One of the side effects of being a thoughtful woman, wife, or mother is that it is sometimes difficult to take a break. Whether or not we realize it, those plans for lunch tomorrow, worries about childcare, and self-reminders about our to-do lists can leave our brains stuck in “on mode,” even when we’re trying to sleep or relax. By training ourselves to be aware of our thoughts and feelings, we can become happier and healthier people. And it’s easier than you think.
What Is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is fundamentally about living in the present. When we practice mindfulness, we become fully aware of our bodies, our feelings, and the world around us. Mindfulness allows us to observe without judging, like scientists impartially gathering data. We can make decisions based on what we learned during a mindful meditation later, but mindfulness gives us the freedom to simply be.
Mindfulness comes from many different prayer and meditation traditions—including Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, and Taoist. And in the last half-century, secular modern psychologists have started train their patients in mindfulness because it has clinically observable psychological and physiological benefits.
Central Ideas of Mindfulness
There are many different ways to practice mindfulness, but most involve a core set of principles:
- Be present. Focus on the moment. Find a quiet place to sit still—if possible. If not, concentrate on what’s going on right now, instead of what has or will happen.
- Listen to yourself. Mindfulness teaches us to respect what our minds, bodies, and feelings tell us. You don’t have to question whether your feelings are valid, just, or fair—the reality is that you feel a certain way and the way you feel matters.
- Study yourself instead of judging yourself. A psychiatrist once told me that feelings are like the weather—we can try to plan around them, but they aren’t something we can change. Instead of chastising yourself for feeling angry or hurt, simply accept the way you feel. Sometimes a simple self-admission is enough to make painful feelings resolve themselves, but accepting that our feelings exist is always an important step toward calm and healing.
- Accept the way you feel. Most of the time, we cannot eliminate feelings by force—no matter how hard we try. Accept the way you feel and allow yourself to enjoy the pleasure of pleasant feelings or endure the pain of unpleasant ones. With practice, mindfulness can help you learn to better tolerate negative emotions without letting them control the way you act.
Want to give mindfulness a try? This three-minute breathing exercise is a great way to start. You can do it anywhere, any time. If possible, sit down and close your eyes. If not (and sometimes for busy women and moms it really isn’t), try to bring your focus to the present moment.
- Focus on your body and your feelings. Are there any areas of tension in your body? Perhaps you can allow your shoulders to relax or ease your face into a smile. What are you feeling—sad, anxious, annoyed? Allow yourself to experience your feelings without judging. Direct your focus inward as you breathe in and out for about a minute.
- Focus on your breath. Listen to yourself breathing in and out. Feel your shoulders and chest rise or your diaphragm expand. When you become distracted, quickly accept the thoughts or feelings that caught your attention and dismiss them. (I like to imagine a river flowing over my head. I can toss stray thoughts or worries in and let them float away without the effort of fighting them off.) Do this for about a minute, six or so cycles of inhaling and exhaling.
- Focus on the world around you. Slowly bring your attention back to what’s going on around you. Feel your body firmly rooted on the chair or floor. Listen for sounds of coworkers typing, birds chirping, or children playing. Feel air passing down the back of your throat. When you’re ready, open your eyes. Take a moment to enjoy the calm before you return to your normal activities.
Want to Learn More?
Mindfulness is a practice you can slowly incorporate into your life. If you enjoyed three-minute breathing, here are a few other mindfulness practices you can try:
- Sit down with a favorite fruit. Study it with your senses. Look at it first, at its color and texture. Smell it. How does it sound when you peel it or bit into it? Leave a small bite on your tongue without chewing it. How does it feel? Enjoy the taste of the fruit, the way it feels to chew.
- Mindful movements a something like a cross between yoga and meditation. By moving and focusing on your body, you can become more aware of the way you feel and let go of unwanted thoughts. You can learn more about mindfulness and mindful movements in this video from a Vietnamese monk.
- Sit in a comfortable chair with the best posture you can. Pay attention to your breathing. Then, starting with your toes, spend several seconds reflecting on each part of your body, down to the smallest appendages and muscles. Right foot toe-by-toe, then left. Front of the right calf, then back. How does it feel? Is there any tension—if so, release it. Just be aware of your body. Move all the way up to your face: teeth, tongue, gums, lips, nose (you can feel your breath moving down the back of your throat), eyes, eyelashes, and eyebrows. Finish with the top of your head and the roots of your hair. This technique works well lying in bed if you can’t calm your mind to get to sleep.
I also highly recommend A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook. It includes a CD with 21 guided meditations to help you practice living in the moment.
What do you do when you’re stressed out? Let us know in the comments.