Practicing Mindfulness and How to Be Mindful

There are many books that teaches mindfulness meditation and how to be more mindful in everyday life. One such book is Fully Present: The Science, Art, and Practice of Mindfulness written by Susan Smalley PhD and Diana Winston published in 2010.

Why are such a growing interest in mindfulness? It is because many people find that they need a strategy to combat to our more fast-pace, and sometimes stressful lives. As the book mentions ...

"In the midst of our techno-savvy yet anxiety-producing culture, scientific investigation has become increasingly interested in the ancient practice of mindfulness as the antidote of sorts to the ills of the modern world and as a tool for skillfully examining our lives." [book introduction]

Although this book teaches mindfulness meditation, it is not religious and you do not have to be religious to utilize these techniques. The book introduces itself by saying "This book explores how to be more mindful in day-to-day life and how to use mindfulness practice to promote well-being."

Not only does the book teaches us how to be more mindful in our day-to-day lives, it presents scientific explanations and reports on studies of how mindfulness can improve our health and well-being.

In addition, the book presents anecdotes from various people from all walks of life on their experience in learning mindfulness. There are quotes from a college student, a dockworker, a father of three, a 63-year-old investor, a project manager, a musician, and many others.

Smalley is director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA and Winston is director of Mindfulness Education division of the research center.


What is Mindfulness

Mindfulness is being aware of and living in the present moment. It is also called mindful awareness practice.

For most of us, most of the time our minds are not in the present moment. Our minds are wandering all over the place -- often recalling past events or speculating about the future.

Mindfulness is a practice to pull our minds back to the present moment and be aware of our present thoughts, emotions, and body sensations. You can try this simple breathe counting exercise linked here to see what mindfulness meditation feels like.

Jon Kabat-Zinn on Mindfulness

Jon Kabat-Zinn, an author and authority on mindfulness meditation, defines mindfulness this way from his book Mindfulness Beginners Reclaiming Present Moment ...

"Paying attention, on-purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally”

You can also see his talk on mindfulness in this video on the right.

Why is Mindfulness Helpful?

Studies have shown that mindfulness may help reduce stress and pain. In fact, there are programs that use mindfulness to help reduce stress and pain. Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn developed the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program and founded the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. He have written the book "Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness" to help people overcome stress and pain through the use of mindfulness meditation.

Mindfulness improves the immune system. Fully Present states "perhaps one of the most profound and important ways in which mindfulness benefits the body is in boosting immunity." [page 59] The reason could be that simply lowering of stress improves immunity. Or it could be that mindfulness makes the mind and body become more attuned to each, strengthening the mind-body connection.

When we become more attuned to our bodies, our brains become more attuned too resulting in improved "brain coherence". It gets a bit scientific as it discusses EEG patterns and improved attention, and increased theta wave coherence, thereby making the brain work more effectively. In any case, it says "The bottom line is that meditation seems to create greater harmony in the brain."[p131]

The book reports that ...

"The positive relationship between well-being and mindfulness ... is perhaps one of the most consistent findings in mindfulness research to date."[p 129]

Perhaps that is why mindfulness may also be a factor in happiness. A UCLA study at UCLA did find there was a link between depression and decreased brain coherence.

Daniel Siegel in his book The Mindful Brain also supports the idea that mindfulness increase coherence. Siegel further states that mindfulness practice appears to activate the right hemisphere which is associated with the feelings of well-being.

Mindfulness Reduces Anxiety

The Heal Your Anxiety Workbook by John Arden says ...

"Overall mindfulness practice has been shown to alleviate stress and cultivate positive feelings, such as the reduction of anxiety." [page 89]

One factor that reduces anxiety is the increase connection between the pre-frontal cortex (the thinking center) and the amygdala (the fear center). When the connection between these two parts of the brain is strong, you will be more able to face adversity and still maintain positive emotion.

The middle prefrontal cortex is the awareness center and is responsible for self-observation. This is one of the areas of the brain that is helps reduce anxiety. And this is one of the areas that are activated during mindfulness practice. Afterall, mindfulness practice is the practice of self-observation.

Mindfulness can be Practical in Everyday Living

Mindfulness not only brings health and peace. But it can also be practical in everyday life. Mindfulness enables us to notice our emotions. This awareness decreases that chance that emotions would hijack one's thinking brain and cause one to do or say things that I might regret later (such as yelling at your boss and then getting fired).

In a sense, mindfulness helps us think before we speak, and think before acting on emotions.

David Rock gave a talk at Google (video on right) which explains how the mind works and how emotional control is very important for success in life. He also explains that when our limbic system is under a treat response, our logical prefrontal control dampens. However, if we are quick enough to notice our state of threat and reframe this threat, then our threat response disappears. This is much better than suppressing our emotions. When our emotions are still there but we try to hide it from others, we are often not successful and others will subconsciously be aware as evidenced by increased blood pressure.

He also wrote the article “The Neuroscience of Mindfulness” which explains that we have two modes of thinking: (1) the default narrative thinking, and (2) direct experience.

Practice switching into the direct experience every once in a while. During meals, really taste the meal and notice the flavors and not be thinking about other narrative. When you switch to this mode, the narrative dampens automatically dampens. This is in essences mindfulness.

How To Be Mindful

One of the most important ways to become mindful is to become aware of the breathe.

The book Fully Present talks about using the breath as an meditation anchor. The thoughts in our minds are often all over the place. This technique uses the breathe as the achor where we can always bring our attention back to. After all our breath is always with us.

A simple breath counting exercise as explained linked here is another a good way to learn mindfulness meditation.

A second reason why we use the breath in mindfulness practice is because the breathe has a neutral connotation -- it is neither good nor bad. It just is. This brings us to another aspect of mindfulness which is to accept things as they are, and not judge them as either good nor bad.
In mindfulness beathing exercise, we are just supposed to become aware of the breath. We do not try to change our breath. The authors of the book gives two reasons for this...

"First, letting the breath be natural is a bit easier than trying to regulate it. ... second, and more importantly, the ordinary breath teaches us to be mindful of things as they are. One of the main tenants of mindfulness practice is to be aware of things exactly as they occur we learned not to try to control our experience in life, but to let it unfold, exactly as it is." [page 46]

Mindfulness takes practice and sometimes lots of practice. But you can not have a "good" or "bad" meditation session. You simply just have a meditation session. Don't label the session as "bad" just because you have too many thoughts in your head, etc.

To get its full benefit, you have to do it formally every day such as 5 to 20 minutes each day. Easier said than done, I know (especially in our busy lives). But try. If not, you can still integrate mindfulness using less formal techniques.

Informal mindfulness technique

The book Fully Present teaches us other mindfulness techniques such as walking meditation, mental body scan, and daily body awareness.

Besides having a formal meditation practice where you sit for 5 to 20 minutes for the sole purpose of practicing mindfulness, you can also inject mindfulness practice throughout your day informally. Walking mindfully, eating mindfully, and running on a treadmill at a gym mindfully are all good ways to incorporate mindfulness without taking up extra time. After all, you do have to walk, and you do have to eat anyways. Why not do it mindfully?

The acronym STOP is a technique that can be used to practice informal mindfulness. It stands for ...

S: Stop - as in stop whatever you are doing at the moment (assuming you're not doing something critical such as driving, flying a airplane, or performing brain surgery)

T: Take - as in take a breath.

O: Observe - as in observe your breath as you take it. And observe your body sensations such as any tightness of muscles, tensions, and your posture.

P: Proceed - as in go back to what you were doing.

It's as simple as that. It doesn't take much time. You can do this at various times within your day. Such as waiting in line, stopped at a stop light, or just whenever you can remember to do it.

If you simply cannot remember to do it, there is a mindfulness bell website that can help. At timed intervals while you're working on your computer a bell rings reminding you to stop what you are doing, take a breath, and be mindful.

Speaking of software, there is a cute website with illustrated piggies that introduces even kids to meditation. The website is by Kerry Lee Maclean, author of the kid's book Peaceful Piggy Meditation.

Other mindfullness technique

Another acronym mindfulness technique is RAIN.

R: Recognition - as in recognize and label your current emotion.

A: Acceptance - whatever emotion it is, accept that it is okay to have that emotion. Note that we say it is okay to experience the emotion; but it is not necessarily okay to act on it.

I: Investigation - investigate how the emotion feels in terms of your body sensations. Is their tightness in the stomach? Is there tension in the neck? Are your jaw is clenched? And how is your breathing? Is it deep? Shallow? And your heart rate? Fast or slow? Investigate, here, does not mean investigating into the reasons or stories as to why you are having this emotion. That is the realm of other therapies; but not of mindfulness training. Mindfulness simply means seeing things as they are currently are whatever it may be. And we don't care where it came from and where it's going. We only care about the present moment -- not the past nor the future.

N: Non-identification - Basically you're "non-identifying" yourself from your emotions. So that you do not take your emotions personally. Instead of thinking "I'm sad". Think "I have sadness".

In this way, you realizes that you are not your emotions. You are just temporarily experiencing a type of force that we call emotions. The authors says to think of emotions as "energy in motion". Think of emotions as a weather system in your mind. Sometime it rains and sometime it's sunny. But if you become attentive to it, you will realize that it is always changing (at least somewhat). That also means that whatever you are feeling, it is temporary -- just like the weather.

The book "Meditation for Dummies" summarizes it best in the section "You are not your thoughts or feelings" on page 78 by saying ...

"you're the thinker not the thoughts!  As you begin to gain some perspoective on your thoughts through the practice of mediation, you may find that you thoughts start losing the poer they once had over you.  You can have your thoughts, but the won't have you."

Idea of non-identification

The idea of non-identification is hard to explain because it is a perception that is not common in our everyday living. Non-identification is the idea that there is a consciousness that is beyond the "I" or the "me". You are that consciousness that is looking at your own body as an "impartial observer".

The book explains ...

"you are adopting the stance of a 'detached observer,' or 'impartial spectator,' or one of 'unentangled participation'" [page 83]

On the front cover of Fully Present is a quote from Deepak Chopra that says "Mindful living is the highest form of human intelligence." Deepak Chopra MD is a well known authority and best-selling author in the field of mind-body healing.

You may have seen Chopra in various media such as television and on the web. If not, you can see a YouTube clip linked here of him explaining what mindfulness is.

You may have heard in other media and literature of "getting rid of the ego".   We are not trying to get rid of the ego (or anything else).  It is not recommended that we get rid of our ego; as the ego does serve an important psychological purpose.  You need your ego to function in life anyways.  Perhaps at most, we not hold on to the ego so tight.  Let go a little. We see and accept things as they are.  We also see in addition to the ego that there is a higher level of perception that is beyond the ego.   

Mindfulness Spectrum

There are different types of mindfulness. Think of it as a spectrum, with focused mindfulness attention on one end -- such as when you are focused on reading despite noises around you. On the other end is "open monitoring" where your attention is not focused specifically on one thing, but you have an awareness of all the sights, sounds, and smells all around you. This latter awareness is needed for example when you are driving and need to see everything that is around you.You need to cultivate both ends of the spectrum -- as both types of attention are needed at different times.

To cultivate open monitoring, "Rather than directing your attention to one object, such as the breath, open your attention to the array of experiences without getting lost in the content." [p163]

The breath counting exercise is an exercise in cultivating focused attention.

Similar to breath counting is "thought counting". Here you count each thought that comes into your mind. You can even picture each thought as clouds floating across a clear blue sky. Notice how each thought comes in and goes out.

Another variation is to label each thought (similar to how we label each emotion in the "R" step of the RAIN technique). Label thoughts for example, as "remembering", "planning", "worrying", etc. But don't get into their stories. Just watch them float in and out of your mind's sky.

If counting thoughts become too numerous to count, you can count only criticizing thoughts.

So as you can see, there are many ways and techniques to become mindful.

The Effect of Mindfulness Practice

Have you ever found yourself thinking about a recent past event while you are brushing your teeth, in the shower, or driving?   It might have been when someone had wronged you.  You may not even realize that your mind had started to think about that event again.  Until all of a sudden, you "catch yourself".  Your then realized that you are thinking about it.  Then you noticed that your muscles are tense and your face might be warm.  And the person who wronged you isn't even in the car with you.  It was an event that had already happened and there was nothing you could do about it.  Yet, you body had triggered this stress response causing physiological effects that would probably dampened your immune system.  If you chronically have this stress response, you might even get sick.

With regular mindfulness practice, you will end up "catching yourself" earlier.   That is the point of mindfulness practice.  You become more aware of your thinking, and you pull yourself back to present moment sooner.  You escape the harmful effects of the stress response.

Another example, is when you are having a "discussion" with someone which is turning into an argument.   If one is not mindful, one might reflexively act out and say something that one might regret.  It happens so fast, that you don't realized what you had said until after you had said it. But too late.  Now you have to apologize.

Mindfulness practice trains you monitor yourself in as close to real time as possible in the present moment.  You will realize that you are about to "act out" and is able to stop yourself.

Book on Mindfulness

I also like the book "How to Train a Wild Elephant" -- the implication being that our mind is like an wild elephant that goes all over the place. Our training is to bring it back to the present moment and keep it from wandering. The book has nice exercises that we can incorporate into our daily lives without it being overly formal or restrictive.


We all can do with a good dose of mindfulness

With all the honking I hear from traffic -- such as when someone starts off from a stop light a second too low or when another is driving too sluggishly -- society as a whole can use a good dose of mindfulness.

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