Mindfulness has been around for thousands of years, but suddenly it’s the new craze. The promise to sharpen concentration, improve mood, reduce stress, improve immune function, and even fight obesity has people from all walks of life trying to achieve it. As the mindfulness joke goes, what do we want? Mindfulness! When do we want it? Now! But mindfulness isn’t instantaneous. It can take some practice, which too often leaves mindfulness newbies wondering, “Am I doing this right?”
Indeed, mindfulness was created to keep us living in the present, but many are confused as to what it feels like and how it occurs. So first let’s discuss four things mindfulness gets mistaken for:
#1 Mindfulness is not: A vacant mind. Your mind is designed to be anything but vacant. All day we think, notice, and concentrate. Mindfulness isn’t asking your mind not to think, it’s asking it to focus its attention.
#2 Mindfulness is not: Flow. Mindfulness is often seen as a state of deep concentration or absorption. Although it’s possible to go down this path to deep concentration when trying to be mindful, the state is of absorption is more accurately described as psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow.
#3 Mindfulness is not: Joy. While you can certainly be happy while being mindful, they don’t necessarily overlap.
#4 Mindfulness is not: Peace. I’ve seen mindfulness described as “an oasis of calm in which our problems melt away,” which sounds great—sign me up! But relaxation often implies passivity, while mindfulness can require a lot of work.
We’ve talked about what mindfulness is not; now, what exactly is it?
Dr. John Kabat-Zinn, founder of the American mindfulness movement, introduced the term “mindfulness” to the public back in 1991 when he published his now-classic book, Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness. He defines mindfulness as the awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.
Since then, Kabat-Zinn has inspired a generation of mindfulness researchers. One of these researchers, Dr. Kristin Neff, has published the best explanation of mindfulness that I’ve found. Picture yourself in a movie theater, she says. A movie is playing on the screen, and you’re wrapped up in the story. You jump when the bad guy appears, bite your nails as the forces battle each other, gasp as plot twists are revealed. But then, in an instant, the person next to you sneezes. The reverie is broken. Suddenly, you are back in your seat with your popcorn, and you remember, “Oh, I’m watching a movie.” This awareness is mindfulness.
In other words, mindfulness is not the thought or sensation itself; rather, it is the awareness of thoughts and sensations. You can be aware of the sounds around you. You can mindful of your breathing, mindful of the thoughts jumping through your head, or mindful of any of your five senses. The key is that you are observing without judgment—positive or negative—and you are doing nothing to alter the present moment.
With some practice, you can even watch your anxious or negative thoughts without getting tangled in them. For example, think of a recent humiliating moment and how you felt during it. Think to yourself, “I really screwed that one up big time.” You probably feel some embarrassment, guilt, or shame. Now switch it up a little and think to yourself, “I’m having the thought that I really screwed that one up big time.” It’s a subtle difference, but with the “I’m having the thought” example, there is distance and abstraction.
Just as when our fellow movie-goer sneezes, our attention shifts from being absorbed in the movie as if it was reality, to being aware of the movie as not reality. And guess what? Just as the movie isn’t reality, neither are our thoughts.
As Shakespeare writes in Hamlet, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” That’s quite a bit to wrap your head around. But it’s also freeing. Just because our brains are thinking certain thoughts, does not mean they are true or that we have to get tangled in them. Instead, we can just watch our brain create those thoughts without getting wrapped up in them.
So how to put this to use? 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 range of your attention. Here's a classic exercise. Start by keeping your attention wide. Notice, without judging, whatever’s going on 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, try to 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.
Mindfulness experiment #2: Observe your thoughts. This is a good exercise for people who hate to sit still. In this exercise, simply watch the thoughts that come into your head for a few minutes. Don’t try to change your thoughts. In contrast to some mindfulness exercises that involve more concentration, this one is more about awareness. It’s totally okay if your mind jumps around or goes too quickly. Let it. Follow it. And don’t judge it.
Mindfulness experiment #3: Mindful listening. This is another good one for the “non-judgmental” part of the definition. Choose a piece of music—it can be a song you love or one you’ve never heard before. Put on headphones and close your eyes. Allow yourself to listen to every part of the music—the guitars, piano, drums, vocals—without showing an opinion, good or bad. Just listen and experience the music without responding. If your mind starts getting distracted and 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 be mindful. Remember that sense of “Oh, I’m watching a movie,” and use it to watch your breath, a flower, an ant, or even a headache. No matter what it is, simply pay attention, on purpose, and non-judgmentally.
And if none of this works, you can always live out a mindfulness joke: Today, I will live in the moment, unless the moment is unpleasant, in which case I will eat a cookie.
A version of this piece originally appeared on Quick and Dirty Tips.
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