What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is a pretty big buzzword in therapy today but what does it really mean? Does it mean doing yoga, meditating, sitting silently in a dark room, or just stopping to smell the flowers? Mindfulness CAN include these things, yet these things also can be done without any mindfulness at all.

Mindfulness means being fully present in the moment. You can essentially be mindful in almost any activity, it just involves shifting your focus to what is presently going on. This can involve focusing on sensations within your body or on those in your immediate surroundings. It involves noticing your your five senses and experiencing them in a nonjudgmental manner. You can do mindfulness while sipping a beverage or eating a snack.


A Mindfulness Exercise

Practicing mindfulness with a cup of tea, for example, is a good introduction to using this important skill. I enjoy doing this simple activity with clients because it is a form of mindfulness that is often overlooked in our culture: Stopping and truly valuing the experience of eating or drinking. This requires slowing down enough to not only put down our smart-phones, but also to turn off the constantly running dialogue of chore lists, worries, judgments and self-talk filling our minds.

I encourage you to take a moment, make yourself a cup of tea (or other beverage) and engage in this exercise…

Sit upright in a comfortable chair, close your eyes, and take ten deep breaths. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth, about 5 seconds inhaling and 5 seconds exhaling with each breath. Try to focus only on thinking about your breathing. If your mind wanders just gently notice this and steer it back to thinking about your breathing. There is no judgment. This is a way to prepare your mind and to get grounded. After you finish taking 10 slow, deep breaths Open your eyes and start to observe the tea in your hand.

What color is it? Take about 10 seconds to ponder the color. Is it orange, brown, clear, green?

How hot or cold is it? Feel the cup and take some more time to notice the temperature.

What does it smell like? Take some time noticing the scent. Is it sweet, sour, floral, earthy?

Look at it from different angles and observe any small bits of tea leaf inside, different layers of colors, the look of it as you tilt you glass slightly? Is there anything you have noticed about the tea that you have not observed before?

Listen to the sounds around you. Are there any sounds or is there silence? Are cars driving by, is the clock ticking, wind blowing? You can try to listen to the tea. Is there any sound at all? Does this feel completely odd yet? Observe any judgments you are making, accept them and bring your focus back to being mindful of your tea.

Finally, take a slow sip and savor it in your mouth. Is it sweet or bitter? No judgments here, just observations. Do you like the taste? It’s ok if you do or don’t, just observe and accept your feelings. Finally drink the tea and repeat the process again from the beginning, making this experience last at least 5-10 minutes before you finish your cup. When your mind inevitably wanders to the tasks of the day, frustrations or other things, simply notice those thoughts and bring your mind back to the tea.


Benefits of Mindfulness

After this exercise is completed consider how you feel now versus how you felt before you began the exercise. It can be useful to rate your level of distress before and then after on a 1-10 scale. More often than not, you will find that your stress levels have been reduced to a noticeable degree.

Mindfulness can be amazingly simple and extremely effective, yet so few of us consistently use this skill. This is a shame as it is one of the best ways to lower your blood pressure, relieve stress and improve the overall quality of your life. How can you afford not to make time in your day for such a valuable activity? Mindfulness perhaps the most important piece of self-care you can add to your life. After you become more skilled at exercising mindfulness in controlled settings, such as by yourself in a quiet room, you will begin to find opportunities to use this skill in a variety of other places.

I have found great stress relief by learning to be mindful while riding my bicycle. By focussing on my five senses I become more attuned to the experience. I notice the temperature of the air (touch), observe my environment, the mountains and trees (sight). I notice any sounds my bike is making, the birds chirping (sound). When thoughts of, “I should oil that part” come up, I resist judgment, and bring my mind back to simple observations of my experience. How my legs feel as I peddle, the smell of the fresh morning air (smell) and when I sip some water from my water bottle I can focus briefly on the sense of taste. It is a much more healing and supportive experience then it is to focus on getting my fastest possible time on my bike.

Mindfulness offers the mental relief of taking the pressure off of myself for a time to just enjoy the ride.

Play around with moments and experiences where you can be mindful. Often you do not need to breathe beforehand, especially as you become more comfortable with the process. You can notice yourself being mindful in relationships, by noticing the amazing qualities of your children, your friends, or your spouse, perhaps for the first time in a long time. The key is staying present, focusing on the 5 senses and refraining from judgment. And if you find yourself passing judgment or your mind wandering, just notice it and gently guide yourself back to being present in the moment. Take some time everyday to be mindful, and learn to reap the amazing health benefits inherent in taking time to slow down and just “be”.