The popularity of mindfulness in the western world has skyrocketed in recent years. It’s on the cover of magazines and appears on the evening news. Celebrities swear by it, scientists study it, monks still practice it and business leaders use it to thwart burnout.
As mindfulness becomes a buzzword in our modern world, its meaning has grown increasingly murky. So what, exactly, is it? Mindfulness means maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment, through a gentle, nurturing lens. It also involves acceptance, meaning that we pay attention to our thoughts and feelings without judging them—without a belief, for instance, that there is a “right” or “wrong” way to think or feel in a given moment. It’s really the art and practice of living in the present moment, deliberately.
For most of us, living in the past and the future is more common than living in the present. We obsess about past failures and regrets or imagine being happy in the future, rather than now. Or perhaps our thoughts of the future are fraught with anxiety and worries. In either case, when we are focused on the past or future, we are not living life, which can only be lived moment to moment in the present. A key ingredient of a mindfulness practice is the idea that thoughts and feelings are fleeting. We have thoughts and feelings but they do not define us. The real you is the one who has an awareness and says “oh, I’m having a thought or a feeling.”
Mindfulness has its roots in Buddhism but has entered the mainstream in North America, in part through the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn who has studied mindfulness in the context of physical and mental illness for decades.
Kabat-Zinn says that the Chinese character for mindfulness includes two symbols meaning “presence” and “heart.” Thus, mindfulness is about presence of heart – being fully and wholly present, in mind, body and heart.
Dr. Kabat-Zinn and many other researchers have shown that mindfulness can help with:
Our physical bodies, including boosting our immune system, easing pain and improving function, improving fatigue, sleep quality, reducing blood pressure, improving symptoms associated with irritable bowel syndrome;
Our mental wellbeing including improving outlook to become more optimistic and reducing stress;
Improving symptoms of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress;
The way our brains function to improve memory, concentration, empathy, and emotional regulation;
Learning, attention and our ability to focus.
There are lots of good reasons to practice mindfulness but like everything else, it takes time, practice, and patience to reap the benefits. Many of the studies that have been done involve 30-45 minutes of practice daily for up to 8 weeks. However, it is possible to begin mindfulness with more informal, brief practices that are also helpful.
What You Need to Know Before You Start Practicing Mindfulness
You don’t need to buy anything. You can practice anywhere, there’s no need to go out and buy a special cushion or bench—all you need is to devote a little time and space to accessing your mindfulness skills every day.
There’s no way to quiet your mind. That’s not the goal here. There’s no bliss state or otherworldly communion. All you’re trying to do is pay attention to the present moment, without judgment. Sounds easy, right?
Your mind will wander. As you practice paying attention to what’s going on in your body and mind at the present moment, you’ll find that many thoughts arise. Your mind might drift to something that happened yesterday, meander to your to-do list—your mind will try to be anywhere but where you are. But the wandering mind isn’t something to fear, it’s part of human nature and it provides the magic moment for the essential piece of mindfulness practice—the piece that researchers believe leads to healthier, more agile brains: the moment when you recognize that your mind has wandered. Because if you can notice that your mind has wandered, then you can consciously bring it back to the present moment. The more you do this, the more likely you are to be able to do it again and again. And that beats walking around on autopilot any day (ie: getting to your destination without remembering the drive, finding yourself with your hand in the bottom of a chip bag you only meant to snack a little from, etc.)
Your judgy brain will try to take over. The second part of the puzzle is the “without judgment” part. We’re all guilty of listening to the critic in our heads a little more than we should. (That critic has saved us from disaster quite a few times.) But, when we practice investigating our judgments and diffusing them, we can learn to choose how we look at things and react to them. When you practice mindfulness, try not to judge yourself for whatever thoughts pop up. Notice judgments arise, make a mental note of them (some people label them “thinking”), and let them pass, recognizing the sensations they might leave in your body, and letting those pass as well.
It’s all about returning your attention again and again to the present moment. It seems like our minds are wired to get carried away in thought. That’s why mindfulness is the practice of returning, again and again, to the breath. We use the sensation of the breath as an anchor to the present moment. And every time we return to the breath, we reinforce our ability to do it again. Call it a bicep curl for your brain.
5 Simple Practices for Your Day-to-Day Life
Here are 5 simple mindfulness practices that you can incorporate and breathe space into your day-to-day activities and routines, which can offer tons of opportunity to call up mindfulness at any moment.
1. Start your day with a purpose/intention
Intention refers to the underlying motivation for everything we think, say, or do. From the brain’s perspective, when we act in unintended ways, there’s a disconnect between the faster, unconscious impulses of the lower brain centers and the slower, conscious, wiser abilities of the higher centers like the pre-frontal cortex.
Given that the unconscious brain is in charge of most of our decision-making and behaviours, starting your day by setting your intention can help you align your conscious thinking with a primal emotional drive that the lower centers care about. Beyond safety, these include motivations like reward, connection, purpose, self-identity and core values.
Setting an intention—keeping those primal motivations in mind—helps strengthen this connection between the lower and higher centers. Doing so can change your day, making it more likely that your words, actions and responses—especially during moments of difficulty—will be more mindful and compassionate.
A good example of an intention is, “Today I will be kind to myself; be patient with others; give generously; stay grounded; persevere; have fun; eat well,” or anything else that you feel is important.
2. Enjoy every bite
It’s easy enough to reduce eating to a sensation of bite, chew, and swallow. Who hasn’t eaten a plateful of food without noticing what they’re doing? Yet eating is one of the most pleasurable experiences we engage in as human beings, and doing it mindfully can turn eating into a far richer experience, satisfying not just the need for nutrition, but more subtle senses and needs.
When we bring our full attention to our bodies and what we are truly hungry for, we can nourish all our hungers. So how do you do this?
Breath before eating. We often move from one task right to the other without pausing or taking a breath. By pausing, we slow down and allow for a more calm transition to our meals. Bring your attention inward by closing your eyes, and begin to breathe slowly in and out of your belly for eight to 10 deep breaths before you start your meal.
Listen to your body. After breathing, bring your awareness to the physical sensations in your belly. On a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being that you don’t feel any physical sensation of hunger and 10 being that you feel very hungry, ask yourself “How hungry am I?” What physical sensations tell you that you are hungry or not hungry (emptiness in stomach, shakiness, no desire to eat, stomach growling, etc.)? Try not to think about when you last ate or what time it is, and really listen to your body, not your thoughts.
Eat according to your hunger. Now that you are more in touch with how hungry you are, you can more mindfully choose what to eat, when to eat, and how much to eat. This simple practice can help you tune in to your real needs.
Practice peaceful eating. At your next meal, slow down and continue to breathe deeply as you eat. It’s not easy to digest or savour your food if you aren’t relaxed.
If you don’t love it, don’t eat it. Take your first three bites mindfully, experience the taste, flavours, textures, and how much enjoyment you are receiving from a certain food. Make a mindful choice about what to eat based on what you really enjoy. Selecting healthy, nutrient dense foods is important but so is loving what you eat. Eating should be a pleasurable activity in your day.
3. Rewire your brain
It’s estimated that 95% of our behaviour runs on autopilot—something I call “fast brain.” That’s because neural networks underlie all of our habits, reducing our millions of sensory inputs per second into manageable shortcuts so we can function in this crazy world. These default brain signals are like signalling superhighways, so efficient that they often cause us to relapse into old behaviours before we remember what we meant to do instead.
Mindfulness is the exact opposite of these processes; it’s slow brain. It’s executive control rather than autopilot, and enables intentional actions, willpower, and decisions. But that takes some practice. The more we activate the slow brain, the stronger it gets. Every time we do something deliberate and new, we stimulate neuroplasticity, activating our grey matter, which is full of newly sprouted neurons that have not yet been groomed for the fast brain.
But here’s the problem. While my slow brain knows what is best for me, my fast brain is causing me to shortcut my way through life. So how can we trigger ourselves to be mindful when we need it most? This is where the notion of “behaviour design” comes in. It’s a way to put your slow brain in the driver’s seat. There are two ways to do that—first, slowing down the fast brain by putting obstacles in its way, and second, removing obstacles in the path of the slow brain, so it can gain control.
Shifting the balance to give your slow brain more power takes some work, though. Here some ways to get started:
Fall over what you intend to do. If you intend to do some yoga or to meditate, put your yoga mat or your meditation cushion in the middle of your floor so you can’t miss it as you walk by.
Refresh your triggers regularly. Say you decide to use sticky notes to remind yourself of a new intention. That might work for about a week, but then your fast brain and old habits take over again. Try writing new notes to yourself; add variety or make them funny so they stick with you longer.
Create new patterns. You could try a series of “If this, then that” messages to create easy reminders to shift into slow brain. For instance, you might come up with, “If office door, then deep breath,” as a way to shift into mindfulness as you are about to start your workday. Or, “If phone rings, take a breath before answering.” Each intentional action to shift into mindfulness will strengthen your slow brain.
4. Mind and muscle activation
Riding a bike, lifting weights, sweating it out on a treadmill—what do such exercises have in common? For one thing, each can be a mindfulness practice. Whatever the physical activity—dancing the Tango, taking a swim, going for a walk—instead of simply working out to burn calories, master a skill, or improve condition, you can move and breathe in a way that not only gets your blood pumping and invigorates every cell in your body, but also shifts you from feeling busy and distracted to feeling strong and capable.
Ready? The following steps, good for any activity, will help you synchronize the body, mind, and nervous system. As you do, you will strengthen your capacity to bring all of your energy to the task at hand.
Be clear about your aim. As you tie your laces or pull on your gardening gloves, bring purpose to your activity by consciously envisioning how you want to guide your session. As you climb on your bike you might say, “I am going to breathe deeply and notice the sensation of the breeze and the sun and the passing scenery.” As you enter the pool, you might say, “I’m going to pay attention to each stroke, and the sound and feel of the water surrounding me.”
Do a 5 minute dynamic warm up. Try any simple moves— jumping jacks, stretching— and concentrate on matching the rhythm of your breath to your movement. By moving rhythmically, your brain activity, heart rate, and nervous system begin to align and stabilize.
Settle into a rhythm. For 10 to 15 minutes, pick up the intensity, but continue to coordinate your breath and movement. If you have trouble doing this, then simply focus on your breathing for a few minutes. Eventually you’ll find your groove.
Challenge yourself. Try faster speed, more repetitions, or heavier weights, depending on what you are doing for another 10 to 15 minutes. Notice how alert and alive you feel when pushing yourself.
Do a 5 minute cool down. Steadily slow down your pace until you come to a standstill. Notice the way your body feels. Drink in your surroundings.
Rest for 5 minutes. Quietly recognize the symphony of sensations flowing in and around you. Practice naming what you feel and sense. Chances are you’ll feel awake and alive from head to toe.
5. Practice being grateful
The benefits of practicing gratitude are nearly endless. People who regularly practice gratitude by taking time to notice and reflect upon the things they're thankful for experience more positive emotions, feel more alive, sleep better, express more compassion and kindness, and even have stronger immune systems. And gratitude doesn't need to be reserved only for momentous occasions: Sure, you might express gratitude after receiving a promotion at work, but you can also be thankful for something as simple as a delicious piece of pie. Research by UC Davis psychologist Robert Emmons, author of Thanks!: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier, shows that simply keeping a gratitude journal—regularly writing brief reflections on moments for which we’re thankful—can significantly increase well-being and life satisfaction.
You’d think that just one of these findings is compelling enough to motivate an ingrate into action. But for the average person, this motivation lasts about three days until writing in a gratitude journal every evening loses out to watching stand-up comics on Netflix.
Here are a few keys I’ve discovered—and research supports—that help not only to start a gratitude practice, but to maintain it for the long haul:
Notice new things you’re grateful for. The best way to reap the benefits of gratitude is to notice new things you’re grateful for every day. Gratitude journaling works because it slowly changes the way we perceive situations by adjusting what we focus on. While you might always be thankful for your great family, just writing “I’m grateful for my family” week after week doesn’t keep your brain on alert for fresh grateful moments. Get specific by writing “Today my spouse gave me a shoulder rub when they knew I was really stressed” or "My best friend did a FaceTime call with me today when I really needed a human connection." And be sure to stretch yourself beyond the great stuff right in front of you. Opening your eyes to more of the world around you can deeply enhance your gratitude practice. Make a game out of noticing new things each day.
Keep it real! Being excited about the benefits of gratitude can be a great thing because it gives us the kick we need to start making changes. But if our excitement about sleeping better because of our newfound gratitude keeps us from anticipating how tired we’ll be tomorrow night when we attempt to journal, we’re likely to fumble and lose momentum. When we want to achieve a goal, using the technique of mental contrasting—being optimistic about the benefits of a new habit while also being realistic about how difficult building the habit may be – leads us to exert more effort. Recognize and plan for the obstacles that may get in the way. For instance, if you tend to be exhausted at night, accept that it might not be the best time to focus for a few extra minutes and schedule your gratitude in the morning instead.
Mix it up! University of Rochester partners Edward Deci and Richard Ryan study intrinsic motivation, which is the deep desire from within to persist on a task. One of the biggest determinants is autonomy, the ability to do things the way we want. So don’t limit yourself—if journaling is feeling stale, try out new and creative ways to track your grateful moments. One was is to create a gratitude jar. Any time you experience a poignant moment of gratitude, write it on a piece of paper and put it in a jar. You can make it an annual thing and on New Year’s Eve, empty the jar and review everything you wrote. Imagine the positive feelings you will feel reviewing your annual moments of gratitude and starting your New Year off with these positive vibes? You’ll eventually get into the habit when a good thing happens, to exclaim, “That’s one for the gratitude jar!” It immediately makes the moment more meaningful and keeps you on the lookout for more.
Socialize your practice. Our relationships with others are the greatest determinant of our happiness. So it makes sense to think of other people as we build our gratitude. By focusing our gratitude on people for whom we’re thankful rather than circumstances or material items it will enhance the benefits we experience. And while you’re at it, why not include others directly into your expression of gratitude? One way to do this is by writing a gratitude letter to someone who had an impact on you whom you’ve never properly thanked. You could also share the day’s grateful moments around the dinner table. The conversations that follow may give you even more reasons to give thanks.
Need help getting started with a mindfulness practice? Download my free 14-day app-based Mindful Intentions Program.