You may have heard that practicing mindfulness is a gateway to reduced stress and anxiety, more brain power, improved physical health, and overall better quality of life. But if you’ve tried to dig into the nitty-gritty of what it means to live in the moment, you may have felt confused — or worse, discouraged. Sometimes “being present” seems like a mysterious task that you can either accomplish easily or not at all. But that kind of thinking is a mistake.
“Mindfulness is possible for anyone,” says Jessica Matthews, DBH, NBC-HWC, assistant professor of integrative wellness at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego. Still, it can feel challenging to implement, because mindfulness is not one thing or even a one-time thing. “It’s called a practice’ because you have to cultivate it,” Matthews explains. If you do, it’ll give you an opportunity to live more fully and in a way aligned with your values. Sound good? Here’s how you can put being present to work in your life.
What mindfulness is — and is not
No single definition of “mindfulness” exists. However, many people quote the definition from scientist and meditation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD: “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” Kabat-Zinn sometimes adds that it is used in the service of self-understanding and wisdom.
“My own perspective is that it involves being present in the moment, and it involves a capacity to recognize that the thoughts that cross your mind may or may not correspond to your true beliefs,” adds Jonathan Schooler, PhD, professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and director of the Center for Mindfulness and Human Potential.
Make mindfulness your own
Contrary to popular belief, a mind-body practice does not have to mean meditating all day long. Meditation, yoga, body scans, and other activities are examples of formal practices, Matthews explains. “These are often a key aspect of cultivating greater awareness,” she adds. But you can also participate informally, in a variety of ways. “You can try it while walking, doing the dishes, or any situation where you find yourself present, attending carefully to the moment-to-moment experience,” Schooler says.
There’s a misconception that mindfulness means not having thoughts. “Many times, people will say, ‘I tried to meditate, but I couldn’t stop thinking,’” Matthews says. But the point is not to cease your thoughts or feelings. It’s to become more aware of the variety of ideas and emotions you have and not to judge or label them. Instead, you may wish to explore those thoughts with an open heart. This can help you notice and change unhelpful patterns of thinking and behaving.
Make a habit of it
Bringing more awareness into your everyday life does not have to be an overwhelming or time-consuming project. In fact, it’s much easier to start small rather than try to meditate for 20 minutes right off the bat. Once one or two small changes become regular habits, it will not only be easier to make other changes, but you may find that you are naturally becoming more attentive in other aspects of your life.
Many of us are in “doing” mode, working through the day’s to-do list as quickly as we can. If we view slowing down as one more check mark, we risk not enjoying it, and in turn, we’ll stop practicing. Research suggests we’re more productive and make fewer errors when we do one thing at a time. On the other hand, appreciating an opportunity and a chance to be open to experiences, playful, curious, and engaged in childlike wonder can help us foster a healthy perspective, Matthews says. If you wish, you can certainly try meditation. This formal discipline can help you develop a skill set that you can apply to any context, Schooler explains. But you don’t have to meditate — at all, ever.
You can start by making a commitment to do some small task deliberately. Simply spend time being present in that experience, observing what each sense is taking in, how your body feels, and any thoughts you may have. When those thoughts arise, pause before you label them or follow them down a rabbit hole. Instead, just notice the thoughts and let them go.
Even better, be with the thought and explore it with curiosity, rather than judgment. Is it an accurate way of thinking? Is there another way to see things? “Thoughts are not good or bad,” Matthews says. But the narrative we tell ourselves about whatever event happened leads to emotions — and those can lead to dysfunctional behaviors. “Having more awareness of when those emotions tend to rise can help you see patterns, identify which ones support your health and well-being, and check or challenge those unhelpful thoughts,” Matthews notes.
Put down the phone (or notice when you don’t)
Many common practices of modern life don’t tend to support staying present. Take multitasking: It’s hard to be truly conscious of more than one thing at once. But our ever-at-hand phones offer another opportunity to be more attentive. “Work to become more cognizant of how and when you use your phone,” Matthews recommends. “Do you reach for it when you are feeling bored? Is it a distraction? Is it filling time?” Also, consider what life might be like if you had more deliberate awareness of the times you are on your phone. You don’t have to do a digital detox (unless you wish). But figuring out why you use your phone and when may help bring more appreciation when scrolling social media.
Whatever you do, don’t be too hard on yourself. “Recognize that everybody finds sustaining mindfulness to be challenging from time to time,” Schooler suggests. “Being more in the moment is a valuable skill, but also be kind to yourself. Self-compassion complements mindfulness.”
Mindfulness is associated with being in the here and now. But that doesn’t mean you can’t daydream. In fact, in a study published in the Journal of Happiness Studies, people who scored higher on a mindfulness questionnaire also reported more daydreaming and greater life satisfaction.
“The core tenets of mindfulness can be utilized when reflecting on past experiences and daydreaming about the future,” says Matthews. Even better, this can help you become more content with your present circumstances. Oftentimes when we look forward, we think of all the work we have to do and that can create distress. But if you daydream and set goals with conscious awareness, you can accept the present without having ideas about what things “should” be like.
That can set you up for success, too. “A greater sense of contentment in the here and now causes more positive emotions, and that propels us toward taking more positive actions going forward,” Matthews explains. “It sets the stage for accepting things as they are and the possibility of what can come from there.”
A version of this article appeared in our partner magazine Mindfulness For Women.
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