In my post about self-awareness, I talked about how I’ve come to the conclusion that self-awareness is one of the most important traits you can have, and left off with the question of: How can you build this trait?
Well, around the same time that I was looking for the answer to this question, I started to hear the term “mindfulness” pop up in a few different places. It caught my attention. I thought, “What the hell is this mindfulness?”
I didn’t begin to look into it seriously until I started hearing about “mindfulness meditation” in my clinical psychology classes as a scientifically validated intervention. I was particularly intrigued because it was being cited as helpful for some of the most difficult to treat conditions, such as addictions and borderline personality disorder. When I started to do my own research into mindfulness meditation I was surprised/impressed by all the scientifically validated benefits. For example, I found research showing that mindfulness meditation can
- Help you stop ruminating on disturbing thoughts
- Increase your ability to focus
- Improve working memory
- Help you regulate emotions
- Reduce stress
- Increase positive emotions
- Decrease negative emotions including depression and anxiety
- Make you less emotionally reactive
- Increase relationship satisfaction
… and that’s just to name a few!
If you read my post on self-awareness, you might notice a lot of overlap – It seemed I had my answer.
Now, if you’re anything like me you’ve maybe been intrigued by the idea of meditation before but never really thought you were the “meditating” type. I’m not particularly spiritual, I don’t eat tofu, or do a perfect downward facing dog. It’s hard for me to find the time to sit and read through my emails, never mind make time to just sit and…. well, do nothing. Plus I always kind of felt like people who meditated just liked to boast about it because it made them seem so deep and profound.
But with all the research I found, and my new mission to cultivate self-awareness, I figured this mindfulness stuff was worth a try. So I took the obvious next step, and searched “mindfulness meditations” on youtube. Turns out that while mindfulness meditation started as an ancient Buddhist practice, it doesn’t necessarily have to be incorporated with any specific spirituality, and it’s actually pretty approachable – even for a “non-meditator” like me! I was very quickly impressed and surprised by the positive effect I was noticing in my own life, even from just casually trying out this meditation stuff.
So What Is It?
Mindfulness: “a moment-to-moment awareness of one’s experience without judgement” (Davis & Hayes, 2012).
Mindfulness Meditation: “those self-regulation practices that focus on training attention and awareness in order to bring mental processes under greater voluntary control and thereby foster general mental well-being and development and/or specific capacities such as calmness, clarity, and concentration” (Walsh & Shapiro, 2006).
In other words mindfulness meditation is a systematic way of strengthening your ability to focus your attention in general, but also on the present moment in particular. The mind of the average person is typically occupied by ruminating on the past or worrying about the future, and thus misses the opportunity to fully experience the present, which – after all – is the only moment we’re ever living in! The objective of mindfulness is to be able to zero-in on your experience of the “now”. At the same time, mindfulness helps you become tolerant of your thoughts and less reactive to them.
Here’s a nice little intro to mindfulness from Jon Kabat-Zinn, who’s kind of “the man” when it comes mindfulness:
Harnessing this skill will enable you to be more conscious and proactive rather than reactive in your day to day life. Most of us go along our lives reacting to our mental interpretation of each experience, which is riddled with biases, defenses, and assumptions. Hence we miscommunicate with others, we misinterpret situations, we fall into negative thinking, and we make the same mistakes over and over again. With mindfulness we can catch ourselves falling into these mental traps, because we see them coming up. We can slow down, observe, and evaluate our mental processes.
So How Do You Do It?
Well it’s easier to start practicing than you might think. A good way to start is to find a quiet place, close your eyes, and try to focus your attention on your breath. The reason for this is that being conscious of the present moment is easier said than done, so it helps to start by focusing on something simple with as few distractions as possible. You don’t have to try any fancy deep breathing or anything. Just close your eyes and breathe naturally. Notice how the air feels filling your lungs, and then escaping from your nostrils.
You’ll notice quickly that your mind wanders and soon your thoughts are miles away from the breath. This doesn’t mean you’re terrible at meditating – so don’t judge yourself when this happens. In fact this is a good thing! Simply take note of where your mind has wandered off to and return your attention to your breath. It’s this process – noticing when we become distracted, and refocusing our attention – that actually builds our self-awareness. Science has actually shown that this practice increases our brain’s ability to grow new neural connections. That’s right – it grows yo damn brain! So each time you notice yourself getting distracted, think of it as a mental “rep”, like one you would do with a free-weight to build your biceps.
Gradually, as you get better at noticing your mind wander and redirecting your thoughts you will develop a greater capacity to master your internal world. You will be able to notice your full spectrum of thoughts and emotions, from your hopes and joys to fears and sorrow, and experience them without allowing yourself to be swept away by them.
This is often described as sitting on the bank of the river of consciousness, being able to observe the natural flow of your thoughts and mental processes without being caught in the middle of the river, and carried down stream without any control. You’ll be able to appreciate your thoughts and emotions as just that – just thoughts. Just events of the mind that come and go, and don’t necessarily have any truth, or need to have any concrete consequences in the real physical world. You’ll begin to realize that your thoughts do not control you, you control your thoughts.
From my personal experience, this is a very profound – and even life changing realization. That’s why I want to encourage anyone to give mindfulness meditation a try. Maybe you won’t have the same experience as myself, but with all the research backing it up – It’s worth a shot, right?!