A Practical Look at Mindfulness
Have you heard about or done some reading on the topic of mindfulness? It is a topic that comes up regularly in our coaching and counselling programmes at Incorporate Psychology, and yes it is a modern interest area, highly relevant in this era, but it also draws upon ancient techniques and philosophies. As with most of our work here at ICP, we like to keep things as practical and straightforward as possible, so here is our take on some of the techniques that we use regularly.
So what is mindfulness?
Some have described mindfulness as a form of meditation, I have also read that mindfulness is more about directing attention to the present and being aware and connected with what we are sensing and experiencing now. We are aware of what we are sensing and thinking at that time, more so than the regrets about the past or the worries about the future.
When mindful, we are present, calm in our thinking, non-judgmental and our mind comes away from planning, problem-solving, daydreaming, or thinking negative or random thoughts that can be quite draining and add to a feeling of anxiety and stress. I have also read that mindfulness is a mental state of openness, awareness and focus, so it can be less dependent on the act of meditation. We like this definition:
“Mindfulness is paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally,” *
I won’t get caught up on the semantics of the definition, (that would not be very ‘mindful’), but rather share some practical techniques that are we have found helpful when exploring mindfulness.
*’Rewire your Brain for Love’ – Marsha Lucas, PhD
Why explore mindfulness?
People spend a lot of time thinking over what happened in the past, or planning and worrying about the future. So much so that often we actually forget to appreciate or enjoy the moment. Being mindful brings us back to the present, to life as it is happening. Being mindful helps in the following ways:
Helps us to relax
Makes it easier to concentrate
Makes us more productive
Clears the head
Makes us more aware
Slows down thinking
Helps us cope with stress
Makes us more present and available – better connections with people we care for.
So you have already started being mindful; just reading into the topic and understanding what mindfulness is, and how straightforward it is, is the important first step.
Our practical way of being mindful starts with calming down thinking and being less judgmental. Then it is time to be more present and connected with the here and now. After that it is time to be deliberate about slowing it down, be grateful for things and celebrate success and achievements.
The process sees you moving from being gripped by worry or regret and moving to a more engaged and positive way of thinking.
Calm down your thinking
Being mindful seems to be at odds with having a busy and judgmental mind. It is important to be deliberate about calming down how we think about things, slowing down so that we can think about less and do one thing at a time. Plenty of times we have recommended focusing on doing one thing at a time. The saying is to ‘single-task’, don't ‘multi-task’. So when you are eating, just eat. When you are driving, just drive. When you are talking with someone, just focus on that. There is less point to trying to knock off more things at once.
Another way to calm thinking and calm down generally is to do nothing. Yes that is it; deliberately spend a few minutes a day doing nothing. Just sit and become aware of your thoughts and focus on breathing. Give it a go, become comfortable about sitting with silence and stillness.
Calm down by focusing on the now and stopping the worries. Increase your awareness of your thinking and thought processes. Do you plan and arrange things for the future? Do regret and worry about the past? Recognise when you're doing this, and bring yourself back to the present. Just focus on what you're doing, right now. Enjoy the present moment.
Observe not judge
Another way to calm things is to use the environment to help us. Pick something you’re your environment & focus directly on it for a short period of time. Study it. If you are taking a walk then observe and study the trees and houses. The key is to not do anything except notice the thing that you are looking at. Observe it and hold back from letting your thoughts race to reasons and explanations. Just observe it.
Be more present
This is an approach to mindfulness that is less formal than meditation. Choose any task or situation to be more deliberately mindful, even more routine tasks, but one that works really well is having a conversation with someone close to you. Here are some practical tips when you are practicing being present and mindful;
Bring your attention and awareness to the sensations in your body – what you are feeling, hearing, seeing – sensing in general
Breathe slowly and deliberately, in through your nose, pulling air down through to your lower abdomen
Breathe steadily out through your mouth
Focus on the feelings of inhaling and exhaling
Focus your awareness on the task that you are doing, deliberately tracking sensations
Attend to each of the senses fully. Notice each sight, touch, and sound and be cognitively aware of each sense
If your mind wanders from the exercise, bring your attention back to the sensations of the present.
Try being deliberately present on a range of tasks, from routine tasks such as eating, or taking a walk, through to tasks that involve greater connection with others, such as talking with your partner or a young relative. One favourite is to practice being really present talking and playing with a young child.
Some call this being mindful in relationships. For example when you're talking to someone, be really deliberate about being. How many times have you spent time with a friend but have been thinking about what we have planned to do next, or thinking about something else pressing. In conversations it is easy to think more about what we want to say next rather than really listening to what they are saying. In these instances, be focussed on being present, on listening and enjoying the moment with that friend.
Slow it down
How many things can you do well at once? Can you eat food and hold a conversation at the same time? Can you put on makeup and cook simultaneously? Can you listen to your colleague and reply to that other important email? What about driving the car and doing something else with one hand on the wheel? I think a picture is emerging. I dropped my car in to the mechanic for a service recently, including having the brake pads and discs replaced. I expect that the mechanic did one thing at a time, was quite present and focussed and did not try to multi-task. Yes, not only can we do but one thing at a time well, it is also a more connected and mindful experience to do it that way.
Here is an alternate approach. Do one thing at once and take more time to do it. Focus on connecting with the task and doing it well. Instead, take your time, and move slowly. Make your actions deliberate, not rushed and random. It takes practice, but it helps you focus on the task.
Related to slowing it down, give yourself time to complete tasks. Don’t schedule things too close together so you have to rush from one meeting to another or have tasks bumping into each other. Give yourself time to process and decompress from one thing to the next and be more present and engaged.
Being grateful is cultivating your awareness of what you have you’re your distraction of what you don’t have. Mindfulness with gratitude increased the amount of positive, adaptive thinking over the negative and maladaptive thinking. It also gives a sense of being more fully alive.
There are two interesting things about gratitude, first it is self- generating. The more you practice it, the more grateful you become and the easier it is. Second, it is contagious. Ever noticed how a grateful person has something that rubs off on a group and a person who is negative in their thinking and has a righteous sense of entitlement drains energy from a room or a group.
With practice you can develop gratitude the way you can with any skill. The more you practice, the easier feeling grateful becomes. The more grateful you are for everything in your life, the more things you find to be grateful for! You begin to notice more and thereby strengthen your mindful awareness.
Having a low day? Practice some gratitude, and some lightness, hope and joy might creep in
OK stay with me here, I know this is getting pretty cheesy, and there is good reason why I don’t start with this point. If I did then you would not read on, would you? We are too busy distracted and rushed to hear anything nearly so positive and chintzy as celebrating success and using some positive thinking. Well if you interrupted me between meetings and said ‘Hey, what successes are you celebrating today?’ Well I would most likely look sideways at you and keep walking.
It makes a lot of sense though, not only from a positive psychology point of view, but also from a developmental point of view. It is why effective leaders are also very deliberate about celebrating success. And it really applies on a personal level too. So here is why we think it is so important:
It helps us learn and adapt. When we recognise what is working well and why, then we can take from that learning and apply it elsewhere, possibly replicating it in other areas.
Celebrating success develops a success mindset. Hey wouldn’t you like more of that. Whatever the goals or wherever you want to get to, success lies at the centre of achieving it.
Having a success mindset requires some cultivation. The performance psychologists and motivational speakers will assert that, techniques like visualisations and affirmations are important, but the most effective leaders focus on having a success mindset and celebrating success is a part of that.
Success fuels motivation and motivation is also connected to mindset – because we are motivated by our successes. We need to give ourselves opportunities to be successful and to notice the small things along the way.
With all of this good stuff going on, why keep it to yourself. It is not just about you or about an individual, sharing success opens all of these benefits for those around you, connected with you, to be involved. They can be motivated, learn and replicate success.
References & helpful resources
The American Mindfulness Research Association (AMRA) : https://goamra.org/
‘What are the benefits of Mindfulness?’ http://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/07-08/ce-corner.aspx
Carson, J., et al. (2004). Mindfulness-Based Relationship Enhancement. Behavior Therapy, 35, 471-494.
Singh, N., et al. (2007). Mindful Parenting Decreases Aggression and Increases Social Behavior in Children with Developmental Disabiltiies. Behavior Modification, 31(6), 749-771
Shapiro, S., et al. (2005). Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction for Health Care Professionals: Results from a Randomized Trial. International Journal of Stress Management, 12(2), 164-176.