When I first I learned about the importance of mindfulness practice in reducing stress and increasing 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 Siegel (a longtime student of mindfulness meditation and 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.
If you’ve ever tried to be mindful, you’ve probably discovered it can be difficult. My friend Jared complains, “When I try being mindful, my mind starts ruminating and then I feel uncomfortable and very antsy.” Dr. Siegel explained why this happens:
An emotion not reinforced by a thought only lasts 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.
The challenges posed by developing a mindful attitude can make it tough to commit to. I invited Dr. Siegel to share some tips that make mindfulness more accessible. Here’s what he recommends:
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 that you do them in ways that make you more mindful. For example, beginning to do things that allow you to pay attention: 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 you’re going to make that an opportunity of mindfulness practice. Or taking a shower, which is a very rich, sensual experience in terms of the feeling of the water, the fragrance of the soap, etc. 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 in the day that you can commit to paying more attention to your experience while you continue about your normal routine. A more formal practice involves setting time aside and being with some object of awareness. For example, closing your eyes and bringing your attention to the sensation of the breath, or a listening meditation.
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, you notice the emotional impact of subtle events so you can quickly identify and resolve disturbances.