“Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.”
No matter where you are in your life right now, mindfulness can transform your existence for the better. Not uncommonly, though, individuals look to mindfulness at difficult times — during a divorce or breakup, after losing a loved one or being diagnosed with a critical illness, or simply in the middle of an extra stressful period of their lives.
When we look to mindfulness for help, we’re looking for a way around the madness of life. Many of us are seeking escape, a way to avoid pain, confusion, and heartache. Fortunately, mindfulness can help heal all of these types of suffering.
Counterintuitively, however, mindfulness offers us a way through life’s difficulties, as opposed to a way around them. Rather than avoiding difficult situations, mindfulness forces us to confront our fears and anxieties in a gentle, reassuring manner. Being mindful, focusing on the present moment, and not fearing the thoughts and emotions we experience is the medicine we so desperately need in this day and age. Yet it is also the one we also try so hard to avoid.
In the guide below, we will outline everything you need to know about mindfulness and how to start a fulfilling mindfulness practice of your own. Rest assured that this practice is one of endless benefits. Once you begin, we can say with the utmost confidence that you’ll wonder why you ever waited so long to start.
There's no doubt you've already heard of mindfulness before. It's in books, magazines, blog posts, YouTube videos, and just about everywhere else. Still, many people don't know what mindfulness really is.
Often, people have some vague idea that mindfulness has something to do with meditation, Buddhism, and “staying present.” And indeed, this is true! These are all good places to start! But the truth is, mindfulness is quite a basic concept at its root. It's something you can do anytime, anywhere. To give a broad explanation of the term, we can define mindfulness as:
Maintaining focus on the present moment by staying constantly aware of the feelings, thoughts, emotions, environmental stimuli, and bodily sensations that come and go over time.
Adopting a mindfulness practice is not as complicated as you may assume it to be. Many people make the mistake of assuming that it will take hours and hours of diligent practice to become a "mindful person." In fact, you can become a "mindful person" right now — immediately! All it takes is making the decision to start.
The word mindless is often thrown around to mean acting in an aloof way or without thought. It's usually used in isolated situations in which someone does something absent-minded. But Harvard social psychology professor Ellen Langer says that many people are actually mindless most of the time. In fact, Langer herself does not exonerate herself from being mindless a well. “I once bumped into a mannequin and I apologized,” she stated in an interview with The Harvard Gazette.
In the same interview, Langer went on to say this about mindlessness:
“The consequences of being mindless are enormous, and I have 40 years of research to supply evidence that most of us are ‘not there’ much of the time. When you’re mindless, you’re not able to take advantage of opportunities that present themselves, you’re not able to avert danger not yet arisen, you’re not there and you’re oblivious to not being there.”
So, do you feel mindless in day-to-day life?
Many people would say no, but if you consider that mindlessness is actually a state of avoiding focusing on the present moment and instead focusing on either the past or the future, it's easy to see that many people are indeed mindless for large portions of their day, as Langer suggests.
Just consider how often you’re thinking about the past or the future yourself. When you are in a boring business meeting, do you find yourself thinking about what you're going to do after the meeting is over? Are you daydreaming about the delicious lunch you're going to have that afternoon or thinking about what you're going to wear that evening on a night out?
Or, let's say you’re supposed to be studying for a big exam. Are you instead thinking about a party you went to last week or wondering how you did on a previous exam you just took?
To be sure, for moments throughout the day, we are able to focus on the task at hand, but these moments are often fleeting. It's probably not uncommon for you to realize that your mind wanders more than it stays put. This isn't bad, per se. But it can have negative effects over time, and it's often more of a problem when we don't notice that our mind is wandering.
Mindfulness as a regular, daily, ongoing practice is meant to combat the wandering mind.
Practicing mindfulness on a regular basis, even just for a short time, brings a variety of amazing benefits. On the surface, it can help you heighten your focus, improve your memory and recall of information, and make you a better listener. If you are in school or have a highly challenging job, all of these skills will be especially beneficial to you.
In addition, mindfulness has been known to benefit the body physically as well. Mindfulness has been linked to pain reduction, especially for chronic pain conditions such as lower back pain, fibromyalgia, and other musculoskeletal pain.
It also improves mental and emotional health by reducing stress and anxiety. This, in turn, can reduce the occurrence of mental health conditions such as depression. Mindfulness has also been linked with better sleep. Finally, studies have even shown that mindfulness can improve and strengthen the immune system. We'll talk more about the benefits of mindfulness later on.
Anyone can practice and benefit from mindfulness — no matter your religion or denomination or whether you’re an atheist, agnostic, or practitioner of another spiritual doctrine. Mindfulness is simply a way of being.
Still, if you want to understand how mindfulness came to the Western world, we can go back more than 2,600 years, to when the Buddha became enlightened himself and first taught the wisdom of being mindful.
The Buddha — Siddhartha Gautama — called mindfulness “the path to enlightenment.” In order to spread the word of enlightenment, he asked that his senior monks (called bhikkhus) teach a doctrine called The Four Foundations of Mindfulness. When the bhikkhus asked the Buddha which four foundations they were to teach, the Buddha responded:
“Dwell contemplating the body in the body, ardent, clearly comprehending, unified, with concentrated one-pointed mind, in order to know the body as it really is.
Dwell contemplating feeling in feelings … in order to know feelings as they really are.
Dwell contemplating mind in mind … in order to know mind as it really is.
Dwell contemplating dhamma* in dhammas … in order to know dhammas as they really are.”
* By “dhamma,” the Buddha is referring to phenomena, or the total of one’s experience, including all mental events that arise within us from moment to moment.
Each of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness is generally to be seen as a “stage” of learning to be completely mindful in each and every moment. That is, the first stage is to focus on being mindful of the body. This is often done by simply focusing one’s attention on the breath. From there, the rest of the body is considered, including all sensations.
Next, feelings are examined in-depth with mindfulness practice. This includes emotions and any bodily sensations that accompany those feelings or emotions. After that, the mind and thoughts are closely examined. And finally, the totality of one's experience an all mental events are closely focused on.
Noticing Without Judgement
One of the keys to embracing mindfulness is noticing without judgment. As you progress through the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, it is important to notice each of the foundations without judging them.
This is harder than you may think. For example, if, while you are trying to be mindful and focus on the breath, your mind might wander and you may start to think of a fight that you recently had with your significant other. Because of this, you may start to feel feelings of anger, sadness, and frustration. But the goal of mindfulness and the goal of being mindful of the thoughts that arise — even while you are trying to focus on the breath — is to notice those thoughts and not judge them.
It makes sense that if you're thinking about a fight you had with your significant other, you're going to judge those thoughts and try to push them away. But the goal is not to push away thoughts, feelings, emotions, or any other sensations. The goal is to notice them, not judge them, and return your focus to your original intention.
Mindfulness as a practice has its origins in Buddhism, so how did this practice get all the way from Eastern philosophy to the yoga studios, schools, and hospitals of North America, Europe, and elsewhere? Most people credit a man named Jon Kabat-Zinn.
Of course, there were many others who helped transition mindfulness to the Western World as well, but Kabat-Zinn was a visionary in the world of mindfulness before most Americans had ever heard of the term.
In 1971, Kabat-Zinn was studying meditation. Later, in the late ‘70s, he began undertaking his postdoctoral work at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, and in 1979, he finally decided to take his training and practice in meditation to the next level by bringing all he knew to Americans who were struggling with chronic anxiety, stress, depression, and other mental health conditions. He did so by establishing the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Clinic at the Medical School at the University of Massachusetts — the first of its kind.
By bridging the gap between the Eastern philosophy of mindfulness and the desperate need for more mindful living in the Western world, Kabat-Zinn became a pioneer in helping Americans and other Westerners fight the 21st century plague of chronic stress. His introduction of these philosophies started a host of other gateways from East to West — through books, Eastern speakers, meditation centers, retreats, and more.
Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Clinic at the Medical School at the University of Massachusetts continues to go strong.
Most people who begin practicing mindfulness are apprehensive. After all, mindfulness claims many benefits, but how can simply focusing on the present be so pervasively helpful?
In fact, time and again, science backs the idea that mindfulness will make you healthier, stronger, wiser, calmer, and better at basically … everything ... you want to accomplish.
Here’s how mindfulness can help you:
According to researchers at Harvard, 16.1 million Americans reported struggling with depression in 2015. Yet while there are numerous interventions available, including medication and cognitive behavioral therapy, not all patients respond well to these solutions.
Mindfulness, on the other hand, has proven to be amazing at improving mental health, and a growing body of research supports this. A systematic review and meta-analysis of systematic reviews found that, “Compared to wait list control and compared to treatment as usual, MBSR [mindfulness-based stress reduction] and MBCT [mindfulness-based cognitive therapy] significantly improved depressive symptoms.”
A recent 2018 study showed that undertaking a mindfulness practice for just 15 minutes a day helped lower blood pressure in participants. Those who regularly partook in mindfulness meditation over a period of eight weeks also showed improved glucose metabolism, better inflammation regulation, and regulated circadian rhythms.
Jon Kabat-Zinn is especially well-known for linking mindfulness to a reduction in stress and anxiety as he heads the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Through the center, people from all walks of life, with a wide array of challenges, undergo mindfulness programs to help them "approach ... life with more composure, energy, understanding, and enthusiasm."
Additionally, in a 2013 Massachusetts General Hospital study, it was found that after undergoing an eight week mindfulness-based stress reduction program, participants found that they had greatly reduced their anxiety, compared to the control group who did not undergo the same mindfulness program, but instead underwent generalized stress management education.
Overall, mindfulness practice is also shown to increase gray matter in the mid mind, which has been linked to higher IQ scores, improved focus and concentration, and superior communication skills.
If you are interested in integrating mindfulness into your everyday life and becoming more mindful in every aspect of your life, the good news is that it's easier than you think!
In fact, you can teach yourself to be mindful all day, every day if you like. Mindfulness is the practice in Buddhist teaching — essentially everything is mindfulness. The simple goal is to focus on the task at hand with mindful awareness. No matter the task, you stay fully aware and focused. Your attention is entirely on whatever you are doing — whether it's folding laundry, cooking, playing with your children, working on a report for school, or just taking a walk.
Below, we outline the basic tenets of mindfulness to get you started.
Focus on the Breath
You don't always have to focus on the breath to be mindful, but it's a good place to start — especially if you want to stay in line with the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. In this case, focusing on the breath would fall under the first foundation: mindfulness of the body.
Your body is always breathing. It is the most important function of your body that you don't even have to think about. Still, you can control your breath — how fast or slow it is, how deep or shallow it is, and at what pace you breathe.
To focus on the breath, think about the air going slowly into your mouth or nostrils, filling up your lungs, and slowly flowing out again as you exhale. Count to 4 on the in-breath. Count to 4 again as you hold the air in your lungs, and finally count to 4 as you exhale.
Notice Thoughts and Emotions Without Judgement
See your thoughts and emotions come and go without judging them. Remember that the goal of mindfulness is not to avoid thinking or feeling anything. You are not trying to cultivate an “empty mind” or complete clarity here. Your mind will wander, and you should expect that. Simply notice when it does, and tell yourself that it's happening.
For example, if you find yourself ruminating about yesterday’s meeting with a client, you might say silently to yourself, “thinking about meeting” or “worrying about meeting.” Or, if you, all of a sudden, become sad when you remember a fond memory, you might say silently to yourself, “feeling sad about X memory.” If you suddenly feel excited about a date you have in the evening, tell yourself, “feeling excited about tonight’s date.” After each of these nonjudgmental statements, return your focus to the breath and the current moment.
Notice Bodily Sensations Without Judgement
Notice how your body feels at the current moment. At what points is your body touching the ground or the chair you're sitting in? Notice the sensation of the material you are sitting or standing on. How do your toes feel in your socks? How do your shoulders feel? Can you feel a rumble in your stomach? Feel the expansion of your abdomen as your lungs inhale. Notice each of these sensations without judgment.
Notice Sights, Sounds, and Smells Without Judgement
Do you have a specific taste in your mouth or scent in your nose? Where is the scent coming from? What do you hear? Is it the sound of a truck passing by? The wind wafting through tree branches? Are you talking to someone? Listen to what they are saying, but also think about the timbre of their voice. Look at their face, and notice their skin, the softness of their hair, and how their lips move when they speak. Notice each of these sensations without judgment.
Learn to “Surf” Your Urges
Lastly, if you feel any "urges,” learn to “surf them." This means learning to ride out immediate urges such as needing to scratch an itch on your nose or getting up to get a drink of water. These aren't bad actions, but when you want to hone your ability to focus on one thing at a time, you must learn to disregard urges like these — not forever, of course. This is why we say you need to learn to “surf” your urges, or to ride them out until you're finished with your moment to moment practice.
Don't rush to get everything folded quickly. This activity is all that you're doing right now, and it deserves your full attention. Take care with each motion and action. Line up the corners on the towels nicely. Organize your folding into neat stacks of like kinds of towels. Pick off lint and put it into a pile.3. Enjoy the experience.
Take pleasure in what you're doing. Are the towels warm and cozy from recently being in the dryer? Feel the warm fibers on your fingertips. Feel them against your cheek. Smell the fresh scent of your laundry detergent. Enjoy stacking all of the towels in a neat and organized pile, all ready for your linen closet.4. When your mind wanders (and it will), simply notice it without judgment, and bring it back to the task at hand.
You will inevitably begin to think about what you're going to do later this evening, how you should probably buy new towels because these are getting old, or what you'd rather be doing other than folding towels. That's okay! The goal here is, once again, to simply notice your mind wandering, tell yourself where your mind is wandering to (silently think to yourself, "I'm thinking about what to have for dinner tonight," for example), and bring your focus back to the current moment and what you're doing: folding laundry.
Most people see their "mind wandering" as a bad thing. Daydreamers are seen as foolish and unsuccessful. But the truth is minds do wander, and it's okay to let them. The key is to rein in your thoughts and teach your mind to notice when it wanders, before returning to the present moment. It's a freeing experience.2. Learn to be boring.
People often make the mistake of assuming that their lives need to be eternally and consistently exciting. This feeling is exacerbated by social media, in which we see all of our friends, family members, celebrities, and random other people enjoying exciting activities seemingly every day. FOMO or the “fear of missing out” is a phrase that refers to this sensation that if you're not hang gliding, windsurfing, jetting off to Europe, or getting married, you're not really living life.
This couldn't be further from the truth. By learning to "be boring," you are not accepting a boring lifestyle. You are not telling yourself not to enjoy a fulfilling life. Rather, you are seeing excitement and thrill in the brilliant "everyday" moments of life. This is a wonderful way to exist.3. Slow down.
This is a great reminder to write on Post-it notes and keep at your desk, on your refrigerator, or on your bathroom mirror. The two simple words, slow down, help us to remember to take life one moment at a time. Everyone's life is a journey. You cannot “win” life. Simply take it moment by moment and learn to enjoy the ride.
A: Generally speaking, mindfulness is a state of being, and meditation is a deliberate practice — almost like an activity. You can use mindfulness at any time while doing absolutely any activity. You cannot meditate any time, however. Meditation is more like sleeping. It's an activity that is meant to somewhat alter your state of mind. While mindfulness does alter your state of mind as well, it does not do so as drastically. Rather it's like putting a “mindful filter” on whatever it is you're doing at any given moment.
A: While it is certainly easier than you think to become mindful every day, on a regular basis, it's also not necessary to attempt to be mindful 24/7/365 right away. Mindfulness practice can certainly be achieved at a maximum level, in which you are basically mindful throughout every activity that you do throughout the day. But if you want to go slowly and simply start by being mindful while you wash the dishes or mindful while you exercise, that's a great place to begin. Slowly, build your focus, attention, and capacity for mindfulness, and you'll begin to see amazing results in time.
A: When your life is extremely hectic and busy, the best way to stay mindful is to simply carry out one activity at a time.
One of the pitfalls that many people encounter when they are super busy is that they try to do too many things at once. If you feel that your life is hectic and crazy, reflect on whether you are trying to do multiple activities at one time. For example, are you responding to emails on your lunch hour? Taking conference calls on your drive home from work? Watching TV while you talk with your family in the evening?
Sometimes, life gets hectic, and it's unavoidable. If you want to stay mindful during these difficult times, the first thing to do is to tell yourself: one thing at a time. By focusing on a single task at a time, you are absolutely embodying the spirit of mindfulness.
A: There are several ways to cultivate mindfulness at work. First, try not to multitask. Focus on one task at a time. Second, when it's time to rest, rest. In other words, when it's your lunch hour, don't continue working. Instead, treat your lunch hour as what it really is: a time to eat. Focus on your food, how it tastes, and all of the textures and smells you experience.
When working with others, listen. Focus on the person who is speaking and give them your full attention before responding.
Lastly, take breaks from technology. Although helpful in many ways, devices like smart phones and tablets are not conducive to consistent mindfulness because they scatter our focus and keep us from truly living and experiencing the world around us.
A: The best way to teach your child any important life skill is to lead by example. When your children see you focusing on one task at a time, giving your full attention to whatever you are doing, and staying in the present moment, they will learn to do the same.
Are you ready to try the practice of mindfulness for yourself? It’s easier than you think to begin.
For starters, remember that everyone has the capacity to change, learn, and grow — no matter what your goals are. Whether you start tomorrow, next week, or right now, the only thing potentially holding you back is yourself and the limitations you create.
Also remember that if you start a mindfulness practice and you don’t “feel anything” right away, that’s normal. Mindfulness practice is not like taking a pill. It’s not black and white, and you won't suddenly become a brand-new person when you start to live more in the present. Instead, you must be patient, trust the process, and keep returning to the practice. Over time, you’ll begin to see small at first, and then bigger and bigger changes in your life as a whole. The good news is that these changes will only be positive. There are no downsides to mindfulness practice.
Also remember that there’s no “achieving” mindfulness. It’s not something like graduating from college or buying a house. You can’t "finish" mindfulness or "win" mindfulness.
Instead, like so many things in life, mindfulness is a journey that you’ll be on for the rest of your life. And that’s a good thing, really, because it’s a journey with endless benefits. By constantly nurturing the practice of mindfulness, you’ll be nurturing your soul’s freedom, providing space for your mind and heart to breathe, and embracing the fact that life is ever-changing and ever-evolving. And that’s the way it’s supposed to be.