Over the last decade mindfulness has become a huge buzzword in everything from exercise, to therapy, to corporate workplaces. But what is mindfulness exactly and how can you get started practicing it? Mindfulness is simply being focused on the present moment. It is simple awareness or “getting present.” It is acknowledging both the internal (thoughts, emotions, body sensation) and external (sounds, smells, visuals) environments. Mindfulness isn’t a big mystery or a 2 hour long meditation session (but it can be!), it is just simply being present.
Ok so now that we have defined mindfulness, how does that help us? First, let’s start with an example that we might all be familiar with, being stuck in traffic. Imagine you are heading home after work, you are thinking about everything you need to do, all the cooking, all the cleaning and then BAM, traffic is suddenly at a standstill. What do you feel? Probably a surge of annoyance and anger, maybe some anxiety. What are you thinking? Why is this happening? How am I going to get everything done now when I get home? Maybe you have no idea what you are feeling or thinking. This is where mindfulness comes in.
Mindfulness is meant to help us increase our self-awareness. The goal is to become aware of our thoughts and emotions and then decide how to respond to them in a measured way. The goal is not to actually reduce anxiety or any other unpleasant emotions. This is counter to what many self-help stuff might say, but trust me, when you try to make anxiety (or any other emotion) go away by battling with it, then it only fuels that emotion. So again, mindfulness is meant to help simply become more AWARE of our thoughts and emotions and not to eliminate them. Ironically though, not trying to make unpleasant emotions go away will actually help us manage them because we can learn to understand them better.
So getting back to being angry and stuck in traffic. When you feel the emotions and thoughts starting to spiral out of control try to do a simple mindfulness exercise. Here are the steps:
-Take 10 slow, deep breaths. Focus on breathing in and out slowly a few times
-Notice the sensations of your lungs emptying and refilling. Notice the rise and fall of your ribcage and your shoulders.
-See if you can let your thoughts and emotions come and go as if they are clouds in the sky, or cars on the road (cars not stuck in traffic that is)
-Expand your awareness: notice your breathing and the sensations in your body. Look around outside and notice what you can see and hear.
Do this exercise for a few minutes and your thoughts and emotions may slow down as you become more aware of them. Use this space (between you and your thoughts/emotions) to then decide how you will proceed. You are stuck in traffic so much is outside of your control. Maybe you will decide to listen to music that will help your mood. Maybe you will put on a good podcast. Maybe you will think about how to cook in the shortened time you will have when you get home. The point is, mindfulness will allow you to identify and distance yourself from angry and anxious thoughts and give you space to then choose how to respond to this anger and anxiety. Like most things, this takes practice. Try doing this simple mindfulness exercise a few times a day just to check in with yourself. I will be writing more about mindfulness in the next few weeks to expand on these concepts. Good luck out there!