Tools to maintain mental health are more important now than ever! With people experiencing many challenges that have never been faced before. Isolation, financial uncertainty, increased work risk, and the unknown of what is to come, all potentially weighing heavy on the mind.
How do we best prepare ourselves against these new stressors? One answer lies within simple mindfulness.
Is Mindfulness for ME?!
Yes, mindfulness, sounds scary right? Maybe provokes some thoughts along the lines that it is for hippies, I am not good at it, or what does mindfulness even mean? The reality of mindfulness is that it can be as simple as taking a deep breath! Mindfulness is paying attention to the present living experience in a non-judgmental manner.1-3 New meditators often think they are terrible at it as their mind wanders to and from the breath with off-track thoughts of, “What’s for dinner”, “Are aliens real?”, “ I need to mow the lawn,”, “Ahh why am I so bad at this, I can’t even focus on my breath for 30 seconds!”
What new meditators often fail to realize is that this is exactly how a mindfulness-based meditation is supposed to be. The meditative process is more about recognizing the mind’s tendency to wander and being able to bring it back on track in a non-judgmental manner. What about transcendence and finding inner peace? Leave that to the monks, we are going to use mindfulness to help recognize our inner monologue (present living experience) and take back control of our thought process.
Mindfulness is paying attention to the present living experience in a non-judgmental manner!
Develop with Practice!
At the core, meditation or mindfulness is unbelievably simple. Start by finding a comfortable position. Common positions are to sit on the floor, with legs crossed and strong upright posture or flat on your back on the floor with a small pillow under your head. These may work for you, or it may be some other position, just get comfortable. If you want to work for a set period of time now would be the time to set a timer. A good starting point is 5 minutes. This is long enough to make it challenging but not so long that it seems unattainable. Next, focus on your breath. This can look a couple of different ways. You can focus on the action of breathing in your head with each breath cycle, breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out. Counting breaths is also a common tactic for this type of meditation (Learn more about breathing with our article: Post-Training Protocol: Breathing). It is important to continue to breathe at your normal rate, we are just bringing our attention to the breathing cycle, not changing it. Inevitably you will get distracted from your breathing, the point is not to keep this from happening, but rather to recognize that it has happened and to bring your focus back on your breath without self-judgment. It will feel something like this: Breath in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out, I wonder if plants have feelings, dang it…breathe in, breathe out, breathe in….
Try these SIMPLE 5 STEPS!
Close your eyes and focus on your breath, breath in, breath out, or count your breaths
Recognize when you wander off of your breath
Calmly bring yourself back to the breath
This step is all about personal preference. The main thing to think about is that you will need to be able to remain still for the intended duration of your session. The traditional pose for mindfulness practice is sitting with legs crossed, hands gently rested on the thighs, and a strong erect spine. This position is a great go-to for people starting their journey into mindfulness, but it is not the only way to accomplish a great sit. Another great position is to lie flat on your back with a small pillow under the head. The arms can be laid palms up at a comfortable resting position at the side of the body or hands interlocked and rested on the chest. Again there is no wrong way to get started on your journey. If neither of these positions works well for you, experiment! The more you practice and experiment the more prepared you will find yourself when a mindful moment is needed.
Focusing on the Breath
Mindfulness is based on being present in the moment and being able to recognize when your mind enters the perpetual thought loop. Bringing your attention to the breath works because it is always present and rhythmic. The cyclic rhythm of a breathing pattern, breath in, breath out, breath in, breath out requires little to no thought to accomplish making it a great target to sync your present thought with. A fun exercise is to count how many consecutive breaths you can get through without wandering off the thought. However, it is important, to be honest with yourself about when you do in fact get off track.
Recognize the Wandering Mind and Getting Back on Track
“Breath in, breathe out, breath... what would my dog say to me if he could talk”…. Well it happened, you got off track, don’t sweat it. It was bound to happen and it is normal and okay. Recognize that you are off track and do not be harsh or criticize yourself for getting off track. Losing focus and recognizing that you lost focus is the point of the exercise for a beginner, just fall back into the next portion of the breath or start your count over. By practicing this recognition and non-judgmental control over your mind will allow you to take back control of your mind. We all have that inner critic that loves to kick us when we are down for having a small moment, losing our temper, or having an unplanned cookie for example. Being mindful helps us practice recognizing errant thoughts before they become a moment.
Mindfulness is something that works best cumulatively. While you can get great benefits from a session every now and then, the real benefit lies within daily practice. Schedule a 5 minute period during your day that is dedicated to your mindful practice. If you can’t find 5 consecutive minutes, do five 1 minute sessions throughout the day. Do whatever it takes to get those first 5 minutes. As your practice develops you will find small windows throughout the day where you close your eyes and focus on your breath instinctively. Your significant other just made you mad, breathe in, breathe out, a bad day at work, breathe in, breathe out; your children ingested every ounce of caffeine and sugar on the planet….See the pattern here? Every time your life feels out of your control get into your mindful practice and take back control.
Remember, the key to mindful meditation is not keeping distractions away, it is to recognize the distraction and bring yourself back on track. Recent research on meditative practices suggest that meditation-based practices such as mindfulness can reduce stress, anxiety, and inflammation while improving self-regulation through attention control, emotional regulation, and self-awareness.1-3 Practicing mindfulness creates a system for people to recognize their thought patterns and take back control of the wandering mind. The process of being mindful is not easy and the key is to not be hard on yourself when you lose track of your breath. Just recognize that it happened and bring yourself back. Through this process over time, you may find that you don’t lose your temper as easily, that you are able to be more productive, a more grounded presence with personal relationships, and most of all a more positive relationship with the critic that lives inside you.
Gonzalez-Valero G, Zurita-Ortega F, Ubago-Jimenez JL, Puertas-Molero P. Use of Meditation and Cognitive Behavioral Therapies for the Treatment of Stress, Depression, and Anxiety in Students. A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2019;16(22).
Pascoe MC, Thompson DR, Jenkins ZM, Ski CF. Mindfulness mediates the physiological markers of stress: Systematic review and meta-analysis. J Psychiatr Res. 2017;95:156-178.
Tang YY, Holzel BK, Posner MI. The neuroscience of mindfulness meditation. Nat Rev Neurosci. 2015;16(4):213-225.