In the West, mindfulness and meditation have - in a very short time - gone from obscure, hippie practices to things likely to be regularly recommended by your physician. There are good reasons for this: the evidence supporting these methods of stress-reduction is already substantial and shows no signs of slowing.
But why should mindfulness and meditation be important to YOU?
We Americans tend to thrive on stress, or at least we pretend to. It is true that a little bit of stress is motivating and even necessary, but stress (and the sympathetic "fight or flight" reaction by our nervous system) is supposed to come for intense moments and go away, like the passing encounter with a Grizzly bear. The daily, lower-grade chronic stress most of us experience is not how our bodies are meant to function, and it has serious repercussions for our health. In fact, psychosocial stress is one of the greatest risk factors worldwide for a heart attack, on par with smoking and considerably more than high blood pressure (Interheart study).
The things that cause our stress are unlikely to go away anytime soon. While it can be incredibly helpful to learn to say "no" and take a break (more on capacity later), for the most part our bills, obligations, and schedules are here to stay. Welcome to the modern world.
This is where practices like mindfulness and meditation come in. The two are often lumped together as they both help reduce stress, but they are actually quite different.
Mindfulness is awareness. It is part of Buddhist traditions and was popularized in the West by Jon Kabat-Zinn in the 1970s with MBSR (mindfulness based stress reduction), but humans have been enjoying sunsets and stopping to smell the roses for a lot longer than that. Being mindful is the opposite of running on auto-pilot. Mindfulness can be defined as intentional, non-judgmental awareness of the present moment and your experience of that moment. It is neither positive nor negative. The magic of awareness is that, in time, it begins to shift experience; change blossoms all on its own.
A movie came out a few years ago called About Time in which the men of a family have the ability to time travel within their own lives. Spoiler alert: the main character ends up learning to use the power as his father did, by simply redoing each day one by one. The first time he went through his day as we all so often do, caught up in the to-do lists, traffic jams, and other stressors. Then he would re-do the exact same day, living with loving intention, kissing his wife, playing with his children, and staying present, rather than worrying about the past or future. This is living mindfully.
Granted, most of us do not have the luxury of time travel. We have to learn, bit by bit, to become mindful of each moment in our one chance to live that very moment. I recommend starting with positive experiences. Staying mindful during anger or anxiety is next-level; it can be greatly beneficial to track our reactions, but a hard place to start, because at first bringing awareness to something difficult can make it feel harder.
Mindful things you can try:
- A client and friend of mine recently committed to spending a few mindful minutes whenever she noticed she could feel the sun, and focus on its warmth on her skin (added bonus of vitamin D with 10 min of sun a day!).
- Another trick I use is to commit to one minute of mindfulness when I get into the car before I start the engine, or sit down on the bus or train. Talk to yourself as you would a friend: How are you today? What are you feeling physically, emotionally, energetically? What is on your mind? Is it easy to just be where you are, or do your thoughts try to pull you away?
- You could also turn your attention outward, noticing the details of the world around you, the colors, faces, sounds, smells, and other sensations.
- Being mindful during meals has the added bonus of improving your digestion by putting you in a parasympathetic "rest and digest" state. Start by just committing to a mindful first bite. Appreciate the people who helped bring you that meal: the farmers who grew the crops, the people who transported them, the workers at the grocery store, your loved one who cooked it (or yourself!). Notice the smell as you bring your bite to your mouth, and the complexity of the flavors on your tongue. Appreciate the texture, and for goodness sakes chew considerably before you swallow (this is why we have teeth, after all).
- Being mindful of how you feel after you finish your meal can have wonderful implications for your health as well. If an animal eats something and gets sick it will avoid that source in the future (at least in theory; tell this to my dog and his love of garbage...). People, on the other hand, will eat a food, feel poorly, and then take an enzyme or an antacid and eat it again. We flat out ignore our bodies as much as possible. Bringing mindfulness to this can help us learn to choose foods that make us feel the way we want to: nourished and supplied with energy. (This is 90% of the work I do with clients.)
There is no right way to be mindful; just take moments to be aware.
Meditation can also be a practice of awareness, but it is an activity in its own right (for example, most of us cannot be grocery shopping and meditating simultaneously, but mindful grocery shopping is entirely possible). Many people associate meditation with sitting crosslegged, hands on our knees, eyes closed, with our focus on our breath or trying not to have thoughts at all. In my mind, this form of meditation is like a fancy word for daydreaming about the present moment; it goes beyond the observation of mindfulness to trying to only be exactly where you are in that moment.
There are many, many different styles and methods of meditation; that image is certainly one of them, but there are endless others. The common thread between these different approaches to meditation is that the goal is to reach a state of altered consciousness, in which our brain waves switch from our normal mode to a different frequency, like from beta to theta waves. Some traditions use meditation as part of a spiritual practice, but you can meditate outside of any spiritual or religious framework.
Some forms of meditation and resources include:
- apps: Headspace is a popular choice, with free daily 10 minute meditations and subscriptions for more (GREAT for beginners)
- body scans (checking in with your body head to toe, inside and out): wonderful to help you fall asleep; this link has a brief 3 min version as well as a link to a longer, 45 minute body scan
- self-compassion meditations: to quiet that harsh inner voice
- loving-kindness meditations: for self and others
- nature meditations: the 4 elements druid meditation here is one of my favorites
- mantra meditation: basically, repeat a sentence on loop; you can find some traditional mantras here
- guided visual meditations (going to a peaceful place in your mind): one good example
- sound healing: this is best in person, but you can find youtube videos as well
- movement meditations: meditation does not have to be still! I love shaking meditation, especially for anxiety (it feels silly at first, but get the giggles out and it's great)
- podcast with free meditation downloads of various types, including compassion
In my opinion, being mindful is just as - if not more - important than meditation. In meditation, we are typically alone, shifting our state of mind. The long-term benefits of this and how it changes the brain are undeniably incredible. But it is entirely possible to meditate for an hour and then go about your day completely unaware of your experience and how you influence others. I can imagine someone meditating and then walking out of their meditative space into a chaotic living room, only to start yelling at the pets and kids. The two - meditation and mindfulness - do their best work together. I recommend meditating when you can and trying to build up a regular practice (in a dream world, 30 minutes a day, but start with 3!) and incorporating mindfulness into your daily life whenever and wherever possible. Starting a meditation practice can feel stressful, which is the opposite of the idea. This article has some good tips to stay positive.
Finally, I want to encourage us all to become mindful of our capacity. Part of our stress-fueled culture is this undercurrent of an idea that unless we are constantly working beyond our natural capacity, pushing ourselves harder and further, we are not doing enough. I understand the American values of working hard and doing more, but at the point where it harms our health (typically gradually, with the onset of metabolic syndrome/pre-diabetes, hypertension, etc) it no longer makes sense. Our ability to push through our capacities is there for a reason; sometimes emergencies come up and we really need to. But every day is not an emergency for most of us - we just treat it like it is. Being mindful helps us learn the boundaries of our capacity and notice as we approach them. If we learn to respect those boundaries we will spare ourselves (and our loved ones) a great deal of bad moods, fatigue, and burnout. The beautiful irony is that by staying within our physical, emotional, and mental capacities more often, we actually grow our capacity.