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What is Mindfulness?

What are the Basics About Mindfulness?

Lisa Spendov, Emotional Health and Mindfulness Coach, explains that mindfulness involves paying attention to what’s happening on the inside (i.e., our thoughts and emotions), along with the outer world.

Mindfulness is “maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment, through a gentle, nurturing lens.”

Berkeley’s Greater Good magazine

By building this awareness, we can “take ownership of our emotional functioning, and can better respond to outside stimuli,” she says.

How so? Ryan Kenny, Co-Founder at Pause Meditation, explains that we judge our experiences as either likable or unlikeable, good or bad.

When we’re under too much stress, it triggers us to make negative judgments about otherwise mundane—or even positive—experiences. This can trap us in a cycle of pessimism and resistance.

But by mindfully remaining “interested and curious, instead of making snap judgments,” he says, “we can remain powerfully present in life.”

Ryan, who’s also a runner, explains that it’s a lot like climbing a long, steep hill on the bike: Imagine that you’re suffering, with your legs burning and your lungs starved for air.

Along the way, imagine that you constantly repeat, ‘This sucks.’ You’ll have a much more challenging ride compared to leaning into your suffering and remaining mindfully present with its sensations.

Related: What is Suffering in Buddhism?

Mindfulness involves paying attention to our inner and outer worlds.

Do You Have to Be a Buddhist—or Even Religious—to Practice Mindfulness?

The practice of mindfulness began in Buddhist traditions. Although it grows in popularity and spreads into the West, it becomes increasingly secular—without attachment to any religion or dogma.

“Mindfulness is a set of fundamental human skills that requires no belief. You don’t have to join a group or sacrifice your personal integrity in any way,” Ryan emphasizes.

Instead, building the skill “only helps us become more aware of who we are, get in touch with our needs and desires, and more skillfully navigate life,” he adds.

Mindfulness and compassion are not the domain of just one religion or wisdom tradition.

Mindfulness is a set of fundamental human skills that requires no belief.

Is Mindfulness Beneficial?

Relaxation, Reduced Stress, & Improved Performance

Dr. Jarrod Spencer, sports psychologist and author of Mind of the Athlete, Clearer Mind and Better Performance, explains that our nervous system has two parts: sympathetic (keep moving forward) and parasympathetic (sit back and unwind).

“We live in a world where everyone is overextended, overtired, and not sleeping enough, which means our sympathetic nervous system is overactive,” he explains.

“Mindfulness is a great practice for engaging and balancing the parasympathetic nervous system,” thereby helping us relax, reduce stress, and even improving our sports performance.

Mental Focus, Self-Awareness, & Decreased Anxiety

Scott Forrester, founder, CEO, and author of The Aware Athlete says that mindfulness can also provide:

  • Improved clarity, attention span, and mental focus
  • Boosted self-awareness
  • Decreased anxiety and blood pressure

By “practicing mindfulness and fully living in the present moment, we foster acceptance and compassion for ourselves and others. We build our future,” Lisa adds.

Related: What is Compassion, and Why is it Important?

In this regard, she appreciates Eleanor Roosevelt’s quote:

“Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. And today? Today is a gift.”

That’s why it’s called the present!

Resilience, Connection, & Positivity

Ryan outlines that practicing mindfulness can deliver many everyday benefits, including the ability to rebound from challenges more quickly (resilience), feel more engaged and connected with our lives, and see the positive qualities in other people and experiences.

From a survival perspective, he explains that the human brain has an inherent negativity bias, which helps us seek out threats and improve our survival chances. This is “great for keeping us alive,” he says, “but not for supporting a healthy, balanced life.”

Fortunately, “mindfulness shapes an implicit sense of wellbeing,” he concludes.

Tip: For additional insight into this aspect, he recommends checking out work from Richard Davidson, a researcher studying emotion and the brain at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Mindfulness helps us relax, decrease stress and anxiety, improve focus, and boost self-awareness.

Are There Any Negative Aspects to Mindfulness?

The general scientific consensus is that if someone is relatively early in their recovery from clinical addiction or recently following an episode of major depression or severe trauma, it’s crucial to approach mindfulness cautiously.

“Sometimes, our inner world (thoughts, emotions, past trauma, physical sensations) is overwhelming,” Lisa says.

And if these experiences haven’t been processed adequately with the help of a mental health professional, we haven’t learned coping skills, and we haven’t regained some sense of inner stability, the process can “backfire and become damaging,” Ryan adds.

Therefore, he emphasizes that timing is essential when you decide to take a deep dive into mindfulness.

Our inner world can be overwhelming, so timing is essential when deciding to take a deep dive into mindfulness.

Even after you’ve found inner balance, though, Ryan recommends seeking out various support options. “It’s not that you can’t succeed. But if you’re using mindfulness as your only tool, the process could be harder than necessary,” he concludes.

Carefully approach mindfulness if you have recent trauma or clinical addiction.

How Can You Practice Mindfulness?

1. Common Mindfulness Options

Meditation—consciously quieting your mind and experiencing the present moment—is the physical expression of mindfulness. Therefore, the options for practicing it are infinite.

For example, Lisa explains this could involve merely looking around and listening to sounds, whether inside your home or outside in nature.

On a walk, you could momentarily pay attention to how the earth feels under your feet and how they move with you. Do you put your heel first, or your toes? At some point, you could stop and feel the texture of different leaves and types of bark.

2. Take it Slow

Whichever options you choose, when starting your mindfulness practice, Lisa recommends approaching it like you would a first-time marathon. “You can’t try to run 26 miles straight. You’re going to hurt yourself and give up,” she says.

Instead, “start with just a few minutes—even one minute—several times a day,” which allows you to slowly build your mindfulness without disheartening yourself during the process.

When building mindfulness, start with just a few minutes—even one minute—several times a day. Approach it as you would training for your first marathon.

3. Seek Support from Others

Ryan emphasizes that one of the most potent ingredients we have when we first start training our mind is “support from a teacher, guide, or community, which can help us navigate challenges we inevitably face.”

He says that apps can be helpful in this regard, but there’s no substitute for a live teacher who can offer “suggestions and answer questions that naturally arise.”

And although everyone is unique, we all have human minds that share similar qualities, making mindful communities a “potent ingredient for learning from others’ experiences,” he says.

There are many ways to practice mindfulness. Just start by focusing on one moment to the next.

What’s the Difference Between Mindfulness & Meditation?

How Does Mindfulness Work?

Ryan explains that “mindfulness is about awareness; purposely paying attention to the present moment.” You can engage mindfulness at any point in life, whether riding a bike, washing dishes, talking with someone, or working on a project.

What is Meditation?

Meditation is a formal practice where you set aside a specified amount of time, consciously decide to practice in one form or another (e.g., sitting, walking, etc.), and pay attention to your breath, surroundings, sounds, and bodily sensations.

Related: What the Fuck is Meditation?

Therefore, meditation is a “way to train ourselves, so we can cultivate awareness of mindfulness, which spills over into our everyday lives,” Ryan states.

“Meditation starts as a practice or an exercise,” he explains. But over time, through the mindfulness you develop, “it becomes a way of living.”

Can You be Mindful Without Meditation, & Vice-Versa?

He also emphasizes that you can’t integrate mindfulness without developing a dedicated meditation practice. “It helps you gain a sense of clarity about how your mind really works, and you start to see patterns (i.e., judgments) that aren’t useful.”

At that point, you can decide if you want to continue your old patterns or practice a new way of relating to life. And the more energy you put into your meditation practice, the more quickly—and powerfully—they’ll reveal themselves to you.

“Meditation is a way to train ourselves so we can cultivate awareness of mindfulness, which spills over into our everyday lives.”

Meditation is a formal practice that helps us cultivate mindfulness and actualize it in the real world.

Bottom Line: Mindfulness Opens You to Your Present

“This I tell you: decay is inherent in all conditioned things. Work out your own salvation, with diligence.”

Gautama Buddha

Don’t get it twisted: mindfulness isn’t a magic cure-all that’s sure to solve all of your problems.

Sure, building the skill of mindfulness allows us to open our heart to the present moment, grow our compassion, and deploy it when we face our demons.

Compared to avoidance, where we dodge unpleasant sensations by forming unhealthy habits and perspectives, mindfulness can work as a powerful force for positive change.

Like any other skill, though, it’s up to you to take the time to expand your awareness, implement mindfulness in your daily life, and gradually increase your competency.

A minute here-and-there can pay dividends down the road, so why not begin your revolution this very moment?

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