Have you ever forgotten someones name the second after you heard it?
Can you think of a time when you asked a question without listening to the answer?
Have you ever been thinking about work at home only to find yourself at work thinking about home?
How much of your day would you say is spent in the actual moment, rather than reflecting on the past or planning for the future?
Even though we all have the natural ability to be present most of us only stay connected briefly before turning right back into our thoughts.
This lack of attention leads to a lot of unwanted effects like bad mood, stress, conflicts and a lack of focus that makes us less effective in general.
Luckily there is a way out of this vicious circle, and it’s called mindfulness.
What is Mindfulness?
“It’s good to have an end in mind
but in the end what counts is how you travel.”
Most of us have a hard time appreciating our everyday lives. Instead of being grateful for what we have, we are constantly chasing new goals thinking that somewhere ahead there will be something better waiting.
We think that if we’re successful enough somewhere down the road we will find happiness. But happiness works the other way around.
When you think about it, this very moment is all that we have. We can’t change the past nor control the future so why not focus on what’s actually within our control?
This is what mindfulness is all about. It’s a way of waking up to life. A way of leading your life in a open, curious and accepting way where you constantly choose to be present in the moment. In that way mindfulness is the very opposite of the every day disconnectedness we’re usually in.
Why Is This Important?
When we go about our lives in a mindful way we have a general sense of heightened awareness, peacefulness and physical relaxation. These are certainly great reasons to practice mindfulness in themselves, but the benefits go far beyond that.
A study made in 2011 showed that the cognitive and psychological benefits reported by mindfulness practitioners may come from actual physical changes in the brain structure.
In the study, 16 participants had MR images taken of their brains before and after they took part in a 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program.
After spending an average of 27 minutes each day practicing mindfulness the participants had increased the grey-matter density in the hippocampus (which is known to be important for learning and memory).
The same changes were observed in structures associated with self-awareness, compassion and introspection.
On top of that the researchers also noticed a decrease in grey-matter density in the amygdala, which plays an important role in handling anxiety and stress.
Thanks to the plasticity of the brain and the practice of mindfulness, we can actually play an active role in changing the brain and deliberately increase our well-being and quality of life.
Mindfulness Misconceptions & Mistakes to Avoid
As you start practicing mindfulness, you’ll likely feel discomfort and become restless fairly quickly. Know that this is perfectly normal.
Your mind is simply not used to so few incoming stimulus and will protest by sending you these signals. When you feel this slight discomfort, stay in control and refuse to immediately give in to the temptation to quit.
A lot of people have the misconception that meditation is about emptying your mind completely and get increasingly annoyed each time a thought steals their attention. This is not true.
In fact, sucking at meditation is actually good for your self-control and willpower. The more you lose focus, the more you practice your willpower each time you bring it back.
If you’re just starting out, you’ll likely feel awkward and that you’re probably doing it wrong. That’s all right.
You won’t be a great meditator right out of the gate so don’t expect to be. Just know that any mindfulness practice is way better than none at all and that you will get better with time so have fun with it 🙂
Now, let’s get to it shall we? The practice of mindfulness is going to be divided into meditation practice and everyday exercises.
1. Pick a time and trigger. This doesn’t have to be an exact time of day. Pick a general one like in the morning when you wake up or during lunch. The trigger should be something you’re already doing like brushing your teeth, eating lunch or something else that’s a part of your regular routine.
2. Find a quiet spot. This could be a room in your house or out on a park bench. It doesn’t matter where you are as long as you get a couple of minutes of undisturbed alone time.
3. Get comfortable. Find a position that’s comfortable to you, whether it be sitting or lying down. Sitting is preferred if you have a tendency to fall asleep sleep while meditating (and don’t want to do that). Loosen your belt and unbutton your pants so that nothing gets in the way of your breathing.
4. Clarify your intention. A couple of words or a sentence is enough. As you start out you can use the basic intention in mindfulness practice: ”My intention is to be awake, open and attentive in the present moment without judging what I’m paying attention to”. Some other examples of intentions can involve reducing stress, lead a calmer life, raise the awareness of your feelings and so on.
5. Focus on your breath. Become aware of your breathing. Follow a couple of deep breaths all the way in and all the way out. Either focus your eyes softly on a particular spot or let them close. If it helps, think to yourself ”inhale…” as you breathe in and ”exhale…” as you breathe out. When your mind starts to wander, gently bring it back to your breath. Practice for a couple of minutes as you start out and add more time to your meditation practice as you get into the habit.
Combine your meditation practice with one of the following everyday mindfulness exercises and they will help you become more aware in the present moment. As you get comfortable with one of the exercises you can add the next one and so on.
Preferably start each one of the exercises by following three deep breaths in and out while paying attention to how each breath feels in your body. Also, remember to clarify your intention before you begin.
- Morning exercise – Waking up
Use your newly awoken state to create a conscious start to your day.
Suggestion of intention: ”My intention is to wake up to this day.”
1. Connect to your breathing as your waking up.
2. Pay attention to possible sounds inside and outside of the room.
3. Note the quality of the light or dark inside and outside of the room.
4. If you want you can try to put a smile on you lips and see what happens. 🙂
- Daytime exercise – Starting your computer
Turning your computer on can be your trigger to start your working day from a state of calm.
Suggestion of intention: ”My intention is to learn to work from a place of calm and stillness.”
1. Connect to your breathing.
2. Turn on the computer.
3. Count how many breaths you can follow in and out before the computer is ready.
- Evening exercise – Doing laundry, washing dishes & cleaning
Intention suggestion: My intention is to become calm and peaceful in my everyday tasks.
1. Try dishwashing, cleaning and doing laundry a little bit slower than you usually do.
2. Try focusing your entire attention on what you’re doing and be aware of your body movements.
3. Pay attention to when your mind wanders.
4. Go back to what you’re doing and become aware of your body movements.
5. Repeat if necessary.
6. Pay attention to possible after-effects.
As you can see, mindfulness can be practiced on anything so let these three exercises be an inspiration for you to develop more of your own.
1. Start building the habit of mindfulness into your life and tell us in the comments how you’re going to commit to it.
2. Think of two friends that could benefit from mindfulness practice and email this article to them.
3. Smile, breathe and go slowly 🙂
Do you want to master your habits? Get my book The Habit Blueprint.
Hölzel, B., Carmody, J., Vangel, M., Congleton, C., Yerramsetti, S., Gard, T., Lazar (2011) S. Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, 191 (1)