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Mental Health

What Is Mindfulness? Being Present and Letting Go of Things Beyond Your Control — Here’s How To Do It

Make mindfulness an everyday practice.


Have you ever noticed your mind racing with thoughts of fear or uncertainty? How about thoughts about thoughts? Maybe an internal voice that whispers “you’re unworthy of joy or love or anything that’s important to you?” Does this sound familiar?

This kind of negative self-talk is prolific among women. It starts out subtle, but eventually escalates to a scream. The “not enough” voice can be so loud that it drowns out all other thoughts, making it not just hard to believe in yourself, but hard to concentrate and difficult to be productive. Embracing self-compassion is the solution. But how, exactly, do you turn the negative self-talk switch off?

One word: presence. Being present is the opposite of being on autopilot. It enhances gratitude, and helps us to savor the things we enjoy in life, from professional work to personal pursuits. Becoming more present requires midfulness, a practice focused on engaging with the moments we’re in and appreciating the small daily satisfactions that often go unnoticed. It’s proven to have positive long-term impact on both physical and mental health. Below is a mindfulness practice primer — what it is, how to start, and what to expect.

Savor the Moment

Mindfulness is about engaging in the present, as the human mind habitually wanders away from it. When we’re not in the here and now, we dwell in the past — grasping and replaying it — or project into the future, trying to anticipate the unknown. Being mindful doesn’t mean you can’t fondly remember past events or plan for the future. However, when you obsess on the past or about the future in an effort to manipulate what you can’t control, you increase your risk of depression and anxiety.

For example, have you ever raked over and over an experience in your head and continued to ask yourself, “Why did I say this instead of that?” or even, “Why did I let this happen?” It’s natural to want to correct perceived mistakes of the past, but it’s hamster-wheel thinking. As much as you may want to rewrite events, the reality is that you can’t.

Being Present

Hanging out in the future is a way of trying to maintain control over your life because the unknown is uncomfortable. The reality, however, is that the future can’t be controlled. There are things we can control, like how much we train for a race or when we go to sleep or what and how we eat. But apart from everyday lifestyle choices we make, the future is beyond our control.

Mindfulness hones your clarity and focus as you attend to every sensation as it unfolds, engaged in the present-moment experience. When you accept the present moment as it is, you release tension caused by wanting the past or present to be different than it actually is.

Noticing Non-judgmentally

When practicing mindfulness, we’re not trying to control, suppress, or stop our thoughts. We don’t want to push our thoughts away (because it’s not possible to do this). Rather, mindfulness helps us pay attention to our experiences as they arise, without judging or evaluating them in any way. This is the essence of mindfulness.

Of course, there is no way to keep your mind from wandering, and there is no such thing as completely clearing your mind. In fact, an important part of practicing mindfulness and creating a mindfulness state is to notice your wandering mind with compassion, loving-kindness, and non-judgment. Then, you can practice using your attention to either return your mind to the present, or continue following your wandering mind as a nonjudgmental witness.

Whether you’re practicing a formal sitting meditation, using your breath as your guide, or eating mindfully, see if you can notice a pull away from the object of meditation (such as
the breath) without self-criticism and without self-judgment. Gently bring your attention right back. You might have to do this redirection many times. Know that this is natural and appropriate. The essence of mindfulness is nonjudgmental awareness.

There’s No Right Way To Meditate

If you find yourself practicing and notice the thought, “I am doing this all wrong,” it’s important to challenge that thought by reminding yourself that, literally, there is no wrong way to practice. There is just showing up. Some days, your practice might feel different than on other days. Some days you might feel more distracted, less relaxed, and maybe even restless. Other days, you might feel less distracted, more relaxed, and maybe even more grounded. It’s all okay! Also, practice makes practice, not perfect.

Engaging With Awareness

Practicing mindfulness allows you to live with greater awareness, as you attend to life on purpose, and with less judgment — maybe even with more compassion. Mindfulness practice requires a conscious effort and hard work, but it is a continuous journey that’s never too late to start.

With mindfulness, consistency and compassion for inconsistency are key. Remember, the impact that the practice exerts on your brain is born from routine: a slow, steady, and consistent reckoning of your realities and the ability to take a step back, become more aware, more accepting, less judgmental, and less reactive.

Just as playing the piano over and over again strengthens and supports brain networks involved with playing music, mindfulness over time can make your brain an efficient regulator that allows you to pause before responding to your world instead of reacting without thought or clear intention. As you lean into your mindfulness practice, know that there’s no such thing as getting better. The practice itself is a call toward a lifelong relationship with mindfulness.

Why We Need To Put Our Mask on Before Assisting Others

Many of us tell ourselves that “Self-care is selfish.” But when you actually do the work of taking the time to tune yourself, as if you’re a precious instrument within a prestigious orchestra, everyone wins. The moral of this metaphor is that self-care, actually, benefits everyone around us. (When you’re well-tuned, the orchestra sounds better.) Taking the time to tune yourself and to listen to your body and mind when they need to rest, refuel, and regroup increases our capacity to be there for the people in our lives. We have both the calm and fuel to show up for those who need us. Challenge yourself to reframe your definition of self-care, and to notice how taking care of yourself creates dividends for those you show up for.

5 Tips for Living With Intention

  1. Make it a habit. Continue to make practicing mindfulness a part of your daily routine, and commit to tacking it on to anything you regularly do, like brushing your teeth.
  2. Being consistent is key. Five minutes a day every day is more effective than one hour per week, and doing this promotes a more continuous practice.
  3. Start over. There are no endings to the beginnings you can take. Start over in any practice as much as you need to.
  4. Be gentle with yourself. There’s no becoming an expert. There’s just practice.
  5. Validate what you’re doing. Authorize your practice always (I am worthy of taking this time for myself each day).

A version of this article appeared in our partner magazine Mindfulness for Women.

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