Like green goddess juice and Bikram yoga, mindfulness is trending right now. This approach to deliberate living in the now is popular for good reason. Studies show that being mindful not only reduces stress and boosts the immune system, this state of awareness helps to regulate emotions, as well as reduce chronic pain, fatigue, sleep disturbances and ruminating, a leading cause in depression.
Studies also show that mindfulness lowers levels of anxiety and improves memory, learning, rational thinking, empathy and compassion, all while increasing peace and meaning in one’s life. These findings are significant especially when researchers from Carnegie Mellon University recently found that people’s self-reported stress levels have increased as much as 30% in the last three decades as we become more connected to the outer world—phones, email, and social media—and less connected to ourselves.
What is mindfulness exactly? Jon Kabat-Zinn, professor of Medicine emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, and developer of mindful-based stress reduction (MBSR) defines mindfulness as “the awareness that arises by paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”
Daniel Siegel, clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and Executive Director of the Mindsight Institute has a similar definition. He describes mindfulness as a “quality of receptivity that is different from every day awareness.” It is intentional, living in the now, being aware, and awakening to experience and can be used as a catalyst for any kind of change, whether it be personal, career oriented, financial or even spiritual.
When we are mindful, for example, we observe our thoughts, feelings, processes, and experiences from a distance without making judgments. We notice our feelings without being swept away by them. We ride the waves of energy and information flow by simply being aware of patterns rather that freaking out over them. In other words, we respond instead of react. This mindful response, in turn, leads to better life-affirming choices around health, family, and career. Not surprisingly, when we are not mindful—when we let life happen to us automatically—we make poorer choices when it comes to health, family, and career.
There are several ways one can practice being mindful in their everyday lives. Here are a few suggestions:
Breathe: Servan Schreiber, in his book Anticancer, called breath the “gateway to the inner self. (2009, p. 164). Like digestion and our heartbeats, breathing is the only completely autonomous bodily function free of the conscious mind. Yet studies show that when we consciously regulate our breathing—breathe in, one, two, three, breathe out, one, two three, four, five—we are more connected to our bodies and our minds.
Meditation: Mediation is the practice of turning your attention to a single point of reference. It can involve focusing on the breath, on bodily sensations, or on a word or phrase known as a mantra. As you turn your attention away from distracting thoughts and focus on the present moment, not only are you impacting your mental, emotional, and physical well-being, you are changing your brain.
If you think you do not have time to meditate, think again. In 2012, Moore, Gruber, Derose and Malinowski found that as little as ten minutes a day for 16 weeks significantly improved neural functioning, self-regulation, and focused attention. If you think you are too busy to mediate, then as an ancient proverb suggests, you should sit for an hour.
Yoga: Yoga is a whole-body experience that goes back over five thousand years in India. This ancient practice integrates the breath with stretching exercises, postures, and meditation which in turn creates harmony between the mind and body. Studies show that yogic practices enhance muscular strength and body flexibility, promote and improve respiratory and cardiovascular function, reduce stress, anxiety, depression, and chronic pain, improve sleep patterns, and enhance overall well-being and quality of life. Some individuals even discover far reaching results such as an internal stillness and greater awareness of a spiritual side of themselves.
Visualization: Visualization is the act of directing your thoughts on a positive image in your mind with the goal of improving your emotional, physical, mental and/or financial well-being. In fact, this technique has been shown to improve performance of any kind. For example, athletes are using visualization to imagine the actual physical motions—dancing, figure skating, making that defensive tackle or swooshing a three pointer—before performing them, which in turn helps to improve their game.
For more information on mindfulness, check out John Kabat-Zinn’s book Mindfulness for Beginners: Reclaiming the Present Moment—and Your Life.