When I first I learned about the importance of mindfulness practice in reducing stress and improving health, I inwardly whined, Another thing for the to-do list! As a committed transcendental meditation disciple, I thought I was doing enough to train my brain for optimal functioning. Then I interviewed Dr. Ron Siegel, assistant clinical professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School (where he has taught for more than 30 years), and my perspective shifted.
Mindfulness isn’t a must-set-time-aside-to-do activity. As Dr. Siegel (a longtime student of mindfulness meditation who also serves on the board of directors and faculty of the Institute for Meditation and Psychotherapy) explained it, mindfulness is as easy as breathing and can be incorporated into your life without feeling like a chore.
Dr. Siegel defines “mindfulness” this way:
Mindfulness is actually an attitude toward your experience. In other words, it’s a way to relate to whatever arises in the heart, the mind, and the body. There are practices designed to facilitate mindfulness (like forms of meditation), but they are not mindfulness themselves. It’s a little like physical fitness, which is strength, endurance, and flexibility. There are exercises we do to cultivate physical fitness, like going to the gym or going for a bike ride or going jogging, but those are not physical fitness itself. So this attitude toward experience—which is mindfulness—involves awareness of present experience with acceptance.
We have to remember that mindfulness is about training the mind to accept what comes up, to have a kind of loving and warm attitude, even toward the uncomfortable thoughts and feelings that arise.
An emotion not reinforced by a thought lasts only ninety seconds. Things arise and pass unless we think and resist. When people take up mindfulness, they notice it’s very hard to accept the distasteful things that come up in the mind. It’s either frightening or a little bit painful, so there’s a lot of resistance. We have to remember that mindfulness is about training the mind to accept what comes up, to have a kind of loving and warm attitude, even toward the uncomfortable thoughts and feelings that arise. Thoughts take us out of the present moment; mindfulness takes us out of the thought stream and back into the present moment. We train the mind to bring attention away from the constant stream of words flowing through our heads and more toward our senses. This helps us to have some perspective on our thoughts, which helps us to take those thoughts less seriously and become more comfortable.
Informal mindfulness involves just making some shifts in how you do normal daily activities so you do them in ways that make you more mindful—or example, going out for a walk and simply bringing attention to the sensation of your feet touching the ground.
Anything that helps the mind become more aware of experience with acceptance becomes a mindfulness practice. Informal mindfulness involves just making some shifts in how you do normal daily activities so you do them in ways that make you more mindful—or example, going out for a walk and simply bringing attention to the sensation of your feet touching the ground. You walk normally but notice the contact of your feet and then the lack of contact. Or notice the details of what is around you: the colors, sounds, and smells. Decide each time you walk that you’re going to make it a mindfulness practice. Another example: Taking a shower is a very rich, sensual experience in terms of the feeling of the water, the fragrance of the soap, and so on. You can decide that every time you go into the shower, you’re going to pay attention to how it feels. There are many opportunities throughout the day that allow you to commit to paying more attention to your experience while continuing with your normal routine. A more formal practice involves setting aside time and being with an object of awareness—for example, closing your eyes and bringing your attention to the sensation of your breath.
Another useful tip Dr. Siegel shared explains how mindfulness raises awareness of the sequence of events in your mind and body. For example, someone may say something you don’t notice in the moment, but then later you find yourself feeling angry, sad, or frightened without knowing why. When you’re mindful, he said, you notice the emotional impact of subtle events. This helps you quickly identify and resolve disturbances.