Great question. Mindfulness is all around us, but why is it so popular? I’ll tell you why – because never before have we been more stressed, frustrated, and anxious at work. Mindfulness is a wonder drug that has no side effects. Watch this video and learn about some of the benefits that mindfulness can give, and at the end we’ll do a little bit of practice on how to begin mindfulness in your life.
Table of Contents
What is mindfulness?
If you ever watch those programs at night – at least for me they always seem to come out at night – the ads for these drugs with exotic names, and they talk about the drug and have these wonderful smiling families and dogs and cats and everyone’s playing and happy, but then at the very end there’s that disclaimer: ‘side effects may include headaches, nausea, limbs falling off, and eventually death.’ Well, today I want to talk about mindfulness. Mindfulness can help you really achieve some of those happy pictures that you see in ads like those. Mindfulness can help you be more present in the moment, to really enjoy life, to really lighten up and to let stress not be as impactful, and unlike those other drugs there really are no side effects. There are only positive effects.
It’s a good question, I suppose, to ask here “What is mindfulness?” Mindfulness has now been around in the Western world for the last 30 or 40 years, and one of the people who helped develop that was Jon Kabat Zinn, and I really love his definition of what mindfulness is. He says that “mindfulness is paying attention in the present moment, as if your life depended on it, non-judgmentally.” Let’s take that apart a little. Mindfulness is paying attention in the present moment, which means constantly coming back to the present. Let’s face it, we spend so much of our lives distracted thinking about things that are either going to happen tomorrow and the day after, things that have just happened, things that have happened in our past, or things that might never happen. Mindfulness is the leaving behind of the future, the leaving behind of the past and just being present. Being present in a certain way as if your life depended on it. That’s right. That’s the intensity of the effort to be present. Then the final element of that definition is ‘non-judgmental’. So often we have this critic going on in our head telling us ‘You’re doing this right’ ‘you’re doing this wrong’ ‘Oh my God, you’re so stupid’ ‘You’re dumb’ ‘Can you not get this right?’, and mindfulness is all about not necessarily turning off that voice, but just noticing it and refocusing. See, one of the things that mindfulness helps us do is to focus, then become aware of when we’ve gone out of focus, and coming back to that focus time and time and time again. The benefits of this are huge in our lives.
The benefits of mindfulness
So let’s focus on three sets of benefits that I want to talk about: mental, physical, and emotional. One of the things I wanted to do was compile a list of some of the benefits of mindfulness. There are more and more research projects coming out which are emphasizing some of the different benefits that come to us from mindfulness. Today I wanted to share with you a collection of some of those results. I want to break them down into three different areas.
How does mindfulness impact our physical bodies and how we feel physically? Well, here’s what some of the research says:
- Our blood pressure becomes decreased.
- What is shown in experiments is that a person who meditates is better able to modulate their stress, which has an impact on the immune system.
- A recent research study I read claimed that a subject who received the flu shot had more antibodies against the flu due to practicing mindfulness.
- Our cortisol levels, which is the ‘stress hormone’, are also reduced through the practice of mindfulness.
- Mindfulness also helps us activate our parasympathetic nervous system. Why is that important? Because so often we are stressed out, so often we are entering into a ‘fight or flight’ situation, and this is all related to what’s called the ‘sympathetic nervous system.’ Mindfulness helps us move out of that ‘fight or flight’ response and shift into a calmer demeanor.
- Finally, mindfulness can help us deal with pain. Even in some studies, pain of the most extreme type can be controlled and reduced through mindfulness.
So that’s the physical impact of mindfulness, let’s move now to the mental.
What the mental studies are showing us are that through mindfulness we are able to extend our ability to focus and to pay attention. We’re able to do that because in the mindfulness practice I mentioned at the beginning, it helps us to focus and to refocus. Often, when it comes to attention, what happens is that our mind drifts away and we have to constantly come back to focus. Mindfulness helps us focus and then refocus and begin to notice earlier when our focus has drifted away from what the task at hand is. Mindfulness helps us build our resilience – our mental resilience. People with a mindfulness practice tend to bounce back quicker from setbacks in their lives and show more resilience. Mindfulness also helps us to become more creative. It helps our divergent and convergent thinking, which generates more particular ideas and also some of the ‘big picture’ ideas.
Additionally, there are the emotional benefits that comes to us from mindfulness. What we know is that mindfulness helps us regulate emotions in a more powerful way. Now, there is no surprise there because part of emotional regulation is based on the ability to be aware of emotions in the moment. Mindfulness helps us become more deeply present to those emotions as they’re happening, and therefore offers us a space where we have more choice over what we want to do with those emotions. Studies also show that mindfulness reduces the impact of depression, loneliness, and negative self-talk. You know that little voice in the head which keeps talking to us? Well, mindfulness helps keep that at bay because we’re able to notice it and move away from it, and notice it again and move away from it. Finally, mindfulness helps increase our compassion and our levels of empathy.
How to get started
It’s pretty clear here that we have a practice that impacts us positively in the areas of our physical health, our mental health, and our emotional health. So the question is why aren’t we all doing it? And how do I get started? Well, I want to end this by showing you a little practice to start with, and give you some tips on how you might begin to introduce mindfulness into your life. Most mindfulness begins with the simple concept of our breath. You know, the breath out life force depends on each and every day. Unconsciously our body breathes and provides itself with life giving oxygen. What can truly help us to become present in the moment is to focus on that breath, to become present to the breath. So, what we want to do is start a practice of meditation. So, to start with, take maybe five minutes to begin. Just use that five minutes to focus on your breath – and what I mean by that is to find a comfortable posture, once found just focus on your breathing in, and breathing out. As you breathe in, just begin to notice what that air feels like on your nose and your nostrils. And then, as you breathe out once again, notice the air leaving your body. That’s all you do. Just focus on that breath in, and that breath out. Now, it sounds simple and yet it is so amazingly difficult to do. Try it. Even after a few seconds what we normally find is that all of a sudden our thoughts begin to enter. This is where the challenge comes, and this is really where the non-judgment comes into play. So, the practice is to begin to breathe in and to breathe out, and then all of a sudden as a thought comes, say after 10 seconds of breathing in, breathing out – the thought might be “Oh, I have that meeting today”, or “Oh and I have to pick up my son at school early today” – and instead of saying “Oh, see, you can’t do this” running to judgment, what we do is we just say “Interesting. That’s a thought.” and we just leave the thought where it is and come back in to notice our breathing in and breathing out. And we attempt to do that for five minutes. Once again, just focusing on the breath. And when we find ourselves coming up with a thought, or being distracted, we just call it what it is – a thought – and we move back into focusing once again on our breathing pattern, back and forth and back and forth. What this is doing is building within us an incredible muscle, a muscle that helps us notice when we’ve been distracted, to name it, and to move back into focus. It’s also beginning to help raise awareness within our bodies.
There are many different ways of doing meditation. We can also do a body scan, which takes that five minutes perhaps and just scans the body from top to bottom and asks the simple question “What am I feeling in this part of my body? Am I feeling tension, cold, heat?”, whatever it is. This is a great way of building up our awareness of some of the bodily impulses that we are having.
Mindfulness is an amazing practice. It not only gives us the physical, the mental, and the emotional benefits that we’ve talked about, but as well as that, it also adds to our ability to grow our emotional intelligence, and mindfulness is so connected into building a stronger emotional intelligence. It helps us build our self awareness. It helps us create a space so that when we are triggered we’re able to choose a response that is thoughtful in the midst of an emotional triggering. Mindfulness helps us create a space where we’re able to recognize others, and also creates an environment where we can be a lot more thoughtful in the relationship that we are creating, in being able to listen, in the barriers perhaps that come to our listening to the times and conversations when our attention has focused away, and then we’re able to refocus just like we are in our mindfulness meditation.
So there you have it. Mindfulness truly is a wonder drug without any side effects. I encourage you, that if you’ve never thought about adopting a mindfulness practice, that this is something you choose and to just take a few minutes of your day and begin to manage that practice. Begin with a simple breathing exercise. I promise you that without a doubt, you’ll begin to feel some of the benefits. And if mindfulness is intriguing you, then I really want you to watch the next video, which talks about using mindfulness throughout our workday to help us to be more focused and centered and to bring our emotional best selves each and every day.