You've heard how amazing and effective mindfulness is, but it sounds intimidating. Worry not! There are simple and sustainable ways to add mindfulness practices to your life and reap real benefits. You don't even need a meditation rug.
What is mindfulness, really?
What are you doing right this moment as you're reading this? Listening to music? Eating? Half-watching TV? If you had to make an estimate, what percentage of your attention are you giving to this task?
Now think in general. When was the last time you were 100% focused on the one thing you were doing?
You might think that just because driving is the only thing you’re doing, you must be giving it all of your attention. Or maybe at least 90% of it—we have to allow for a little bit of normal mind wandering. But ask yourself: What types of trees are found as you leave your neighborhood? Have you been noticing?
When was the last time you were 100% focused on the one thing you were doing?
When you fold laundry, what do the sheets smell like? (And don’t cheat by answering “Like fresh laundry!”) When was the last time you truly and fully experienced that smell, not just with a general sense that it’s nice but with all of your awareness invested in the experience?
That focusing of your awareness is called mindfulness.
Last week, we talked about what mindfulness can and can't do. Practicing mindfulness can improve your well-being and performance, decrease stress and pain, and help you to be more connected with yourself and your surroundings. But that doesn't mean you can use mindfulness as a band-aid in a moment of crisis. It's a philosophy, not a tool. It cannot cure all of your ills, and it cannot replace standard medical treatments.
Mindfulness shouldn't be a crash diet—it’s a lifelong relationship with yourself and the world around you.
This week, let’s talk about how we can incorporate mindfulness into our daily lives in a way that’s feasible and sustainable. Because mindfulness shouldn't be a crash diet—it’s a lifelong relationship with yourself and the world around you. Whether you've been working on mindfulness for a while or you're totally new to the idea, these tips might help.
1. Practice mindfulness in your regular daily activities
One of the biggest hesitations I hear about mindfulness is that people are too busy to practice it. I totally get it. I'm someone who has a job, side hustles, and a baby. It’s hard to imagine setting aside even 20 minutes to do nothing.
But here’s the beauty of mindfulness—it’s not at all about doing nothing. In fact, it’s the opposite.
Your only job during a mindful experience is to experience it.
Mindfulness means to fully focus on doing whatever you’re doing—to be right here, right now. So if you’re eating breakfast, you can start your day with mindfulness by being 100% with your breakfast. Notice how everything smells. Savor the taste. Feel the texture and weight of the apple or the glass. Watch the steam rise from the coffee. Try this tomorrow morning, even for just five minutes during your breakfast, without watching or listening to the news or inviting any other distractions.
What if you can’t help having distractions in your daily life, like noisy neighbors, young kids, or bodily discomforts? That’s okay. Your mindful practice will simply include these experiences—without judgment. Gently walk your attention through the disruption and allow it to sit quietly in your body. Let yourself hear the leaf blower. Breathe into the sound of your kids fighting. Your only job during a mindful experience is to experience it.
2. Don’t just practice mindfulness when things are stressful or painful
Another thing I often hear from people is that mindfulness doesn’t work for them.
When I probe a little further, what people usually describe is this: They download a meditation app or find some guided meditation audio online, then they wait for themselves to feel stressed out (or have trouble falling asleep, or have a pain flare-up), at which point they whip out the meditation and try to use it to solve the problem.
If you only ever try mindfulness when you’re in the midst of a mini-crisis, it's like learning to ride a bike during an earthquake.
There’s nothing wrong with formally practicing mindfulness when things don’t feel good. But if you only ever try it when you’re in the midst of a mini-crisis, it would be like learning to ride a bike during an earthquake.
Mindfulness is not an easy skill. To develop it, you have to practice regularly. And just like with any skill, you need to start with baby steps. To get started, try doing a daily five-minute mindful breathing meditation and also paying full attention to one meal per day. Before you even realize it, your mindfulness muscle memory will help you stay grounded in times of stress.
3. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t get it right away
Make sure to be patient with yourself. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and enlightenment can’t be reached in a week. Learning to be mindful can be like learning to write with your left hand if you’re a righty. In our hustle-and-bustle world, we're constantly distracted, forced to multitask, and encouraged to push away difficult feelings. That's some difficult programming to overcome.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and enlightenment can’t be reached in a week.
So don’t get down on yourself if mindfulness is hard. You’ll likely find your mind wandering when you do a formal mindfulness meditation. That’s okay. At least half the point of mindfulness is to be non-judgmental, so don’t judge your brain for getting distracted, bored, or frustrated. Just allow your thoughts to come and go at their own pace and gently bring your attention back to your breath, or to something else in the here-and-now.
4. Remember that the goal isn’t necessarily to feel better in the moment
You may be thinking, “It’s all well and good to be grounded in the present moment, but what if the present moment sucks?”
You may suddenly want to cry or even feel panicky. This is OK! It means you're doing it right.
Often, we expect that mindfulness practice will make us feel better—calmer, or more comfortable, or more sleepy. But when we take away distractions and tune in to the here-and-now, we suddenly want to cry or even feel panicky. This is okay! In fact, it means you’re doing it right. The goal of being mindful isn’t to tune out bad feelings or make good ones. It’s the opposite—to authentically get in touch with whatever is going on.
Now you may be wondering, “Well, why would I want to do that if what's going on feels awful?”
The thing about negative emotions and uncomfortable feelings is that they can’t be swept under the rug. If you’re anxious or angry or in pain, you might be able to temporarily shove those feelings down, but eventually, they come out, one way or the other. You end up lashing out at someone you care about, or you can’t stop doubting your own decisions, or you have gastrointestinal problems. The body and mind will find a way to express your feelings.
The wonder of mindfulness is that it helps you to be in touch with your experiences in real-time. That not only prevents your mental and physical pressure cooker from exploding, but it also sets you up to feel more fulfilled. All that energy you would be spending on suppressing bad feelings would be spent on, well, living!
5. Take notice of unusual side effects
There are rare instances of unusual and damaging side effects of practicing mindfulness. Health researchers refer to these as "adverse events." Some documented cases have included panic attacks or severe depression, out-of-body experiences, mania, trauma flashbacks, and even psychotic symptoms.
However, most of these published cases involve very intensive meditation practices, like week-long transcendental meditation retreats where participants are meditating on mantras for hours on end. (There is actually some debate about whether this is even the same thing as mindfulness!) This type of meditation goes far beyond what day-to-day mindfulness looks like.
So far, I have not found any reports of adverse events from simply using your five senses to ground yourself to the present moment. But if you have a psychotic spectrum disorder (e.g., schizophrenia), bipolar disorder, or posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), it may be wise to practice this less intense form of mindfulness instead of prolonged meditation. Or if you are interested in meditation, learn to do it under the guidance of a mental health provider.
A special note about trauma and PTSD: Sometimes people with a trauma history have flashbacks during mindfulness practice because, for perhaps the first time in a long while, they are letting go of their mind’s iron clasp on avoiding the memory. This doesn’t mean mindfulness is bad for you overall; it just means you have a lot of bottled-up pain. Find a trained trauma therapist to help you to loosen this bottle’s cap and release some of the pressure, perhaps with some gentle mindfulness along with evidence-based trauma treatment.