Webster Dictionary gives two definitions. The better one reads “the practice of maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis also : such a state of awareness.”
Mindfulness is a state of awareness. It isn’t a state where you have no emotions or are necessarily even calm. It simply means being aware of your thoughts and emotions, and not identifying with them.
You can feel angry and still be mindful. You can feel sad or excited and still practice mindfulness. Every one of us has negative thoughts that go through our head that do not reflect who we are or what we will do. It’s natural to feel anger and frustration, and most of us do feel these negative emotions on a regular basis.
However, mindfulness is being aware of and not identifying with these feelings and thoughts. Many people struggle with getting carried away by their own thoughts and emotions. This often leads to behavior and reactions that they later go on to regret.
Why is mindfulness important?
This all might sound subtle and it’s easy to think it doesn’t make any difference. But being mindful truly makes all the difference.
It allows for you to have space to respond and not react. It allows you to retain a calm center when everything inside of you is out of control. It allows a greater awareness and understanding of what triggers you and why you react in the ways that you do.
There are truly so many reasons why practicing and training mindfulness can improve our lives and how we interact with others.
For instance, I have certain triggers that cause anxiety in me or cause me to act defensive. One example is when the person I am dating acts distant. There are many reasons for someone to act this way.
Maybe they are busy with work or school. Maybe they need some time to process their thoughts.
Yet, due to trauma from a past relationship where I was cheated on, I get anxious when I notice a lack of communication or distance in my relationship. My thoughts and anxiety also usually start to go wild. I used to also pull away from my partner to protect myself from getting hurt when this happened. This would leave my already slightly distant or busy partner to get confused and it was hurting my relationships.
This was a reaction.
Not a response.
Once I started to practice mindfulness, I began to recognize this behavior in myself. So I was able to catch myself when I started to act in this way. I was able to realize that it is a maladaptive reaction that is hurting my relationships.
I began to understand that my initial feelings to a situation aren’t necessary reflective of reality and so I started to react to them less. Not to say I stopped trusting my feelings, but I was better able to recognize certain triggers that might bring out past trauma or insecurities.
This is just one example, but mindfulness has helped me in so many aspects of my life. From relationships, to work, and even to health and exercise. Understanding the emotions and reactions I have gives me better control over myself and a greater understanding of myself.
Beyond my personal experience, there is also a trove of scientific evidence to back up the benefits of mindfulness. Practicing mindfulness actually changes your brain chemistry, can reduce implicit racial and other biases, and can be effective in treating depression and anxiety.
It really is a case of taking care of your mental health, and can be thought of as it was a type of exercise. You eat well and exercise to take of your health. Why wouldn’t you also practice mindfulness techniques?
How do I start practicing mindfulness?
Well, there are tons of resources on this subject for you to dive into. One of my favorite books and my first introduction to mindfulness is Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment. This book dives into how Mr. Tolle broke free from a life full of anxiety and panic by becoming more present and mindful. Even during a stint of homelessness, Mr. Tolle found himself immensely content as he sat on a park bench enjoying the Spring weather.
This is an extreme, but provocative example of the powers of mindfulness.
There are countless other books that describe feelings of bliss that can occur after becoming more present. Once we let go of all our planning and expectations, we are able to fully experience the richness of what is directly in front of us. These books can help you begin to understand and think about what mindfulness is.
Some people actually consider flow states to be experiences of being fully present. Others have ascribed religious and spiritual significance to states of being fully present like in Martin Buber’s I And Thou. There are plenty of books to read into these aspects of mindfulness as well.
Another great way to practice mindfulness is to start meditation. You can think of meditation as an exercise to use and grow your mental well-being. Meditation is your workout.
During meditation you will focus on your breathe, immediate thoughts, and the environment around you. You do not engage with your thoughts, but simply observe them. You don’t judge your feelings or environment, but simply acknowledge them.
This acceptance can lead to a detached, awareness that is at the core of mindfulness. It can also be an exercise that leads to immense self-discovery.
My favorite meditation exercise is to simply focus on my breathe and to label my thoughts as they pass. If I catch myself being distracted during meditation, I label the thought.
If the thought is about work, I think “I was thinking about work”.
If the thought is about money, I think “I am worrying about money”.
And so on in this way.
After meditating, I have a much better temperature check of my mind. Afterwards I know that I am worrying a lot about money today, or something in particular is taking up a huge amount of my mental space.
You will often keep this detached mental state throughout your day and this is where the real benefits come in.
When a coworker talks over you in a meeting, you can notice how you immediately feel disrespected and hot headed. When someone is blocking the sidewalk as you walk to the store, you notice you think aggressive thoughts toward that person.
Once you recognize these feelings or thoughts, you can acknowledge them and let them go. Then you are free to respond and not react.
This is a critical difference.
What resources are out there to help you get started?
As the need for mindfulness in our increasingly hectic lives grows, the resources available do too. There are a plethora of blogs, YouTube channels, books, online or in-person classes, and even mobile apps to help you get started.
My introduction to mindfulness began by reading some books and then by accidently stumbling upon Headspace during a particularly stressful part of my life. Headspace had a cute Netflix series that I watched and followed along with. I started doing their meditation exercises and I quickly realized how it affected my thoughts and state of mind.
I went from having an endless stream of thoughts and getting caught up in each one to becoming present enough to take a step back. I could notice general aspects of my state of mind. For example, I could realize “I’m having a lot of anxious thoughts about work deadlines right now”.
And the difference in my ability to react and calm down was incredible.
There are also other popular apps such as Calm, but I haven’t used these personally so I can’t speak on the quality.
And finally, if you prefer videos to apps or blogs, then I recommend School of Life. They aren’t directly focused on meditation or practicing mindfulness from day-to-day, but they are a treasure trove of insightful knowledge about our emotional states. They can really put what we feel and how we react into perspective. I still actively follow and watch their YouTube channel.
Regardless of how you start, just remember to go at your own pace. Maybe you will start by watching one YouTube video a week. Or maybe you’ll read one book about being more present.
Either way momentum and habit building can come later. It’s important to simply plant that first seed in your mind.
Don’t try to do too much at once.
Mindfulness is a state of awareness and the ability to not identify with your thoughts and feelings. Of course, you still experience these feelings, but you don’t give them control over how you react to a situation.
There are many scientific studies that explain why mindfulness is so helpful and I have a lot of personal experience that confirms this. Meditation and mindfulness truly changed my life and allowed me to finally make lifestyle changes that I struggled with for years.
There are also so many great resources out there to help you get started and they come in almost any digital format that you want. So you really just have to make a choice.
Either way, mindfulness is something that everyone should practice and will improve your mental well-being and life. Your perspective on your own relationships and your understanding of yourself will improve.
It has worked so well for me and I know it will work wonders for you too!
Good luck getting started on your mindfulness journey and I know you’ll do great 😊