The word “mindfulness” can evoke images of exotic meditation practices and distant locales. There are dozens if not hundreds of mindfulness-based traditions and practices. But when we strip away the the saffron robes, the incense, the chanting, and the gurus, what we’re left with is a state of mind available to us all. Here are some simple ways to achieve and expand mindfulness in everyday life.
What’s Mindfulness Good for Anyway?
For those just beginning to explore mindfulness, it’s important to define the term and why it’s worth developing. One of the easiest ways to understand mindfulness is to observe its absence. When we say someone is “spaced out” or “scattered” this is very nearly the opposite of mindfulness. Their attention is diverted from what is most important and most likely lost on multiple distractions either in their own mind or in their environment.
Mindfulness, on the other hand, is something that almost everyone experiences to some degree from time to time. The most common feature of mindfulness is that attention is directed steadily and consciously at some specific focus. Competing thoughts and distraction seem to fade away. Time may appear to fly by. You may have already experienced this while learning to play a musical instrument, reading a favorite book, or listening to music. Another less-frequent effect of mindfulness is to lose a sense of self. While this may seem strange, think of it this way: when you learn to drive a car, you’re very conscious of pushing the pedals, working the shift, and turning the wheel. In time, you stop thinking about these activities and they become practiced and automatic. In a very natural and commonplace way, you cease to be a person controlling a car and begin to own the car as an extension of your own body. Your attention is on what the car is doing and not how you’re making it happen.
Most practically, mindfulness promises a state of mind that’s primed for both achievement and enjoyment. If you can free your mind from distractions, how much easier would it be to accomplish what you most desire? While ADHD diagnoses are widespread, I often wonder if one cause might be a lack of knowledge and practice of how to direct attention. Early research results suggest that mindfulness training may indeed be effective against ADHD.
People spend a huge amount of time and money trying, at the bottom of it all, to feel better emotionally or to feel their negative emotions less intensely. People drink, they go shopping, they play video games, they overeat, and a thousand other activities at least partially for the purpose of feeling better. Mindfulness offers a more direct route to the same result, without the hangover or the credit card bill. We’ll have more to say about this in a minute.
A Three-Step Mindfulness Exercise for Everyday Life
- 1. Pick a focus.
- There’s no need to allocate extra time to develop mindfulness. Pick some activity you already do. It’s best if your focus is some activity that you do steadily over time. We’ve already discussed driving. You might also choose a repetitive, solitary task at work, cleaning up around the house, or just walking. Whatever you pick, try to eliminate as many external distractions as you can. Turn off the car radio, set you phone to go silently to voice mail. Try to be somewhere where others won’t be tempted to disturb you.
- 2. Concentrate on your chosen focus.
- That’s it. Just do what you were intending to do anyway, but this time give it all your attention.
- 3. Experience losing and regaining mindfulness.
- Here’s where it gets interesting. I guarantee that within seconds of starting your mindfulness practice, something non-focus-related will creep into your awareness. It could be a thought (“Did I remember to pay the phone bill?”) or a feeling (perhaps impatience) or a physical sensation (maybe a sore back). So if step two asked you to concentrate only on your focus and you did something else, does that mean you fail at mindfulness? Not at all…
The heart of mindfulness training is dealing skilfully with everything that comes up that’s not part of your focus. There are two common beginners’ mistakes. The first is to lose focus entirely and wander off into a non-focus stream of thought. The second is to try to forcefully evict distractions from your mind. Casting out the offending distraction seems direct and logical, but a fundamental finding of those who practice mindfulness is that what you resist gets stronger, so trying not to think about how angry you are at your ex is likely to make the anger stronger and longer-lasting.
There are many methods for dealing with distraction in different mindfulness practices, but the most basic and most common way is simply to notice the distraction, then gently return to the focus. Gentleness is a key concept. You may find yourself becoming harsh and critical of your own thoughts as they crowd out your focus. As you learn to become gentler with yourself, you may find the intrusive distractions fade away more quickly, and the gaps between interruptions may begin to grow. Back to our driving example: even on a straight road, you are always adding little steering corrections to hold the lane. As you develop your mindfulness practice, observing distractions and returning to focus many times each minute may become as automatic as keeping a car on the road. One last time: the goal isn’t to have no distractions, it’s to cope skilfully when they inevitably show up, whether one at a time or by the dozens.
More Fruits of Mindfulness
Over time, mindfulness yields greater rewards than just the ability to focus and achieve. Learning to attend to and then release negative thoughts demonstrates that while we may not have much control over what negative emotions emerge, what we do with bad feelings can determine how long and how deeply we suffer their effects.
By observing distractions emerge and dissipate, and by witnessing the empty gaps between distractions, people who practice mindfulness often come to the visceral realization that their thoughts are as temporary and transient as morning fog. However, awareness isn’t made of thoughts, or dependent on thoughts, but can persist even in their absence. Residing in this “pure awareness” state is a goal of more advanced mindfulness techniques.
Hungry for More?
As described above, mindfulness can be something to add to your daily life without any interruption in your activities. However, if you’d like to take the next step, guided meditation tapes can be an easy introduction to more intensive practices. There are many such audio programs available, but a good starting point might be Guided Mindfulness Meditation by Jon Kabat-Zinn.
All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .on and was last reviewed or updated by