By Ashley Goodman.
We lead fast-paced lives. It seems like there’s always something more to do, and never quite enough time to do it all. After a while, all of us yearn for the opportunity to slow down and relax. One promising tranquillity fix is the mindfulness meditation movement.
Potential meditators have dived into instructional books, group classes and even mindfulness coloring books in the hopes of finding peace and quiet in this often hectic world. So what is this “mindfulness” that everyone seems to be pursuing, and what’s so good about it?
Mindfulness is a state of intention and awareness. As defined by Mindful magazine, mindfulness is “the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.”
As abstract as this sounds, mindfulness meditation is simple to understand. Mindfulness exercises often entail focusing in on one aspect of your body or surroundings, allowing the small detail of your focus to anchor you to the present moment. The meditations and practices utilized to achieve this state of awareness involve thought, intention and focus, but they may have a huge payoff.
Mindfulness meditation has been utilized around the world for centuries to enhance awareness and presence in everyday life. Today, mindfulness has been linked to positive health benefits, including reduction of anxiety and increased cognition. Many practitioners of meditation claim to feel more relaxed and focused after meditating, and scientific studies suggest that their claims may have a medical basis.
A 2009 Harvard study concluded that after an eight week course in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), created by mindfulness practitioner Jon Kabat-Zinn, patients exhibited a significant decrease in the volume of their amygdalas, the portion of the brain that governs stress. As a result, patients subjectively said they felt less stressed and reported lower signs of anxiety.
Another Harvard study suggested that people who meditate may have greater memory and focus. After having a test group take a similar eight week MBSR course, researchers measured the patients’ brains’ ability to regulate alpha waves–crucial brain waves used to screen out distractions and unnecessary information. Those who meditated regularly were able to modulate alpha waves quicker and more accurately, allowing them to focus on specific details and forget distractions more easily.
While published evidence suggesting physical benefits of mindfulness meditation are adding up, some people are hesitant to adopt its practices. One common complaint is that people simply don’t have enough time. What many don’t realize, however, is that there are plenty of mindfulness techniques whose benefits take no more than a few minutes to realize.
Below are just a few quick, easy mindfulness exercises that you can incorporate into your everyday life to find a refreshing moment of focus in an otherwise busy day.
Breathing mindfully: A breathing meditation is an easy, calming way to get in tune with your body. By concentrating on the sensations within your body as you take a deep breath, you automatically feel calmer, less distracted and more grounded in the present moment.
As you breathe in and out slowly, anchor your thoughts to the movement and feeling within your body. The tickle of air against your nose, the movement of your belly and chest with each breath, or the rhythm of your breathing are all strong sensations to focus on.
This simple breathing meditation allows you to turn your focus away from distracting or anxiety-inducing thoughts and connect to the natural movement of your body while encouraging the steady, deep breathing that activates your parasympathetic nervous system, shown to alleviate symptoms of anxiety.
Eating mindfully: Mindful eating is often a great introduction to mindfulness because it gives you so much to focus on! In every bite of food, we experience a multitude of flavors, textures and sensations. Mindfulness is all about focusing on the minutiae of the present moment, and the complex detail of food provides the perfect blend of sensations to anchor to.
But how do you mindfully eat anything? Try this exercise with a raisin, a small piece of fruit or candy, or even the first bite of your meal. Dedicate as much of your focus to this piece of food as possible. Notice the way it looks, feels and smells before you dig in. When you take your first bite, really put thought into the tastes and textures you experience. Note how the food affects your body, how sensations change as you become full.
This exercise doesn’t take more than a minute or two, and it can have very pleasing effects. It creates a more positive and thoughtful relationship with food, helping you to relish what you eat and notice more subtle flavors. Choosing to eat entire meals mindfully can also help break habits of mindless, distracted eating and overconsumption.
Walking mindfully: A leisurely stroll, especially one in nature, is a great opportunity to take some deep breaths and put away outside distractions and stressors. As you walk, pay close attention both to the movement of your body and to the world around you. Put thought and intention into your steps, noticing how your muscles move and how the ground feels under your feet. Also pay special attention to your surroundings, experiencing and savoring the sights, smells and sounds around you.
Even when taking a route you walk every day, extra focus and intention can lead you to discover new things about your usual path. Be sure to remain focused on your journey; when doing something as automatic as walking, we often end up thinking about anything and everything other than what we’re doing and what surrounds us in the present moment.
Little everyday techniques like these ones remind us that we can find mindfulness anywhere. By taking moments in our day to be thoughtful and present, we can find purpose and interest in our lives, increase our focus and find opportunities for quiet introspection in the midst of our loud, distracted world.