We hear a lot about mindfulness in the wellness realm. Eat mindfully, be mindful day to day, have a mindful meditation practice. I often encourage my clients to tune in and be mindful of their hunger cues while eating.
But in a culture that subliminally encourages us to tune out and distract ourselves, many people have trouble with mindfulness or don’t know what it means. We’re not socialized to notice and identify feelings that come up for us. The opposite, really: We have devices, screens, 24 hour entertainment, and alcohol and drugs to help us tune out and escape reality. But learning to be aware–mindful–of your body’s cues and states can help you be healthier, reduce depression and anxiety, and even allow you to reach your goals faster.
What is mindfulness and how can it help you?
Mindfulness is simply a state of awareness. It’s paying attention and tuning into your thoughts and feelings, your consciousness, your body, your surroundings, all without judgement. It’s a practice in being in the present moment. Those who live in the moment tend to be happier, calmer, more relaxed, and appreciative. Maybe you’ve heard the saying, “depression lives in the past, and anxiety lives in the future. Calmness and peace of mind live in the present.”
Your mind can be kind of a asshole. It’s main job is to keep you alive, and that may show up via worry, paranoia, racing thoughts, picturing worst case scenarios, and anticipation, all with the express purpose of identifying potential danger zones so you can be prepared and survive if such a case were to present itself. But when we spend our days chronically worrying (an issue with which I struggle), feeling regretful, or being anxious about or constantly focused on upcoming events, we’re letting our mind run the show and failing to enjoy and recognize the present moment.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. You can train your mind to let racing thoughts pass so you can tune into the present and be happier, calmer, and more focused.
How to Tune into Your Body
The easiest way to learn mindfulness is to sit quietly and close your eyes for a few moments. Notice what feelings come up or where your mind is going. First off, it may feel foreign to you to notice what’s coming up. We’ve essentially been trained out of this in our ADD culture. I call it Shiny Ball syndrome: the easy and ubiquitous distractions that pop up everywhere and keep us focused on new thing to new thing, outward and not inward. In fact, it can be painful for some people, especially those with a history of trauma, to focus inward because it may feel dark and scary in there. If that’s you, certainly these tips will help, but I’d encourage working with a therapist to help bring these issues to the surface so you can release them.
Here are some other tips to help you live mindfully day to day:
- Start by just focusing on your breath. That’s it. Tune into your breathing and your body. Do this in short bursts several times daily. I sometimes do this if I’m spinning out on something or to recenter and ground myself.
- Try letting your mind wander for a bit and identify where it’s going. Then gently bring it back to the present moment and let thoughts pass without attachment or judgement. That means when something comes up, you don’t ruminate on it. Just let it go. Your brain is constantly firing and generating random thoughts. Sometimes these thoughts have no significance; it’s just a result of neurons firing. I used to think all these random thoughts were important, that my brain was trying to tell me something, so I would attach to and explore everything that came up. Talk about exhausting! Then I saw a bumper sticker that said, Don’t believe everything you think, and it literally changed my life. Think about that! Don’t believe everything you think.
- During the day, check in with yourself during routine activities and focus on what you’re doing and how you’re feeling. Identify how you’re feeling out loud even. The most important part is not to judge yourself if you can’t identify it right away. I use this to guide myself in exercise. If I wake up feeling great and energetic, I’ll do some sprints. But if I feel more withdrawn or tired, I’ll do some yoga. This is an example of working with your body to encourage balance.
- Begin each day with 5 minutes of mindful meditation. Sit quietly and let thoughts pass by like clouds. If your mind starts to wander, gently bring it back to your breath, which should be easy and rhythmic. This practice helps YOU control your mind and not visa versa. You’re in charge here.
- Before you eat, ask yourself if you’re truly hungry. Are you eating just because it’s a mealtime? Or because you’re bored, lonely, or tired? If you identify that you’re not hungry but want to eat anyway, get very curious about why. It’s like peeling back layers of an onion. Ask yourself questions about why you want to eat for distraction and not nourishment. When you arrive at the answer, address it.
- When you are eating, chew slowly and thoroughly and enjoy your meal. Don’t distract yourself with computer work or eating in the car or on the go. Find just 15 minutes (more if you have it) where you’re relaxed and focused on your meal. You’ll digest and absorb nutrients much better which will regulate your appetite longterm! Notice the sensations and when you start to get full. Don’t plow through your meal because it’s all there in front of you. Stop when you’re “8 parts full.” (Ayurvedic saying).
- Stop and smell the roses! It deeply depresses me to live in our current culture of rushing around, heads down always buried in our phones, zoning out. I think these behaviors and Shiny Ball syndrome highly correlate with ADD, loneliness, anxiety, depression. We’re more connected than ever but so disconnected from ourselves and others. So put your phone down. Take a walk and breathe in the sights and smells of your area. Stop and smell some flowers; notice the beauty around you. I literally moved from busy San Francisco to the Sierra mountains so I could reconnect with nature and live more simply. Now of course I’m not saying that’s necessary; you can find ways to reconnect with yourself and your surroundings no matter where you are.
I’ve been practicing mindfulness for a long time, and I still suck at it. That’s why it’s called a practice. You may find you’re better in some areas than others. For example, I am very good at tuning into my body’s cues but still struggle with mindfulness meditation and the ability to be in the present. So don’t get discouraged. Literally, mindfulness is a lifetime practice. Just ask any Buddhist monk!
Mary Vance is a Certified Nutrition Consultant and author specializing in digestive health. In addition to her coaching practice, she offers courses to help you heal your gut and kick nagging digestive issues for good. Mary lives in San Francisco and Lake Tahoe in Northern California. Read more about her coaching practice here and her background here.