Mental Health & Mindfulness
When you hear the word "meditation", what is the first thing that jumps to mind? For me, and I'm guessing for most, it's the idea of being in a seated position, legs crossed, eyes closed, mind blank. Well, that's one type of meditation - and it's the one that is the most mediatized: it's the way it's depicted in movies, TV shows, pictures... so, it's natural to have that picture jump to mind when we hear the word "meditation."
In reality, there are many different types of meditation, but the most commonly researched ones are "focused attention" and "open monitoring". Focused attention meditation is the one mentioned above, and it is the more structured type of meditation and can be more difficult. As the name suggests, it's about paying special attention to a particular topic, for example : our breathing, a visualisation, a mantra. This type of meditation requires a certain degree of concentration, which is not easily attained when suffering from anxiety and/or depression. Frustration can be experienced, as we may fall under the impression that we should be doing something: we should feel calm, our breath should be easy, and our mind should be void.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have open monitoring meditation - the category under which mindfulness falls. This type of meditation involves open attention and awareness of what is going on around us, to our thoughts and experiences as they occur. It's about being a witness to all of our senses and emotions without judgement.
So What Is Mindfulness, Exactly?
In mindfulness, whatever is supposed to happen is happening. It's about being aware, formally or informally, and without judgement, of our behaviors, our thoughts, our emotions, and our surroundings... at any given time. It's about not overlooking the beautiful aspects of our own life, and taking in our environment in every way possible: the people around us & their expressions, the food we are eating & its taste and texture, the beauty of nature that surrounds us in that moment. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the brain behind Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), describes mindfulness as being "a gateway into the full dimensionality of being human and being alive".
One of the goals of this practice is to become aware of your negative thought patterns to be able to create a clear distinction between them and you as an entity. No longer being one with your negative thoughts (depression used to be called "depressive rumination" for a reason!), no longer letting them define who you are & believing the things your inner critic says about you. Where do we sign up?!
It's a simple enough concept, but getting to that place of being mindful & aware takes work - it's something that we must cultivate, we can't just become mindful & aware overnight. In an interview with Oprah, Jon Kabat-Zinn describes mindfulness as being a "particular way of being in a relationship with your life", stating that the way to start cultivating this relationship is to begin to realize that "we are only alive in this moment. The future hasn't happened yet, the past is memory and is over."
The beauty of mindfulness is that it is accessible to us anywhere, anytime, through meditation, body scans, and mindful moment practices.
What Are The Benefits?
Mindfulness has an entire repertoire of benefits. It has been proven to help reduce depression & anxiety, help with emotional regulation, increase concentration, decrease emotional reactivity, help with insomnia, improve immune functioning, decrease fatigue, help with digestion and pain management. And, much like deep breathing, the best part is that it is completely & utterly free with virtually no side effects!
One unexpected benefit that I've experienced - which, in hindsight, shouldn't have been so unexpected! - is the amount of space left once our thoughts are no longer dominated by things we should have done or should do. There is finally room for creativity, new ideas, making connections and developing understanding! It's almost like unclogging a drain and making room for new, fresh water to flow through the pipes.
Some Mindfulness Exercises
Mindfulness is considered a psychological process. It does require "exercising", for lack of a better word, the brain on a regular basis. Within our society, we aren't used to focusing on the here and now. Our brains are mostly stuck in the past or in the future - not in the present moment. The key to integrating mindfulness in your everyday life is to do little exercises to purposefully draw your awareness back to this moment, wherever you are, whoever you are with, whatever you are doing. Here are a few different types of mindfulness exercises you can try:
Best for: Mindfulness beginners, those experiencing disordered eating and/or eating disorders, and helping stop ruminating thoughts. Helps with paying attention to things we are used to but haven't really taken the time to notice before. *Note: the raisin can be a different food item of your choosing. Most choose a piece of chocolate or a raisin.
To begin, take the raisin, or whichever item you have chosen, and hold it between your pointer finger & thumb. Bring your attention to it, as if it were something you had never seen before.
Take the time to observe the raisin carefully, with full attention. Notice its shape, colors, surfaces, where the light shines and shadows.
Rotate and move the raisin between your fingers, exploring its texture and sensation.
Apply a small bit of pressure to notice whether it is soft or hard.
Recognize what the raisin is. Do you have any memories about it, any feelings of liking or disliking it?
Hold the raisin under your nose and inhale. Notice any smell that arises. Bring awareness to how your mouth or stomach react to the smell.
Bring the raisin slowly up to your mouth, noticing how your hand and arm know exactly how and where to position it. Be aware if you are salivating as the mind & body anticipate eating.
Place the raisin gently into your mouth, without chewing. Hold it there for at least 10 seconds, feeling the sensations of having it in your mouth. Notice how it feels to take some time before eating.
When you are ready, take one or two bites and notice what happens. Bring your full attention to its taste & texture as you continue chewing.
Take time to chew without swallowing. Notice how the taste and texture may change over time.
When you feel ready, swallow the item, and bring awareness to the sensation so that even this is experienced consciously.
Finally, notice how your body as a whole is feeling after completing this exercise.
Five Senses Exercise (my first ever meditation exercise, and personal favorite)
Best for: calming the mind, exploring all five senses, reducing anxiety and grounding ourselves.
Notice 5 things that you can see. Look around you. Bring your attention to five things that you can see - something you wouldn't normally notice, such as a shadow, or a groove on the floor
Notice 4 things that you can feel. Bring awareness to four things that you are currently feeling, like the feeling of the breeze against your skin or the smooth sensation of the table you are resting your hands on.
Notice 3 things that you can hear. Take a moment to listen & note three things that you can hear: the chirp of a bird, the wind blowing, or the sound of a car driving by.
Notice 2 things that you can smell. Notice smells that you might normally filter out, whether they are pleasant or unpleasant, such as the whiff of pine trees or the smell of a fast-food restaurant nearby.
Notice 1 thing that you can taste. Focus on one thing you can taste right now, at this moment. Notice the current taste in your mouth, or chew a piece of gum, or even open your mouth to taste the air.
Best for: Drawing awareness to the body & decreasing bodily aches & pains, and releasing tension & anxiety. *Click here for a 30m guided body scan by Jon Kabat-Zinn.
Get comfortable, whether that is lying down or sitting up.
Take a few slow, deep breaths.
Slowly bring your attention to your feet and toes. Note any sensations: pressure, heat, pain. Acknowledge what you observe & gently breathe through it.
Continue this practice with every part of your body. Gradually move your focus from your feet to your legs, to your stomach, to your fingers & hands, to your arms, to your chest, to your neck and, finally, to your head. Notice how each part of your body feels and where you might be holding any stress and tension.
If you notice any uncomfortable sensations, such as tension, focus your attention on them. Breathe into them. Visualise the tension leaving your body with every breath, evaporating into the air. This will help relieve bodily tension.
Best for: cultivating everyday awareness, switching off from being on autopilot, appreciating the things in life that we take for granted.
Take a moment to notice 5 things in your day that go unappreciated. This can be anything from the electricity that allows your coffee machine to start, to the postman who delivers your mail, to your legs that allow you to walk into work, to your nose that lets you smell the flowers in the park.
Once identified, take the time to find out everything you can about their creation. How did they come to exist, how do they work?
Think & acknowledge their purpose & how they have benefited your life. Cultivate an appreciation for these five things & the role they play in your day-to-day.
*A quick note here: when doing these exercises, please do not strive for perfection. This is an additional source of stress, which is not the purpose of mindfulness or meditation. Simply listen to the instructions and implement them as you understand them. Your experience during this process is just that: yours. You don't need to demand anything from yourself other than what you are experiencing in this moment.
Below is a short video (less than 30mn) about the 9 attitudes of mindfulness & how to implement them into our daily lives. These 9 attitudes are: beginners mind, non-judging, acceptance, letting go, trust, patience, non-striving, gratitude and generosity. A must-see if you have 26mn on your hands & want to learn more about cultivating mindfulness:
I'd love to know if you've had any experience with mindfulness, and what it was like for you! Or, if you haven't, if this article has made you want to try it out for yourself! Let me know via email or in the comment section below!
Disclaimer: I'm not affiliated with any brands or organizations, & receive no compensation for listing them. Anything linked here is either a resource for the article or a product/service that I have tried, tested and firmly believe in.
6 Mindfulness Exercises You Can Try Today Alfred James, Pocket Mindfulness, 2017
22 Mindfulness Exercises, Techniques & Activities for Adults Courtney E. Ackerman, Positive Psychology, 2020
Elizabeth Scott, Very Well Mind, 2020
Is There A Difference Between Mindfulness & Meditation?
Jon Kabat Zinn Interview With Oprah Winfrey, 2015
Duke Integrative Medecine, Duke University
What Are The Benefits Of Mindfulness?
Daphne M. Davis, American Psychological Association, 2012