- Mindfulness is a style of meditation defined by how one pays attention.
- Mindfulness can be practiced both formally and informally.
- The first step to practicing mindfulness involves slowing down.
- Mindfulness can be practiced in nature or as a moving meditation.
The mindfulness style of meditation relaxes attention, leading to a more open, spacious sort of awareness. While many programs and authors are currently using the term mindfulness as an umbrella to include all types of meditation, I am using it in a much more specific way.
I like the definition proposed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of mindfulness-based stress reduction. He defines mindfulness as “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, nonjudgmentally” (Kabat-Zinn, 2016).
It is a calm awareness of your thoughts, bodily sensations, feelings, perceptions, and even consciousness itself. It is the process of observing what is happening right now, in this moment, with curiosity yet without attachment. It is witnessing and accepting things as they are without grasping for things we like or pushing away things we don’t like.
How to Practice Mindfulness
First, I think it is important to note that mindfulness can be both a formal and informal practice and that both are important. Formal practice is what generally comes to mind when we hear the word meditation. This might be sitting on your meditation cushion every morning and watching your thoughts float by like clouds across the sky, or it might be attending a mindful yoga class or participating in a meditation group at your local wellness center.
All of these examples describe times (and spaces) dedicated to cultivating a mindful attitude. This is how we build our mindful muscles. Think of formal practice as your mindfulness exercise routine—going to the mental gym to build your mental muscles.
We may also extend this type of awareness to our everyday lives. This is what is meant by informal practice. For example: can you be aware of your thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations while you are sitting at a stoplight? While grocery shopping? Walking the dog? Having a conversation?
This third-person awareness of the present moment creates the capacity to notice what is actually happening rather than focusing on worries and concerns related to what has happened in the past or what might happen in the future. The idea with an informal practice is to increase the capacity to shift into a mindful type of awareness when you might ordinarily be in autopilot mode. Here are a few tips and practices you might try:
Mindfulness in Action
Slow Down: By definition, mindfulness means paying attention to the present moment. This is impossible if you are going 1,000 miles per hour. Experiment with ways in which you can slow down: drive slower, turn off your phone, take leisurely walks, take a break during your workday, take a nap, relax your breathing, spend time alone, and meditate.
Daily Mindfulness Activity: Choose a daily activity—something that you normally do on autopilot without much conscious awareness, such as brushing your teeth, walking the dog, doing the dishes, or eating a meal. For the next week, intentionally pay full attention to what is happening in that moment. If you are cleaning your house, see if you can just clean your house. Without thinking of everything else that needs to be done, without mentally complaining, without fantasizing about your next vacation—just clean the house.
Notice sensory information. What do you see, hear, feel, smell? Notice any bodily sensations. What do your muscles feel like as you move through the house and engage in various activities? Notice how shifting your attention changes the experience.
Formal Mindfulness Meditation: Spend a few moments allowing the body to settle. Feel the weight of the body being supported by your chair or meditation cushion. Let go of any unnecessary tension in the body.
After you begin to feel settled and relaxed, observe with all your senses. What do you hear? What do you see in your mind’s eye? What emotions are present? What bodily sensations do you notice? What thoughts? Whatever sensation, event, or thought seems to have the most salience, simply allow them to be present. Without judgment, gently observe and notice, recognizing whatever has shown up as a movement of the mind. Allow it to pass naturally.
There is no need to push away experiences that are negative. There is no need to cling to experiences that are positive. Invite an attitude of openness and curiosity to each experience. Each experience is impermanent and will naturally move through your awareness like clouds across the sky. Simply observe, allow, and let go.
Nature: Find a spot in nature where you can sit comfortably for 15 to 30 minutes. You can also find a spot that is indoors with a view of nature or use an immersive nature scene in virtual reality. Whatever the location, make sure that you are comfortable. Spend a few moments settling in, becoming centered and grounded, then allow the breathing to naturally slow and invite tight muscles to relax.
When you feel settled, tune in to the environment. Without actively scanning, allow the sensory experience of the environment to wash over you. What do you see? Hear? Feel? Smell? Notice how the sights, sounds, and tactile sensations impact your thoughts, feelings, and body. As much as possible, do not seek with the senses; simply “be” with whatever is present.
Movement: Practices such as qigong, tai chi, and yoga can bring an element of movement into the meditation. However, it is also important to recognize that mindfulness is about your attention, not the activity. You can just as easily do yoga mindlessly as you can mindfully; it all depends on your attitude. If you are fully present in the moment without additional commentary or judgment, then it is mindfulness.
Movement practices can facilitate this type of awareness by providing specific and direct body-based sensations. Noticing alignment, connecting with the heavy grounded feeling in the legs and feet, relaxing the muscles, minimizing effort, and engaging the desired muscle groups are all body-based sensations that can be directly observed in these practices. In addition, you can also notice what the movements and postures elicit. Do any feelings arise? Thoughts? Are you concerned with impressing the teacher? Are you concerned with impressing the other students? Are you competitive? Are you judgmental of yourself or others? All of this can be observed in the present moment as an act of mindfulness.
Adapted from Tarrant, J. (2017). Meditation Interventions to Rewire the Brain.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2016). Defining mindfulness. Online: https://www. mindful.org/jon-kabat-zinn-defining-mindfulness.
Tarrant, J. (2017). Meditation Interventions to Rewire the Brain: Intergrating Neuroscience Strategies for ADHD, Anxiety, Depression and PTSD. PESI Publishing & Media.