Mindfulness - You've Gotta Start Somewhere, So Start Small
What Exactly is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness – one of the most widely used (and widely preached) mental health practices that yet remains so elusive.
So what is mindfulness, exactly? Sitting cross-legged on a pillow in complete silence? Listening to a 1-hour guided meditation on YouTube? Getting our mind to go completely blank?
None of the above.
Mindfulness is the practice of bringing your mind’s awareness to the present moment. That’s it!
Our minds tend to get caught up in ruminating on the past, or worrying about the future (or overthinking, in general). Mindfulness helps us hit the pause button and be more present in the moment, even if it’s just for a few seconds. With practice, it becomes easier to just pause and notice – and, with even more practice, we gradually learn how to quiet the constant chatter in our minds.
There are many different ways to practice mindfulness, all of them including the aspect of bringing your mind’s awareness to the present moment: noticing current thoughts and feelings, checking in with your breathing, pausing to take in what’s around you, or bringing awareness to your body sensations.
What Mindfulness Isn’t
Something that a lot of people tend to confuse with mindfulness is having a completely blank, quiet mind. If this was easy to achieve, I would be out of a job (seriously). Not only is this difficult to achieve, but having our mind reach a spaced out, zombie-like state is near impossible!
Our mind’s attention is going to be noticing something – the smell of the candle, thoughts flowing in and out of consciousness (“did I reply to that work email?”), the rumble of our stomach, a random memory from two years ago, feeling a little sleepy – in fact, being able to notice these things is proof that you’re practicing mindfulness.
So no, mindfulness is not achieving a completely blank state of “nothingness.” It’s simply the practice of bringing your mind’s awareness to the present moment.
You’ve Gotta Start Somewhere - So Start Small
I have a running joke with my clients when we’re on the topic of mindfulness – “we’re not trying to be the Dalai Lama.” The high-achieving perfectionist in them expects to nail down the whole mindfulness thing right off the bat. So I start with the basics – triangle breathing, bringing compassionate and nonjudgmental awareness to our thoughts, noticing our body sensations.
Another phrase I will frequently say: “neurons that fire together, wire together.” If your brain is used to running a million miles an hour, then naturally it’s going to take time and practice to train your brain to slow down. In fact, it took me years to get the basics down.
The whole deep breathing, noticing my body, noticing my thoughts thing? Yeah, it was a struggle. Granted, I didn’t have a consistent mindfulness practice and was not very intentional about changing my habits, but the point is: it’s okay if it takes you a while to get into the swing of things. You’ve just gotta start somewhere.
So how exactly does one start a mindfulness practice? Here are a few suggestions:
Practice triangle breathing at a regular time each day – for instance, right when you get up in the morning, during your work break, or before bed. Even doing it for a few seconds is a good start.
Begin to notice where you carry tension in your body. Do a quick “body scan” and just notice where there’s tightness, tension, energy, soreness, etc. This is helpful to pair with the triangle breathing.
Pause and practice the “five senses” – name five things you see, four things you hear, three things you can touch, two things you smell, and one thing you taste.
Engage the five senses during a short activity, such as eating an apple. For instance, notice the color and texture of the apple, notice the sensation of biting into the apple, notice how the apple smells and tastes.
Download a mindfulness app (such as “Headspace,” “Calm,” “Aura,” “Insight Timer,” or “Stop and Breathe”) and try practicing a guided meditation exercise at a regular time each day. I recommend starting small (less than five minutes), then working your way up.
If you’re a young adult looking for extra support in managing anxiety, feel free to schedule a 20-minute phone consultation to learn more about what it’s like working with me in therapy.