Mindfulness meditation has become a rapidly growing trend amongst Americans. In 2012, only 4.1% of American adults reported practicing meditation but in 2017 that number jumped to 14.2% and since then, the trend has been steadily increasing.
In this article, we’re going to cover some of the most valuable benefits of mindfulness, what it is exactly, how to practice, and how mindfulness can improve our lives and the lives of those around us.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness refers simply to the practice of intentional awareness without judgment. It is a state of alert, yet relaxed observation of all we can notice in the moment – our thoughts, emotions, physical sensations, sounds, etc. It is the quality of being fully engaged, mentally clear, and free from distraction.
Mindfulness is more like an ongoing practice than one brief state of mind – think of it as a style of living purposefully by paying closer attention to how we relate to ourselves and others.
What are the benefits of mindfulness?
1. Stress reduction
One of the hallmarks of mindfulness practice in the West is MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction). Reducing stress is only one of the benefits, but given the magnitude of stress in our modern culture, this one is most impactful.
If you’re still skeptical, Harvard researches found that practicing mindfulness conclusively changes your brain structure for the better. So, mindfulness really gives us the ability to manage our own stress and regulate our emotions.
2. Emotional awareness
By mindfully paying attention to our internal, psychological processes, we become more familiar with our own emotions. This is especially useful during high-stress situations. More awareness and understanding of negative emotions helps us pause in the moment, step back, re-assess, and have more choice in how we want to manage these emotions as they arise.
3. Less rumination and worrying
With more familiarity with the mind’s tendencies, we are less likely to get caught up in negative thought patterns – simply because we’re aware of what’s happening. When thought patterns like worrying, ruminating, and dwelling arise, we can acknowledge their presence and put some space between them and ourselves. This way, we can cut through the spell of unwanted thoughts simply by moving the focal point of attention when those thought patterns arise.
*** Your thought patterns don’t define you AND they are not mandatory ***
4. Less reacting, more responding
Reacting out of impulse, reflexively, emotionally, etc. can be useful in the face of immediate danger or in an emergency… but in everyday situations, reacting without thinking often causes more harm than good.
Emotional reactions can have horrible unintended consequences and lead to unnecessary suffering of all sorts. The emphasis here is ‘unintended’ because when people do terrible things, they often say “I didn’t mean to”, or “I don’t know what came over me”. In other words, they weren’t aware of their emotional state or the fact that they didn’t have to give in to those emotions and react impulsively.
Mindful practices show us how to recognize these emotions and their ability to control us. For example, in a stressful situation rather than losing our cool, we might acknowledge the angry thoughts and simply choose what we prefer to do about it rather than yelling, or behaving angrily. I.e. responding rather than reacting.
5. More acceptance and patience
By observing things the way they appear without labeling, judging or needing to change anything, we are essentially accepting things the way they are.
Sometimes certain people and certain situations ‘test our patience’. But practicing mindfulness in these moments helps us exercise patience by focusing attention on what the impatience feels like rather than the person or situation itself. Then we can choose how we want to respond in the situation rather than reacting out of impatient impulses.
It’s just simply a matter of awareness, acceptance, choosing to let go… and THEN responding.
6. More resilience
Being emotionally overwhelmed, stressed out, reactive, impatient, judgmental … these ways of being are exhausting! Mindfulness really is a type of fitness because it trains us in mental flexibility, endurance, and faster recovery from psychologically distressful situations.
If you don’t need to hold onto anger or stress and you can simply let it go… what do you think happens when you do let it go? You become no longer angry. You’re free to go about your day. You get more of your life back because you’re more resilient in difficult times and you’re able to bounce back sooner than later.
How do I practice mindfulness?
Mindfulness is a skillful way of being, there are no strict rules for how to practice it or who can practice it- anyone can do it. Nevertheless, just as with any skill set, there are exercises you can try to improve your ability to be mindful.
1. Mindful meditation
Think of mindfulness as mental fitness and mindful meditation as exercise. Just as there are many different types of exercise and sports, there are many different types of meditation such as Transcendental Meditation, or mantra meditation… but Mindful Meditation specifically is an exercise of self-regulation during which you simply guide attention – purposefully – when you notice it has gone astray.
It’s a matter of becoming aware of what your mind is up to, and calmly but firmly bringing it back to your point of focus. It’s a simple discipline.
Mindful meditation is not restricted to sitting in the lotus position on the floor – it can be practiced in a variety of ways. Some examples you might want to explore are body scan meditations, focusing on the breath, or observation of thoughts. Meditation is a skill and just like any other skill, it takes time and practice to develop.
2. Shifting perspective
Mindfulness doesn’t have to be a chore. It can be practiced daily, in mere minutes, whenever the opportunity arises. Any moment can be a mindful moment; all you need to do is remember to drop into the present moment.
Let your thoughts do what they’re doing, acknowledge them as thoughts, then gently nudge attention back to some focal point like the breath or physical sensations in the body. Simple perspective shifts like this can put you in a position of neutral clarity rather than getting swept away in thoughts or emotions.
3. Breathing exercises
Mindfulness is all about improving our relationships with parts of ourselves we usually don’t pay attention to. When we’re stressed, our breathing becomes shallow and fast-paced which influences our heart rate and blood pressure. But if we can pay attention and pace our breathing, this will down-regulate the stress response and physically bring us back to a state of calm.
Here are a few mindful breathing exercises:
- Belly Breathing: Visualize a balloon in your belly (not your chest) inflating and deflating as you inhale and exhale. With each in-breath, the belly-balloon fills up with air and with each out-breath, the air is pushed out of the balloon. Notice the difference between your chest and your belly and feel the air pulling in to the lowest point in your belly – try to make it so your belly inflates but your chest does not. Try this for 5-10 breaths to practice
- Timed Breathing: While belly breathing, set the pace for each breath. Choose a set number of seconds for each in-breath and each out-breath. Here are two really good apps for this technique: Breathe (Android) and Breathe + (iOS) – check them out!
For more on the mechanics and physiology of these breathing techniques, read more here.
How can I apply mindfulness in daily life?
The exercises above are simply tools to help us practice mindfulness in various ways. But if mindfulness is mental fitness, what do we do once we’re in shape? How can we really apply these skills in everyday life?
1. Mindfulness in the workplace
Mindfulness is already mainstream and is encouraged by thousands of major companies across the U.S. including Google, Apple, and Nike. This subject alone could be a 2000 word post, but briefly here are some benefits of mindfulness in the workplace:
- Less distraction = more focus
- Mindful employees boost productivity = increased revenue
- Less stress = less sick days and lower healthcare costs
Essentially, practicing mindfulness is both good for you and good for the business you’re involved with.
2. Mindfulness in relationships
We are highly social creatures so our relationships with others are immeasurably important. Whether the relationship is between you and your significant other, your child, your parents, your friends or your boss, practicing mindfulness can help. Mindfulness teaches being present – that means being fully present when we’re with others; not distracted by our phone, not lost in thought, fully present and attentive.
When we practice mindfulness we are less emotionally reactive and thus less likely to cause harm to the relationship due to thoughtless actions. We’re more capable of listening fully rather than waiting for our turn to speak – so we’re less of a burden and more helpful in our relationships.
3. Mindfulness while alone
Mindfulness is, most importantly, about the relationship you have with yourself. It helps you get familiar with the nature of your thoughts, emotions, tendencies, desires, fears… all that stuff you might not be so inclined to pay attention to. But you’d agree; those parts of yourself matter… a lot!
One of the main benefits of mindfulness is the cultivation of both self-awareness and self-discipline. Setting aside just 5 minutes a day for meditation can improve your mind-body relationship by helping you feel comfortable and accepting of and compassionate towards yourself.
Summing it up…
The benefits of mindfulness can have transformative, life-changing effects for you and the people around you. When you change how you relate to yourself and others, you change the relationship. Mindfulness is the art of choice – the ability to choose HOW you want to change for the better, how you relate to your past, and how you want to live in the future. It all comes down to how you relate to the present moment.
Are you new to mindfulness? Let us know which benefit excites you the most in the comments below!