you can make most activities mindful, such as art, improv, drama and dance classes.
a few quotes to finish
“Live the actual moment. Only this actual moment is life.” (Thích Nhất Hạnh)
“The little things? The little moments? They aren’t little.” (Jon Kabat-Zinn)
“The best way to capture moments is to pay attention. This is how we cultivate mindfulness.” (Jon Kabat-Zinn)
“Mindfulness isn’t difficult, we just need to remember to do it.” (Sharon Salzberg)
“Mindfulness is a way of befriending ourselves and our experience.” (Jon Kabat-Zinn
“In today’s rush, we all think too much — seek too much — want too much — and forget about the joy of just being.” (Eckhart Tolle)
“If you want to conquer the anxiety of life, live in the moment, live in the breath.” (Amit Ray)
“As you walk and eat and travel, be where you are. Otherwise you will miss most of your life.” (Buddha)