What is mindfulness, anyway?

By Cailin Crosby


A hand, fingers curling, held out in front of the sun. The light of the sun shines through. The sky is blue with white clouds, and mountainous terrain stretches out ahead of the viewer.

What comes to mind when you hear the word “mindfulness”? Meditation? Deep breathing? Maybe even mindful eating?

 

Mindfulness can indeed include all of these, but it’s also something deeper, more fundamental. Mindfulness is really a way of being, of thinking, of living fully in the present moment with the goal of not becoming overwhelmed or reactive to what is happening around us. Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) describes mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”

 

While mindfulness may be a relatively new concept to many of us, it actually dates back over 2, 500 years, originating within Buddhism and Hinduism. At face value, the core tenets of mindfulness - awareness, acceptance, non-judgmental observation - seem straightforward. But engaging in this type of present moment, non-judgmental awareness is something we rarely  - if ever - do.

Whether you’ve just heard of mindfulness or are already practicing it, this blog will offer you further insight into how mindfulness can help you to reduce stress, manage anxiety and improve relationships.

Why should I give mindfulness a try?

Mindfulness has many health and mental health benefits
Mindfulness has many health and mental health benefits

Health trends come and go, but mindfulness has really stood the test of time. For some, the long and well-documented history of mindfulness might be evidence enough. Luckily, due to the increase in popularity of mindfulness over the past few decades, we also now have a wealth of research and empirical evidence on the benefits of mindfulness, including:

  • Decreased stress
  • Increased awareness
  • Improved relationships
  • Increased attention & focus
  • Decreased anxiety
  • Reduced rumination
  • Less emotional reactivity
  • More cognitive flexibility
  • Boosts to working memory

How do I get started with mindfulness?

As Kabat-Zinn says, one way is to start by simply paying attention, purposefully and non-judgmentally, in the present moment. Developing this skill of present-moment awareness is key for both beginning and sustaining an enriching mindfulness practice. In order to integrate mindfulness into your day-to-day life, we can start by bringing awareness to our thoughts and feelings without engaging in or participating with them. For example, when negative or anxious thoughts pop into your head, simply acknowledge these for what they are - passing thoughts; neither pushing them away or pulling them in.

 

This practice of observing without participating “empowers us to see that the products of the mind are not permanent, inalienable parts of ourselves, but are simply transitory occurrences that come and go”. What’s more, this skill allows us to understand that we have control over what thoughts we choose to engage in and participate with. By simply observing and accepting our thoughts and feelings without judgement, we give ourselves the agency to decide how and when we react.

Using Your 5 Senses: A Mindfulness Exercise

A great way to practice being present is to tune into our senses and our bodies. Choose a simple activity, such as brushing your teeth. This is something you do every day, but when’s the last time you actually paid attention to your five senses while doing it?

1. Touch

Consider how the toothbrush feels in your hand, the grip beneath your fingers, what the toothbrush bristles feel like against your teeth and gums.

2. Taste

Minty Fresh? Cinnamon Burst? Leftovers from last night? Try and see whether you can pick out not just one primary taste, but all the different tastes you may be experiencing and if you can distinguish them.

3. Smell

In addition to the toothpaste, take a moment to appreciate any other smells you can notice - hand soap, clean linens, your new deodorant.

4. Sight

Admire the art in your bathroom, the tiles on the floor or just simply your own reflection in the mirror (and be kind to yourself! Remember, you’re making these observations non-judgmentally).

5. Sound

Notice the sounds of the toothbrush brushing against your teeth, of water running out of the faucet, the bustling street or birds chirping outside.

 

Did you notice your mind wandering off soon after starting? That’s okay! Paying attention to the present moment is actually quite difficult. Part of mindfulness is being able to recognize when your mind has wandered off, and to gently, non-judgmentally, bring it back to the present moment.

A woman walking a paved path through a wooded area. Her hands are atop her head as she takes in a beautiful sunset.
Don't worry if your mind wanders during meditation; just gently guide it back to the present moment

Recap

Mindfulness is the act of tuning into the present with the goal of accepting our thoughts and feelings without judgment. It doesn’t require any extra equipment, expenses or big lifestyle changes; it’s something you can do at any time!

 

So why not try it right now? Take a moment to pause and breathe before moving on to your next task. Be present, pay attention, and notice non-judgmentally.

Do you want help applying mindfulness principles to your life?


My favourite mindfulness resources

 

Want some more mindfulness? Here are of few of my favourite mindfulness resources:

 

Mindful.org

Great introductory exercises and articles for people new to mindfulness.

 

Anxiety Canada Guided Meditations

Short, mindful breathing and body scan audio exercises for beginners.

 

Calm.com Resources

Lots of free, downloadable resources and content such as a Monthly Mindfulness Calendar, Discovering Happiness Journal, blog posts, guided meditations and audio clips.

 

Headspace

Nice, user friendly website and app with lots of free and paid guided meditations, blog posts, and a YouTube channel.