What Is Mindfulness, and Should You Try It?

Mindfulness is all the rage, and with a promise to improve concentration, mood, and energy, reduce stress, improve immune function, and even fight obesity, it should be. But to outsiders, sometimes mindfulness can be intimidating, with the newly mindful left wondering “Am I doing this right?” This week, Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen answers, "What is mindfulness?" Plus, 3 starter exercises to try.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
5-minute read
Episode #118

Here are three mindfulness exercises to try, each of which only takes a few minutes.

Mindfulness experiment #1: The Hourglass.  Remember Dr. Kabat-Zinn’s definition?  Paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally. The “on purpose” part means you can direct the object and scope of your attention. Here's a classic exercise. Start off with wide attention. Notice, without judging, whatever’s happening around you right now: your thoughts, your senses, your breath. Who knew there could be such cacophony in just sitting and paying attention? After about a minute, narrow your attention to only your breath. Notice the sensation of air moving into and out of your nose, your throat, and your lungs. If your mind wanders away, which it will, gently bring it back and focus again on your breath. Then, after about a minute, expand your attention again to a wide scope. This shifting of wide, narrow, wide gives you different perspectives and helps you practice paying attention “on purpose” in just three minutes.

It’s totally okay if your mind jumps around or goes quickly. Let it. Watch it. And don’t judge it.

Mindfulness experiment #2: Watching your thoughts.  This one is great for people who hate to sit still. In this exercise, simply watch the thoughts that come into your head for a few minutes.  It’s totally okay if your mind jumps around or goes quickly. Let it. Watch it. And don’t judge it. Don’t try to change your thoughts. In contrast to some mindfulness exercises that involve more concentration, this one is more about awareness, and non-judgmental awareness at that.

Mindfulness experiment #3: Mindful listening. This is another good one for the “non-judgmental” part of the definition. Choose a piece of music—perhaps one you love, perhaps one you've never heard before. Put on headphones and close your eyes. Allow yourself to listen to every part of the music—the different instruments or voices—without judging positively or negatively. Just listen and experience without responding. If your mind starts getting annoyed or making a grocery list, just bring it back to the music. Tune in to what you’re hearing in the moment.

There are a zillion other exercises and meditations you can try.  Remember that sense of “Oh, I’m watching a movie,” and use it to watch your breath, a flower, a raisin, or even a headache. No matter what you choose, simply pay attention, on purpose, non-judgmentally.

And if none of this works, you can always try another mindfulness joke: Today, I will live in the moment, unless the moment is unpleasant, in which case I will eat a cookie. 

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All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets.