What Is Mindfulness?

Researchers have now confirmed that mediation can indeed lessen the negative influences our bodies and minds endure while navigating the stresses of daily life. wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock

My own definition of mindfulness is "Being awake in your own life." Other interpretations of the idea, which comes from Buddhist meditation philosophies (but also some psychological practices, Taoism and Native American belief systems), include single words like awareness and self-reflection. Psychology Today explains it as "... a state of active, open attention on the present. When you're mindful, you observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance, without judging them good or bad."

Described another way, the Vipassana Fellowship — which teaches the Buddha's 2,500-year-old meditation technique to reach mindfulness, or sati — states that mindfulness is not a concept, a belief system, or even a specific idea. As written on the website, "Mindfulness can be experienced — rather easily — and it can be described, as long as you keep in mind that the words are only fingers pointing at the moon. They are not the thing itself. The actual experience lies beyond the words and above the symbols. Mindfulness could be described in completely different terms than will be used here, and each description could still be correct." Mindfulness is either more complicated — or more simple — than our language is capable of describing.

What's not complicated is that studies (more than 1,000 so far, with plenty more in the works) show that mindfulness can positively affect your physical health and mental health, can impact your attention, boost your immune system. As Diana Winston, a former Buddhist nun who is the director of Mindfulness Education at UCLA Mindful Awareness Center, relates in the TEDx video below, mindfulness can have a dramatic effect on difficult-to-treat diseases.

Keeping all of the above in mind, then, mindfulness is very much what you make of it, and what works for one person may not for another; basically, there is no "one real way" to achieve mindfulness.

But if you practice it, it can help you deal with what Buddhists call the "monkey mind" — that constant stream of thoughts, feelings, obsessions, looking into the future and dwelling in the past that many of us find ourselves locked into day after day. If you are dealing with anxiety, depression, unhealthy habits and attachments, or constantly difficult relationships, mindfulness can help reverse the overwhelming weight of any of those habits on the mind. If you are taking medication for a mental health issue, you can use mindfulness in tandem with what your doctor has prescribed. So wherever you are in your mental health journey, it can be of benefit.

What does mindfulness feel like, and how do you know when you've gotten there? For me — and I've been working on my mindfulness for about 20 years off-and-on — it is most like stepping back a few paces from your usual perspective. In fact, that's the visualization I use most often when I'm feeling upset or angry, frustrated, sad or melancholy: I imagine a part of myself moving outside myself and looking over my shoulder. Sometimes I use it if I'm feeling "good" too — when I'm joyful, playful, a little crazy-bouncing-off-the-walls. It's like a check-in with myself. I "look" at myself feeling whatever it is, and sometimes, I keep going. Crying can be a great release, being angry sometimes is totally appropriate, as is experiencing almost overwhelming joy. All of these are healthy states.

Mindfulness is not about quashing feelings, avoiding them, or pushing them away, but examining them — from a distance, without judgment. Sometimes I look at my feelings and realize I'm upset about something else, or realize that I just need to eat (low blood sugar makes me very sad), or exercise, or get a hug from my partner. Overall it means that when I'm really upset, I feel that way, and when I'm having an emotion based on something else, I can realize that. That is mindfulness for me, and admittedly, I don't always "remember" to step back: That's where the practice part of practicing mindfulness comes into play.

So, how can you practice mindfulness in your life?

Meditation: Even if you haven't meditated before, you can get benefit from starting now. Meditation is the best way to build an understanding of how it can feel to quiet the mind, a main key to mindfulness. If you need a primer on how to meditate, start here.

Breathe: If you don't have the time or inclination for a full meditation practice, focusing on your breath can help get you to a more mindful state (though in my experience it's easier to use breath if you have already familiarized yourself with the concept through meditation). The simplest way to do this is by counting breaths — I like to do five breaths where I count to five while I breathe in and then breathe out while I count to seven. When I've gone through the five breaths, which takes about a minute and a half (you can do it while walking, lying down, or sitting in your office chair), I practice just looking quietly at how I am feeling, without judgment. I sometimes find that I'm more nervous than I realized, or angrier. If so, then I can work on letting that feeling go.

Savor: It's incredibly easy to travel through life on the surface of things, barely seeing what's around you, hardly tasting the food and drinks in front of you (I call it skating). One way to become more mindful is to really focus on whatever it is you are doing. This works especially well with anything that involves the five senses. Start with you daily coffee or tea, or a piece of fruit. While you consume it, concentrate on only tasting and smelling it. What flavors do you notice? What are the scents beneath the obvious ones? How does the drink or fruit feel in your mouth? What is it like to swallow it? When you allow yourself to focus on just one thing at a time, you are living in the moment and not thinking about the past or the future, which is one of the keys to mindfulness.

Cultivate flow states: Flow is that feeling you have when you are thoroughly immersed in a project or a physical activity. Most athletes spend much of their game and practice times in flow, and artists and creative folks often find themselves there, maybe even forgetting to eat or drink or sleep. It's that feeling where you look up and have no idea how much time has passed, you are so absorbed in what you are doing. Whatever gets you there (I find it when I work on creative projects, as well as doing gardening and housework, cycling and hiking), cultivate that in your life, because flow is just another word for mindfulness. Minimizing distractions to flow (beeping alerts, buzzing phones and the like), are key to achieving flow. Be aware that you can't force flow, you can only set the stage for it.

Let go of goals (at least for mindfulness): The whole point of being mindful is being here, now. There is nothing to achieve, no goal to get to, no end point at which you can check "be mindful" off your list. It is only an awareness, a practice to cultivate that will help you "achieve" other things, like reduce anxiety, enhance pleasure, increase compassion, and decrease anger.