The Athlete's Way

Sweat and the biology of bliss

Mindfulness Made Simple

Mindfulness is easy: Stop. Breathe. Think about your thinking.

Mindfulness in a Daffodil

“Mindfulness” has become a buzzword that is often misinterpreted. What is mindfulness? How can it benefit you? 

Mindfulness is much more basic than most people realize. In fact, I’ve isolated 3 easy steps to kickstart a state of mindfulness in a few seconds. To kickstart a state of mindfulness all you have to do is: Stop. Breathe. Think about your thinking. Anybody can use this simple mindfulness technique throughout the day to stay calm, focused, optimistic, and kind.

This close-up picture of a daffodil illustrates simple mindfulness training. What part of the image is your attention drawn to first? Is your focus initially drawn to the stamen at the center? Where do your eyes and your attention go from there? Notice how you can hone in on the center or decide to inspect the abstract shapes and different colors in the surrounding. We all have the power to guide our thoughts consciously—to zoom in and zoom out on specific things in our environment and inside our minds. Obviously, you can decide how long you want to look at the daffodil, what parts of the image you want to focus on, and decide when to turn your attention towards something else. This is mindfulness in action.

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A recent New York Times Magazine article by Susan Dominus titled ‘Is Giving the Secret To Getting Ahead” offers insights into the power of mindfulness to help people succeed professionally. Although the article doesn’t use the term ‘mindfulness’ specifically, the concepts of mindfulness are represented in the advice given throughout the article.

The Times article profiles Adam Grant, who is a professor in the Management Department at Wharton, and features the ideas from his upcoming book "Give and Take." Grant is an expert in organizational psychology, which is designed to help people enjoy the work they do, and to keep them doing it. Grant is quoted as saying, “The greatest untapped source of motivation is a sense of service to others; focusing on the contribution of our work to other peoples’ lives has the potential to make us more productive than thinking about ourselves." It is interesting that whether the motivation to practice mindfulness comes from a place of capitalistic shrewdness or Buddhist loving-kindness, the benefits for the individual and the collective are still there.

What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is simply about being mindful of what you’re thinking and deciding where you choose to focus your attention. Ideally, one would choose to focus his or her attention towards compassion, loving-kindness, and optimism. Mindfulness is about deciding to look on the bright side and deciding to be kind to yourself and others. That’s it.

Mindfulness has its roots in Buddhism and the Noble Eightfold Path that Buddha taught over 2,500 years ago as the path to Nirvana or enlightenment. Although William James didn’t use the term “Mindfulness”, he explored the topic extensively in his life's work and in The Principles of Psychology (1890). Mindfulness is not a new age fad. It has been around forever, but in a modern world it’s more important than ever we each begin practicing it.

Some purists and Buddhist teachers aren’t thrilled to see mindfulness being diluted and applied to pop psychology and business. However, most seem to realize that the more people in the world who are practicing some type of mindfulness the better. Unfortunately, several definitions of mindfulness are currently being used in modern psychology and mindfulness training. It’s like the Wild West when it comes to a standardized Western definition of mindfulness...almost anything goes.

I base my definition of mindfulness on the landmark study by Bishop, Lau et al. (2004) from the University of Toronto titled: Mindfulness: A Proposed Operational Definition published by the American Psychological Association. In their consensus on an operational definition of mindfulness Bishop and Lau propose a two-component model of mindfulness:

1.The first component involves the self-regulation of attention so that it is maintained on immediate experience, thereby allowing for increased recognition of mental events in the present moment.

2. The second component involves adopting a particular orientation toward one’s experiences in the present moment, an orientation that is characterized by curiosity, openness, and acceptance.

The Benefits of Mindfulness

There has been a surge of scientific research on mindfulness since Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn began teaching the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) in 1979. In the past decades research has shown that the benefits of mindfulness include: stress reduction, improved concentration, boosts to working memory, reduced rumination, less emotional reactivity, more cognitive flexibility, higher level of relationship satisfaction, etc. The list goes on and on.

Studies on the benefits of mindfulness are currently trending heavily in psychology and medical journals. In the past month alone at least four studies were released on the benefits of mindfulness and mindfulness training. Two of particular interest are: "Mindfulness Training Improves Working Memory Capacity and GRE Performance While Reducing Mind Wandering” by Michael Mrazek and colleagues at UC Santa Barbara and another from Belgium which found that Mindfulness at School Reduces Likelihood of Depression-Related Symptoms in Adolescents.

Mindfulness Training 101

Many people avoid any type of ‘mindfulness training’ because they think that it’s complex, new-agey or fear that they ‘aren’t doing it right.’ Albert Einstein believed, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” I realize that my “3 steps to kickstart mindfulness” are very basic. I simplify for a reason: I want to demystify mindfulness so more people will get in the habit of practicing mindfulness regularly throughout the day and benefit from it.

You don’t have to set aside time to sit quietly in the lotus position and burn incense to practice mindfulness. You can do it anytime, anywhere. From staying calm when you’re stuck in a traffic jam; to having a heart-to-heart conversation with a friend; to making scrambled eggs; to taking an exam; or when you're making love with your partner... Being fully present in the moment creates mindfulness no matter what you are doing.

Mindfulness is about being aware of your surroundings, connecting, and then guiding your thoughts in a positive and constructive direction. With practice you'll get better at guiding your thoughts to fine tune a state-of-mind that best fits whatever circumstance you find yourself in. 

Mindfulness and Athletics

As an athlete, I never labeled my mindset of being totally focused and 'in the zone' as being a state of ‘mindfulness.’ But it is. Again, this is mostly semantics. Anyone who exercises regularly or competes in sports learns through practice that being distracted (or focusing your attention on the negatives) will cause you to fail. I recently wrote a Psychology Today blog about how-to create flow and superfluidity.

In order to master a sport (or complete a workout) athletes learn through practice how to guide their thoughts towards a positive and optimistic mindset. Everyone who works out regularly is doing a form of mindfulness training within the athletic process. You can bring this skillset back to the work-a-day world and create mindfulness in your daily life. This is the core principle of The Athlete’s Way.

Conclusion: Every Breath You Take

We all get stuck in mental ruts and have patterns of habitual thinking and behavior that can be counterproductive. Mindfulness is a chance to snap out of it, push the reset button and have a fresh start. The next time you find yourself dwelling on something that makes you feel resentful, negative or hopeless. Stop. Breathe. Think about your thinking. And then guide your attention and thoughts towards something positive.

William James wrote: “Why should we think upon things that are lovely? Because thinking determines life. It is a common habit to blame life upon the environment. Environment modifies life but does not govern life. The soul is stronger than its surroundings”

You have the power to focus your attention on positive thoughts that make you feel optimistic and hopeful; or you can think about negative things that make you feel cynical and depressed. You can choose to be mean and hateful, or kind and loving. The choice is yours. Mindfulness puts you in the driver’s seat of your thoughts and actions. 

On average, human beings take 20,000 breaths a day. That gives each of us 20,000 chances everyday to kickstart some mindfulness. If you don’t already, try practicing some simple mindfulness today.

Christopher Bergland is a world-class endurance athlete, coach, author, and political activist.

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