Healthy Living

The Present Moment: What Mindfulness Is, and Is Not

Do you find it hard to slow down and merely be present? Does your mind tend to wander back towards the past, or constantly glance forward towards the future? Take a moment and reflect on the last time you found yourself stuck aimlessly in this sort of mental “autopilot.” For many of us, common examples of these sorts of experience include:

  • Driving to or from work, with little memory of actually doing so
  • Eating a snack or a meal despite not being hungry
  • Ruminating for hours after a negative interaction with our spouse, our boss, or a loved one
  • Daydreaming

This state of mindlessness is in fact incredibly common, particularly in our frenzied and often chaotic modern world. And on the surface, it may seem harmless enough. But over time, this sort of constant cycle can actually wreak havoc on our mental health and emotional well-being. One recent study showed that we spend nearly half of our waking hours with a wandering mind. Worse yet, we tend to be least happy during these moments of mental drifting.

Fortunately, the antidote to this state of mindlessness is in fact mindfulness. Mindfulness is an ancient practice, one that’s been around for thousands of years but has only recently become better understood and appreciated from a scientific perspective. Exciting findings in recent years have shown mindfulness to be effective in addressing a wide range of physical and mental health issues. Indeed, the practice of mindfulness is all the rage these days. In magazines and on bookshelves, on television and on the web, it seems that mindfulness is everywhere we look. Yet despite its growing popularity, there are nonetheless many misconceptions about the nature of mindfulness. With that in mind, here are some common examples of what mindfulness is not:

  • Mindfulness is not just meditation: It’s actually a much broader concept than merely meditation, which in turn can take many different forms as well beyond mindfulness. Instead, mindfulness can best be viewed as increasing our attention and awareness in the present moment.
  • Mindfulness is not wiping your mind clear of thoughts: On the contrary, our aim in mindfulness practice is to become more aware of our thoughts, without judging them or trying to push them away.
  • Mindfulness is not relaxation: You may at times feel relaxed as a byproduct of mindfulness practice, and over time it can certainly help lower anxiety and stress. But the overarching practice of mindfulness is not aimed at becoming relaxed.
  • Mindfulness is not religion: Though it owes some of its heritage to Buddhist philosophy, mindfulness can easily be practiced in a wholly secular manner and requires no religious affiliation whatsoever.
  • Mindfulness is not sitting in a lotus posture and burning incense: Needless to say, you can certainly do this if you’d like, but it’s far from a requirement!

So what is mindfulness then? At its core, mindfulness refers to maintaining moment-to-moment awareness of our thoughts, bodily sensations, feelings, and surrounding environment. Moreover, it involves acceptance and non-judgment, meaning that we observe and experiences what’s happening around and within us, without wishing for things to be any different than they are. As Jon Kabat-Zinn, one of the world’s foremost mindfulness experts describes it, mindfulness involves “paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”

Why practice mindfulness? To put it simply, the practice of mindfulness has been shown to transform our mental health, physical well-being, and even our relationships. Mindfulness practice has been linked to lower rates of depression and anxiety, and higher rates of life satisfaction and happiness. Studies demonstrate that it can boost our immune system, reduce chronic pain, and improve sleep. On an interpersonal level, practicing mindfulness has been shown to increase relationship satisfaction among couples, and foster greater closeness in our relationships.

Interested in tapping into the power of mindfulness? To help get you started, keep these tips and guidelines in mind:

  • Consider both formal and informal practice: Mindfulness can be practiced both formally and informally. Formal mindfulness training refers to when we allot a certain amount of time (say, 30 minutes) to engage in structured mindfulness meditation. Conversely, informal practice refers to taking small moments, as brief as a few seconds throughout the day, to fully notice what’s happening around us and within us. We might work towards becoming more fully present in activities we would otherwise sleepwalk through, such as driving to or from work, eating a meal, taking a shower, and so forth.
  • It’s OK to keep it short: Especially when you’re just starting off, feel free to keep your practice short and sweet. Remember, the most important thing is to begin developing a lifestyle of mindfulness, and there’s no wrong way to start. So don’t worry if you don’t feel like you’re practicing “enough.” The important thing is that you’re starting!
  • Don’t worry about being “good” at mindfulness: It’s easy to become stuck worrying about whether we are doing it “right,” and easy to become frustrated when we feel we aren’t doing a “good enough” job at being mindfulness. These sorts of judgments can sabotage our efforts; simply notice when these beliefs arise, and redirect your awareness back to the present moment.
  • Consider taking a meditation class: This is only an optional suggestion, but I can personally attest to the powerful experience of immersing yourself into mindful living through a formal meditation class or retreat. By doing so, you’ll find that your skill will accelerate faster and will enable you to harness the many benefits of mindfulness.

Good luck, and congratulations on taking an important step towards changing your life!

Dr. Jonah Paquette

Read More: 6 Effective Simple Techniques for Meditation

6 Tips – Use Mindfulness to Improve Fitness

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