You’ve probably heard people talking about mindfulness, maybe in connection with self-care or meditation. But have you noticed it’s a lot harder to get anyone to just break down what on earth it means? This guide will explain what mindfulness is, why it matters, and how you can start practising it.
What is mindfulness?
People probably avoid defining mindfulness because it’s actually kind of difficult to describe. On the most basic level, mindfulness is about becoming fully aware of what’s going on in yourself and your surroundings. You might hear people talk about ‘cultivating awareness,’ and that’s what they mean.
It sounds simple, but it’s harder than it seems. Mindfulness can begin as just pausing to appreciate the present moment: the sounds, the smells, the light around you. But it also goes deeper, becoming aware of your own body and your subtle, even instinctive reactions to the things that are happening in your life. Have you ever gotten a headache, and only then noticed that you’ve been sitting with your shoulders up around your ears for hours - or didn’t realise you were upset about something until you started talking about it with a friend? With mindfulness, you practise becoming aware of and staying in touch with your body so you can notice and understand what’s happening inside of yourself, rather than letting your mind and body take you by surprise.
Why can practising mindfulness help?
Mindfulness isn’t just about appreciating the world around you - it actually can have direct benefits for your physical and mental health. It’s been found to help with stress, anxiety, and depression. That means it can help make you happier in general, but also is a great tool specifically for when you’re going through a difficult or stressful time.
As far as wellness techniques go, mindfulness is one of the most simple to implement, even though it isn’t always easy to do. The aim is to slow down, get grounded, and be present.
How can I start practising mindfulness?
Almost any simple activity can be turned into a mindfulness practice. As long as you’re not having to think about anything complex - like solving a maths problem, for example. Here are some ways you can set aside just a couple of minutes of your day to practice mindfulness:
- Get grounded outdoors by going for a walk or getting into nature. When you’re out there, really try to pay attention to your senses, the different shades of green, the different sounds and smells, or the way your steps feel.
- Colouring books, painting, and other creative exercises can be great. To do this mindfully, pick a simple creative task (eg: I’m going to colour half of the squares blue) and concentrate on it rather than letting your mind wander.
- Mindful eating encourages you to focus on tasting and chewing food slowly so that you really savour the eating experience.
If you try to be fully present in what you’re doing and understand all the sensations it’s creating in your body and mind, without letting your thoughts wander, then you are practicing mindfulness.
If you need a bit of help to get you started, meditation apps can be good:
- Subscriptions on mindfulness apps like Calm, or HeadSpace
- The body scan and other guided meditations on Youtube
Mindfulness: the basics
If you want to give mindfulness a try, here’s a basic exercise you can try out.
- Find a comfortable and relaxing position to sit. Choose somewhere you won’t be disturbed - and won’t immediately fall asleep!
- Notice your body and try and relax it. Think about how it feels; the shape and weight of it. Notice any sensations you feel. Let yourself relax.
- Think about your breathing. Your breath will naturally flow in and out, so pay attention to how this feels. Where can you feel it? What does it feel like?
- As you sit and focus on your breathing, you’ll probably find that your mind starts to wander. This is fine and totally natural. When you notice thoughts cropping up, acknowledge that your mind has wandered. Redirect your attention back to your breath.
- Stay like this for five to seven minutes, focusing on your breathing and steering your attention back to it. After a few minutes, pay attention once again to how your body feels. Let yourself relax even more and notice the sensations you experience.
That’s all there is to it. Although it sounds simple, you’ll find that it’s harder than it seems. Don’t worry, though - you don’t have to get it perfect the first time, or ever. It’s called a ‘practise’ because there’s no end product, no day when you finally graduate mindfulness school and do it perfectly - your relationship to mindfulness will change and grow constantly.
Good stuff from elsewhere
Headspace, a mindfulness app with free and paid options
A short mindfulness breathing exercise
How to get started with mindfulness