UA Matters: What is Mindfulness, and How Can I Cultivate it?
This is the second in a three-part series on chronic stress and how to lower stress levels using mindfulness techniques.
Mindfulness has become a popular buzz word, but it can be difficult to understand until you have tried it yourself. Mindfulness and contemplative practices have been in existence for thousands of years.
They have risen in popularity in Western culture since being adapted for secular use and an upsurge in research documenting the vast benefits of mind-body practices for health and well-being.
The University of Alabama’s Dr. Caroline Boxmeyer explains how mindfulness and contemplative practices can improve overall health and well-being.
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is a way of training your brain to “live in the moment” more fully. We spend much of our time thinking about events that have already happened or worrying about the future.
It takes tremendous mental effort to focus more fully on what is going on within and around us at any given moment. Doing so is a skill that can be developed with practice. Thus, mindfulness is both:
- A practice, in which you set aside time regularly to practice noticing the present moment. You can do so by spending a few minutes each day paying focused attention to something specific, such as the sensation of your breathing in and out, noticing how your body is feeling, the thoughts that cross your mind or how your food tastes and smells. When your attention wanders from what you are trying to focus on (and it will), simply notice this and direct your attention back to the target (this process is often called the “magic moment” of mindfulness).
- A way of being. As you become more skilled at paying attention in this way, you will experience life in richer detail, by really noticing in-the-moment sensations, such as the soft texture of a blanket, the sour taste of a lemon, the good feeling you get while sharing a laugh with a friend, the hurt feeling you get when someone puts you down or the dampness of your skin on a humid day. You may also become more open to accepting your experiences just as they are, rather than trying to change or control them.
A myth about mindfulness meditation is that it requires you to be able to clear your mind of all thoughts. In fact, when we practice mindfulness, we typically notice just the opposite, that our minds are constantly swirling with all kinds of thoughts, worries and distractions (this state is called “monkey mind”).
With practice, we can move toward “quiet mind,” in which our mind is calmer, more focused on the present, more accepting of our experiences as they are and better able to savor positive moments.
Noticing Without Judgment
Another important aspect of mindfulness is noticing without judgment. We can be very harsh critics of ourselves and others. Mindfulness can help us practice observing without judging.
For example, I might notice myself thinking, “I am terrible at meditating. I am supposed to be paying attention to my breathing, but I keep thinking about what I need to prepare in order to teach class later. Everyone else is better at meditating than I am.”
Once I notice this thought, I can adapt it to be more descriptive and less judgmental, such as “I am finding it difficult to keep my attention focused on my breathing today. I keep wanting to plan instead.”
The difference between these internal dialogues may be subtle, but taking a more descriptive, less judgmental tone can translate into significant brain changes that underlie well-being. This approach can help us learn where our minds “like to hang out” (such as in ‘planning mode’) and be curious and accepting of this, rather than judgmental.
Enhancing Compassion for Self and Others
This important skill of paying “curious, friendly attention” to the present moment can be further enhanced by engaging in intentional compassion practices. There are guided meditations available (often called loving kindness, Metta, or ‘Just Like Me’ practices) that can help us practice extending compassion to ourselves and others.
These practices often involve reflecting on our common humanity, similar wants and needs and shared pain and suffering. Neuroscientists are finding that by ‘exercising’ our brain in this way, we become better able to approach ourselves, others and the world with kindness and compassion, which is, in essence, the key to well-being.
For a more detailed overview of mindfulness, its evidence base and resources on cultivating mindfulness: http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/topic/mindfulness/definition#what_is
Boxmeyer is an associate professor in UA’s College of Community Health Sciences’ department of psychiatry and behavioral medicine.
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