Mindfulness is the psychological process of purposely bringing one’s attention to experiences occurring in the present moment without judgment, which one can develop through the practice of meditation and through other training.
Mindfulness has been practiced for thousands of years in various religious and secular traditions. From Hinduism and Buddhism to yoga and even non-religious meditation, mindfulness has been around for a long time. People practice mindfulness both by itself and as part of a larger tradition.
In general, mindfulness was popularized in the East by religious and spiritual institutions. But in the West, its popularity is linked to particular people and specific secular institutions. However, even the West’s secular tradition of mindfulness has roots in Eastern religion and specific practitioners.
The popularity of mindfulness in the United States is historically attributed to Jon Kabat-Zinn. Kabat-Zinn works at the University of Massachusetts Medical School as a professor of medicine emeritus and creator of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society.
Read on for my take on what mindfulness really means in a modern context and 10 mindfulness hacks for a busy life.
WHAT DOES MINDFULNESS MEAN?
Being mindful is essentially ‘paying attention on purpose’. It is the practice of being present (i.e. fully experiencing a moment in time) without being distracted. Simple, right?
Meditation and yoga both can be described as mindfulness practices, as they ask you to focus (or pay attention on purpose) to one thing in this actual moment in time (usually your breath or body). However you can be mindful without ever meditating or stepping onto a yoga mat; these practices simply help to train you to be more mindful.
MINDFULNESS FOR MODERN LIFE
Do you ever travel to work and then wonder how you got there because you can’t remember experiencing the commute? Or do you find yourself watching Netflix and scrolling Twitter at the same time? Or have you ever had coffee with a friend and half way through realized that you can’t remember what they just said to you? All those things are examples of NOT BEING MINDFUL… i.e. not paying attention to your actual experience of the world right now.
Not being mindful usually looks like getting distracted by thoughts…whether that’s concerns about the future, replaying past experiences or conversations or overthinking problems, but it can also look like wasting hours scrolling through social media, or trying to do too many things at once so you don’t focus on any of them.
So what DOES mindfulness look like in a world where everyone and everything is vying for our attention?
10 HACKS FOR A MODERN LIFE
Put your phone away. You’ve heard it before, but this really is a big one. If you’re in a meeting, or having coffee with a friend, or eating dinner with your loved ones not only is it incredibly rude to have your phone out, but you’re also highly unlikely to be able to focus on what is actually happening in front of you; the conversations being had or the experience of the human connection. Practising mindfulness is about giving your full attention to the people you are with, when you are with them and this simple hack will make a huge impact on how you connect with the people around you.
Tune in first thing. Do you reach for your phone to scroll like a one-eyed monster first thing in the morning? (I am 100% guilty of this too btw). Swap your morning scroll for a short guided body scan meditation like this one to check in with how you’re feeling each morning.
Pay attention to your morning routine. Most of us have a morning routine, right? Even if that’s just shower, teeth, dressed, go. Whether your routine is long or short, an easy way to practice mindfulness at the start of your day (especially if meditation isn’t your thing) is by paying attention to these small routine activities. In the shower, instead of daydreaming or running through your do-to list, practise paying attention to the experience. Enjoy the warmth of the water, the smell of your body wash and the experience of waking up. Write or make a mental note of 5 things you’re grateful for while you drink your morning coffee, rather than mindlessly scrolling.
Focus on one task at a time. Are you that person who works with the radio on, 15 internet tabs open at any one time and absolutely no structure to how you’re spending your time? If yes, this is a perfect opportunity to clean up your efficiency and get mindful at the same time. Remember, mindfulness is ‘paying attention on purpose’ so that means paying attention to each thing you turn your mind to, without distraction, and one task at a time. Make a to-do list each morning, and if you can, set aside blocks of time when you will complete each task (i.e. 10-12 creative tasks, 12-1 lunch, 1-2 emails, 2-4 admin etc). When you focus on a task, really focus on it. Turn off any email or social media notifications and don’t start another task until that one is completed.
Savour the simple things. We all love a treat so why not make the simplest of things just that? Love your coffee? Drink it slowly, savouring the experience, without doing anything else at the same time. Sunny day? Sit for 5 minutes with your face in the sun and just notice the experience of it on your face and how it makes you feel. Love music? Listen to your favourite song with the intention to just listen….not doing anything else. Savouring these small moments each day is a simple way to tune in to simple joys, making each day a treat.
Pay attention to your environment. You know when you’re in a new place and everything is wondrous? You notice the architecture, smells, sounds, people and places in much more detail than you do in your home town. Why? Because you’re paying attention. When something is new, we pay attention to it; we take it all in and experience it fully. When we are familiar with something the brain tunes out. This is why it’s so easy to go from home to work without even remembering the journey. Hack your commute by looking out for new things each day. Look up, look down, notice the people around you, listen out for laughter or music, look out for new street-art or if you can, take a different route and see what you can notice. Look around, make eye contact and smile at strangers, marvel in the beauty of the place you call home.
Make the most of the kettle, red lights or the ‘spinny wheel of death’ on your computer. Our days are full of natural pauses. Moments when we are forced to stop and slow down. Whether that’s waiting for the kettle to boil, waiting at a red light or waiting for your computer to do whatever it needs to do (mine is ancient and therefore gives me plenty of opportunity throughout the day while it decides if it wants to co-operate). Make the most of the these moments; resist the urge to reach for your phone and instead take the opportunity to check in. How are your standing/sitting? Are you hold tension in your shoulders/jaw/hands? Can you take 5 deep breaths?
Notice your hunger. Mindful or ‘intuitive’ eating is becoming big these days…what does it mean? Each time you get a pang of hunger or cravings for something, pay attention to what is really going on? Have you drunk enough water? When was the last time you ate? Should you be hungry again? Are you just bored? Are you hungry or craving (they are different). Mindful eating is about paying attention to your hunger and only eating when you actually need food, rather than because you’re bored. Similarly, if lunchtime rolls around and you’re not hungry yet….don’t eat, wait until your body is ready.
Use your phone. Yes I know…I just told you to put it away, but there are plenty of times in the day when you need to use your phone, so use it as a trigger. Change your background to something which will remind you to take 1 minute to look around and be mindful of the moment. Or set yourself alarms throughout the day, reminding you to pause and take 10 deep breaths. Or hide your social media apps deep in a folder away from your homepage so every time you reach for it you’re slowed down…then use that moment as a trigger to ask yourself ‘Why am I reaching for this? Can I take a moment to be present instead?’.
Round up the day. Even if you’ve gone through the whole day running around like a mad person and haven’t had time to pause and be mindful at any point, there’s still one final way you can practice mindfulness before you go to sleep. Think of, say out loud or write down 3 good things about your day before you close your eyes to sleep. Just this simple practice done nightly can help train your brain to start picking up on good things as and when they happen, tuning you in to the present moment and out of your distracted mind.
Evidence suggests that particular areas of the brain may either shrink or grow in response to regular mindfulness practice. Mindfulness and memory. An area of the brain known as the hippocampus helps your memory and learning. This area can also become thicker after practising mindfulness