Your Complete Guide to Mindfulness

Mindfulness Primer
Photo by Dylan Luder

Does your Monday-Friday grind mean an onslaught of meetings, appointments and responsibilities? Us too. Our “go-go-go” society has glorified being busy: working lean, swift and hard for maximum efficiency.

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However, there’s been recent backlash to this non-stop mentality, with the proliferation of meditation apps, coloring books and other tools and devices to help individuals cope with stress, impulsivity and anxiety. Behind all these stress-busting activities, tips and tools, though, underlies one common philosophy, which can also be put into practice (if you aren’t already!): mindfulness.

Ellen Langer, PhD and professor of psychology at Harvard University, who has been studying mindfulness since the 1970s, defines mindfulness as “the very simple process of noticing new things, which puts us in the present and makes us more sensitive to context and perspective.” It is the essence of engagement with one’s own thoughts and actions, she says. Here’s exactly what you need to know about mindfulness, how it can help you manage stress, earn that raise or allow you to finally figure out how to make “family first” a reality.

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Mindfulness, Explained

Think of mindfulness as a state of mind, says Melanie Greenberg, a clinical psychologist in Marin, CA. “A mindful approach to life means being more kind, accepting and self-aware of your own thoughts and actions. It’s about learning to go with the flow, being open and experiencing the present moment,” she says.

“One of the key ingredients of mindfulness is not falling into an automatic reactive state,” says Sharon Salzberg, co-founder of Insight Meditation Society. Furthermore, Salzberg adds that mindfulness is “being aware of our perception of what’s happening in the present moment without bias.” This way of thinking allows for a clearer sense of reality, rather than a perceived notion of what’s happening.

How to Practice Mindfulness (No Extra Time Required!)

If it seems like adding a mindfulness practice to your already busy life will be overwhelming, don’t worry: You’re probably already living more mindfully than you realize. Utilizing mindfulness doesn’t have to mean making any kind of drastic lifestyle change. For most of us, it just means paying attention to our choices, actions and behaviors a bit more closely.

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“Part of being mindful is just being connected to what’s happening in the moment,” says Greenberg. “Whether you’re with your children or in a meeting, it’s about being fully present and not cheating yourself by half-thinking about something else and letting your mind wander.” Being mindful is recognizing that your mind is wandering, and bringing it back to the present moment.

Think about the things you do every day, and take note of how you can do them with more intention and awareness, whether it’s walking the dog, cooking dinner for your family, taking a loud spin class or spending time with that coloring book. “Notice everything you see while you’re out for your walk,” says Greenberg. “Pay attention to everything you smell and hear, focusing on your senses in the moment.” If you’ve jumped on board the adult coloring book bandwagon, don’t “zone out” with it — use this as a time to zone in.

How Mindfulness Improves Your Health and Your Life

Research shows that being mindful actually changes the brain,” says Greenberg. “Brain scan studies find that acting mindfully increases brain activity in the areas associated with positive emotion instead of negative. It makes you feel more centered, light and powerful, and less stressed. Learning to live mindfully will increase your wellbeing, lower your blood pressure, help productivity at work and help you sleep better, too,” she notes.

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Plus, leading a more mindful life could ultimately improve your relationships with others. “Couples fight all the time,” says Greenberg. “We get triggered and rapidly go into fight or flight mode — we get angry or we shut down, run away or avoid. Mindfulness can help you stop, slow things down, back off and give your brain time to catch up with your body’s emergency response. You’ll be able to calm down and figure out the most effective way to communicate,” she says. So instead of yelling at our spouse for not taking out the trash — again — we can find a more compassionate way to have a conversation, not a battle.

Perhaps most importantly in today’s world, mindfulness teaches us to stop freaking out about the past and future so much, and to just relax with where we are. “So put your cell phone down,” says Greenberg. “Savor the present moment.”

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