Mindfulness and meditation complement each other. Like healthy eating and exercise, you can do either one separately, but do them together and you will really maximize your results. I like to think of meditation as a good foundation to improving all aspects of your life for the better. Once you have a regular meditation habit going, a natural progression is to add mindfulness to your daily life. So what is mindfulness?
Here we will give you a complete guide to mindfulness for beginners. If you haven’t yet started with meditation you can find our beginner’s guide here. It is up to you, you can start with either one, or learn both at the same time. However, when practiced together, the benefits to your health and wellbeing will be far greater than using either one on its own.
So What Does Mindfulness Mean?
In any given moment your mind can be busy with thoughts and feelings, planning and remembering, events of the past or what may happen in the future, worrying, panicking, or stressing. Most of the time we just let it babble along, unchecked, without any attempt to direct or control it. This is our default mode, life on autopilot. You might be thinking “I can’t control it, this is me, this is just how it is”. But you can get it under control with mindfulness and meditation. It just takes practice.
Thoughts are like a passenger you picked up earlier in your life that just won’t shut up, or go away. “You’re doing it wrong”, “you’re too fat”, “you’re ugly”, “no one likes you”, “what if you fail”, “don’t try”, “you’re stupid”, “you’ll never succeed”. Have you ever dropped something and thought “you’re so clumsy”? Failed a test and thought “you’ll never get this right”. If you are lucky it’s not all negative, but the conditioned thoughts, the ones your passenger has been whispering to you over and over for years, usually are.
The positive thoughts – like “what a beautiful day”, “what an amazing time I’m having”, “I feel great right now” – those are usually a result of moments of mindfulness. Our goal with this guide is to show you how to increase the positive thoughts and feelings and hopefully quiet that passenger and give you back control.
Mindfulness is being aware of what is happening right in the present moment. It is putting your mind and focus on what you are doing right now. If you are brushing your teeth, then you place all of your attention on just that one thing. Feel the brush on your teeth and gums, taste the toothpaste, feel the foam. If any random thoughts come into your mind, simply notice them and let them go. Then go back to the experience of brushing your teeth. Mindfulness is simply being aware of the present moment, noticing when your thoughts wander, and returning your attention to the present moment. No judgment or frustration, just return your awareness to the present.
Why is Mindfulness Important?
Practicing mindfulness in simple everyday activities will help strengthen your control over your thoughts, which will allow you to make better decisions when needed. This is helpful when you are trying to change your habits, for example. Say you are trying to eat healthy and cutting out sweet foods (a constant goal of mine). An uncontrolled mind is more likely to reach for that piece of chocolate without really thinking about it. Your passenger will tell you that “one won’t hurt … go on, you deserve it”. Don’t let your passenger guide those important decisions. A mindful mindset will allow you to pause and be aware of what you are thinking. You can then make a conscious decision to choose a healthier option like water or a piece of fruit instead. Or you can choose the chocolate and mindfully enjoy it without the guilt that inevitably follows.
Being aware of your thoughts is a powerful skill that will help you improve your mindset. Changing your habits will become easier. You will be able to recognize negative thoughts, like judging others and yourself too harshly, and you will have more control over them. Mindfulness has helped me to realize that judging other people and comparing myself to them does not benefit me in any way. With practice, I am often able to notice these thoughts as they are happening and let them go before they can do further damage. Is that not a great power to have, and one worth cultivating?
The Benefits of Mindfulness
Mindfulness and meditation, when practiced daily, will enhance your life in countless ways. You will find you have more patience when dealing with difficult situations. You will have more control over your emotions when dealing with difficult people. Scientific studies have shown that mindfulness, when applied to any activity, has both physical and mental benefits. If you want further reading on these studies you can find some links at the end of this guide.
- lower heart rate and blood pressure.
- boost the immune system.
- reduce stress.
- reduce your risk for various diseases.
- improve your general well being.
- lower unhealthy inflammation in your body.
- rewire your brain for the better.
Practicing mindfulness has helped me feel more balanced and calm in everyday life. In difficult situations I am less likely to react badly and say something I will regret. It has given me the ability to recognize stress, annoyance and irritation in my body and allows me to stop and ask myself why I feel this way. I can then make a conscious choice on how to handle it. Most of the time, I can simply acknowledge what I am feeling and let it go. Sometimes I just sit with the feeling or emotion for a while and try to understand it and maybe find out what triggered it. When you can get to that point you will find a certain amount of joy that you would have otherwise missed.
Happiness can be found in the present moment, and the more you become aware of it, the more that feeling will spread throughout your life. That is a great mindset to have.
How to Practice Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is simply noticing and becoming aware of the present moment. So, how do we do that? Let’s start with right now. You are reading this article and may also be multitasking, listening to music or have the TV on, all while thinking “is this nearly finished, I have so much else to do…”. There is always so much going on, so much that we are trying to fit in to life. Thoughts of the past, the future, “what’s for dinner”, “what am I doing tomorrow”, “am I wasting time on this”. Here is something to try right now just to get a feel for being present.
- Take a few deep breaths.
- Actually feel the whole breath going into, and out of, your body.
- Then expand your focus to your whole body.
- How does it feel in your body? Is your posture good? Can you feel your whole body breathing?
- Then expand further to your surroundings. How does it feel, hot or cold? Can you feel a breeze? What do you hear going on around you?
- As you continue to read the rest of this article, place all of your focus on the words and ideas. If thoughts pop up, simply notice them and let them go. This is your focus right now.
This is how to be mindful.
You can introduce this practice of mindfulness into your everyday life whenever you think of it. It does not have to be a formal practice. A good way to start is with everyday tasks like brushing your teeth or washing the dishes. Just breathe, feel the sensations and be aware of intruding thoughts, letting them go, without judgment, and returning to the present moment.
With practice you will start to notice the difference between being caught up in thinking and just noticing your thoughts and letting them drift away. You will be able to notice the difference between being caught up in a craving, and noticing the craving and just letting it be. This awareness gives you the space you need to make good choices, and rather than being led by your thoughts you can start to direct them and be more in control of your life.
How to Develop and Improve Mindfulness
Like any new skill, you need to practice to improve it. Luckily, your daily life provides you with many opportunities to cultivate your mindfulness skills.
As mentioned above, introduce mindfulness into everyday tasks. After meditation, mindful eating is where I started. I choose at least one meal a day and try to eat it mindfully, focusing on the taste, textures and aroma of my meal.
Another way to nurture mindfulness is through the practice of sitting meditation. Here is our complete beginner’s guide to meditation. If you want to try something right now here are some quick steps to a mindfulness meditation for beginners:
- Sit or lie comfortably and take a few deep breaths
- Breathe naturally and choose something to focus on, an anchor. The breath works well here, wherever you notice it the most, at your nostrils, chest or stomach as it rises and falls.
- Try to keep your focus on your anchor. If thoughts enter your mind (and they will), simply notice them and then return to your anchor, without judgment or frustration.
- Continue to do this for a set amount of time, 3, 5 or 10 minutes, and set a timer if you need to.
That is all you need to do to practice mindfulness. It doesn’t matter how much time you spend lost in your thoughts. What matters is that you notice the thought, or image or feeling, and refocus on your anchor. It is not the anchor that is the important part here, it is the noticing that is important. This repetitive recognising of thoughts and returning to the anchor is like building a muscle. This improves your awareness over time and will help you develop your mindful mindset.
Try this mindful meditation from Sam Harris:
How to come off autopilot:
If you think you are too busy to do all of this, then you can start with just 5 minutes each day, or even 1 minute. When you wake up in the morning use this chance to practice being mindful. Stop and notice what is going on in and around you. What do you hear? How do you feel? Are you hungry or thirsty? Take these few minutes to check in with yourself and then get on with your day. You will be surprised with the difference even a few minutes a day makes. Obviously, like with exercise, the more you can do, the more benefits you will see.
If you commute to work do it without distractions one day a week. Turn off the radio in the car, get off your devices if you are on public transport. Just look around and notice everything. Notice how your body feels. Try to focus on your breath as well. You may just show up to work more refreshed and focused and ready for a more positive day.
Cultivating mindfulness will allow you to be present for your own life. This means you won’t miss anything by being distracted or wanting things to be different. It will help you to accept what is happening in your life no matter what it is, without wanting to change it. Practicing a mindful mindset will allow you to come off autopilot so you can show up for your life.
Here are a few other bonuses you may discover with continued mindfulness practice:
- Cultivating mindfulness can help to overcome suffering.
- Mindfulness allows you to be present with what is happening now, no matter what it is.
- It can allow you to tap into your intuition to help you to make good life choices.
- Instead of trying to escape from our direct experience by thinking of the past or the future, we can find happiness in the present moment.
- The stress and suffering in our lives comes from our perception of events, not from the events themselves. Being mindful can allow you better control over your reaction to these events. You can determine how they affect you. So, if your perceived view of something is negative that leads to stress and worry and negative feelings. If your perceived view is positive that leads to happiness and joy. Which would you prefer?
Mindfulness happens naturally when we experience new things or places. Remember a time when you visited a new city or place. You are wide open to noticing all that is going on around you, the sights, the sounds, the smells, the people. Your senses are heightened and you are taking everything in. Once things become familiar the mind starts to move away from mindfulness and into mindlessness. You’ve seen it all before so the mind switches off and your thoughts intrude. You now have a way to make even the everyday mundane tasks like new again.
You can choose to be mindful right now.
Apps and Online Resources:
Stop Breathe and Think invites you to check in with yourself and provides meditations based on your input. stopbreathethink.org
Headspace uses meditation and mindfulness techniques to train your mind to be happy and healthy. Their Take 10 program is free and provides 10 minutes a day for 10 days. This is a great introduction to mindfulness and meditation for those new to the practice. Other programs and meditations are available once you pay for ongoing membership. www.headspace.com
Smiling Mind is a not-for-profit organization based in Australia who are all about educating people on mindfulness, and their app is free. It features meditations for different age groups starting at age 7. smilingmind.com.au/
While apps can be a great way to start learning mindfulness it will help to work on your practice without them. For this you can set up simple reminders to be mindful, calendar notifications or alarms, throughout the day to help you. With practice, you will need these external triggers less and less.
Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn is a great guide to meditation and mindfulness for those new to the practice, with helpful advice on how to maintain it in daily life.
The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hahn is a great read with practical advice on how to live in the moment.
Mindfulness in Plain English by Henepola Gunaratana is a straightforward and easy to read book on mindfulness and meditation.
Effects of Mindfulness on Psychological Health: A Review of Empirical Studies
Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation.
Effects of mindfulness meditation training on anticipatory alpha modulation in primary somatosensory cortex.
Effects of mindfulness-based stress reduction on medical and premedical students