Mindfulness is much talked about during the pandemic, but it has these been around for thousands of years. Mindfulness can be a formal or informal practice that is woven into our day. While it does not need to involve a quiet sitting meditation, that can be a good way to get some practice. Mindfulness certainly does not require us to push away thoughts or negative feelings; in fact, it is about being aware of what is happening in the moment and bringing awareness to our feelings, thoughts, sensations and environments.
Simply put, mindfulness has three parts:
- Intention: Set an intention for what you want to put your attention on – for example, the breath or the sounds of nature as you walk or the feeling of warm water on your hands as you wash them.
- Attention: Notice where your attention is. If it is not on your intention, can you gently bring it back to your intention?
- Attitude: How are you handling it when your attention wonders? How do you speak to yourself? Can you let go of judgements?
What does formal mindfulness look like?
When we plan time to do a mindfulness meditation, that is a formal practice. To do a mindfulness meditation, we can be in any position. We are typically sitting, standing, lying or walking. We then choose a focus (intention) such as the breath, sounds in the room or sensations in the body. We notice where our attention is and bring it back to our intention as often as needed. In fact, the bringing back of our attention is the practice, and sometimes we have hundreds of opportunities in a short meditation. This is best done for a fixed amount of time.
Mindfulness is about increasing our awareness of what is present now. That means that it is not necessarily relaxing. However, over time, the practice can help us manage stressful or painful situations with more skill.
What does informal mindfulness look like?
If we are simply doing our daily activities with a mindfulness attitude, that is an informal practice. Mindful doing is the practice of paying attention to the present moment. This means connecting to an activity and curiously noticing what is happening around and within you with your senses while doing it, without judgement. It can be a way to practise slowing yourself down to experience the world around you in more detail. How does an orange feel under your thumb as you start to peel it? What is the smell of the food you are eating? What is the texture like in your mouth? What do the bubbles look like as you wiggle your fingers together when washing your hands? What are the sounds like as you pull a tap on to start a shower? What is something you notice about your experience in the present moment while sitting at a red light or in a waiting room – what is there to notice?
What are the benefits of mindfulness?
There is significant research evidence of the benefits of mindfulness practice for people dealing with stress, pain, sleep difficulties, mood disorders and focus issues. For example, research has shown a decrease in sleep difficulties among women in mid-life who have a more mindful attitude, and women going through perimenopause were shown to have decreased mood difficulties after participating in a mindfulness course.
How do I start?
For most people, it is helpful to establish a formal mindfulness practice. This can help build “mindfulness muscles” and make it easier to bring a mindful attitude to other parts of the day. Perhaps set aside a few minutes each day to start investigating your breathing. Can you notice when the inhale changes to exhale? Where do you feel your breathing?
As an initial informal practice, choose one short activity in your day and bring your full attention to it. The opportunities for mindfulness practice are truly endless!
It is important to realize that while mindfulness is simple, it is not easy. Putting it into practice can make us realize that we have more fatigue, pain or difficult emotions than we realized. It can be hard to find the time and space for it and to know what to try. The research outlining positive benefits is based on people who have participated in an eight-week course with a trained teacher two hours a week while also practising at home. While you can begin the practice now, you may benefit from a course that allows you to ask questions and bring up challenges.
Sarah Good is an occupational therapist and mindfulness teacher in the Glebe who supports people struggling with pain, mood issues or sleep difficulties. (sarahgoodot.ca)