Does it really benefit your health?
Every where you look, you are being told to be mindful about something. Be mindful while eating. Be mindful while exercising. Be mindful while washing your car. Be mindful while showering. What exactly is mindfulness? Why should we be doing it all the time?
Mindfulness is being in a state of alert and focused relaxation. This means that you are carefully and deliberately observing your thoughts and feelings but not judging them as positive or negative. Essentially, you are living in the present moment and partaking in your current experience rather than mulling over the past or worrying about the future. Mindfulness has roots in Buddhist meditation, whose teachings use it to develop what they call self-knowledge and wisdom, which are on the path to enlightenment (the complete freedom from suffering). The term “mindfulness” was coined by Jon Kabat-Zinn to help make the concept more appealing. In 1979, he launched the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. This brought the idea of mindfulness to American mainstream. Initially, it was used by professionals with other types of therapies to help individuals reduce anxiety and stress. Not only is it still used today, but since then, countless of programs have been launched in schools, prisons, hospitals, etc. that use it to encourage physical and mental wellbeing of student, teachers, prisoners, patients and medical staff.
Is mindfulness actually beneficial? It has been shown to relieve stress. Any reduction of stress, results in decreased blood pressure, reduced chronic pain, alleviation of gastrointestinal disorders, better managed heart disease and improved quality of sleep. These are only some of the physical improvements. Mentally, it can help with the treatment and/or prevention of depression, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, substance abuse problems, obsessive compulsive disorder and conflict between couples. Mindfulness is able to do this because it helps people to accept their experiences, especially painful emotions, instead of avoiding them. The goal is to acquire a better understanding of your irrational, maladaptive and self-defeating thoughts. By being able to do this, it helps you to know what the thoughts are and can help to guide the best ways to deal with them. Also, being fully engaged in activities allows you to savor the pleasures in life and provides you with an increased ability to deal with adverse events. Not focusing on past regrets or future worries means you are typically less concerned about self-esteem and success. This freedom of thought allows you to have the chance to form deeper connections with others. All of these components of mindfulness when put together provide an overall improved wellbeing.
There are various different formal techniques used to practice mindfulness. The basic version is to meditate by sitting quietly and focusing on your breathing or a word that you repeat silently. Allow any thoughts to come and go and then return your focus to your breathing or word. All the other versions involve substituting your breathing or word with something else, such as the input from your body. This involves noticing your body sensations, such as stomach growling or stiff muscle, and then let the thought of the sensation go. You can go successively from head to toe, which means you start by thinking of your head and notice any sensations present before letting go and moving on to the next body part. You can also do this with input from your five senses (sight, sound, smell, taste and touch) or your emotions (anger, happiness, sorrow, frustration or fear). This is process can be extremely useful for cravings, especially those cravings that come from addictive substances or behaviors. By being aware of how your body feels when you start having a craving, you are able to replace that it with the knowledge that the craving will subside. As you might expect, this can be incredibly helpful. The more you practice mindfulness, the more you will become aware of a multitude of things (senses, emotions, thoughts) going on all at once. The key is that once you establish concentration, you just observe the flow of inner thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations without judging them. You will also notice external sensations such as sounds, sights, and touch that make up your moment-to-moment experience. The hardest part is not to latch onto a one idea, emotion, or sensation, or to get caught in thinking about the past or the future. Focus on what comes and goes in your mind and allow yourself to figure out which mental habits produce a feeling of well-being or suffering. It will be challenging at first, but it is important to stay with it. Your mind will wander into planning, daydreaming, or criticism and when it does, notice where it has gone and gently redirect it to sensations in the present. It is important not to beat yourself up over the wandering, but use it to gain a better understanding of your mind. It might not seem relaxing initially, but over time as you gain more self-awareness, you’ll become comfortable with experiencing a wider range of your life events while being mindful. This is the key to having more happiness.
While it still is a formal meditation practice and is commonly use with psychotherapy, especially Cognitive Behavior Therapy, nowadays, mindfulness has become more of a mode of being. You can practice it by focusing your attention on your moment-to-moment sensations during everyday activities. You can start small by doing one thing and giving it your full attention, such as showering, eating or washing your car. The essential element is to slow down the process and be fully present as it unfolds and involves all of your senses. The more you practice mindfulness, not only does it become easier, but the benefit your body and mind receives is greater. It usually takes about 20 minutes for your mind to begin to calm down once you start focusing on something, so this length of time is a good place to start your practice of mindfulness.
Mindfulness can definitely be helpful in reducing stress and increasing your happiness. Who wouldn’t benefit from that? While it is initially challenging, it does become easier the more you practice it. The effort you put into being mindful can only improve the quality of your life.