Too often we live our lives on autopilot, following our daily routines and reacting to life without being fully engaged. Good examples of this are eating a whole packet of chips while you watch TV and realising that you didn’t notice the taste, or arriving at your destination and realising you didn’t notice the drive there. In both examples, our attention is elsewhere.
Mindfulness is all about training our attention, our self-awareness. We train our mind to stay in the present moment, and we train ourselves to be able to control our attention. That means we start noticing the good stuff – like how those chips tasted, or the scenery!
Mindfulness training also encourages the letting go of judgements, which can be good for our mental health. Although our brains are incredibly fast at making judgements, it often spends time making negative and reactive judgements about the self or about others. You just have to drive the roads of Sydney to see how much this influences road rage. But, these negative judgements are not always accurate or helpful. In fact, many people wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing their mean and hurtful thoughts aloud.
Despite this, they may pay too much attention to their thoughts. Some people spend a lot of time thinking about the past (ruminating), or being caught up in worry thoughts about the future. And those thoughts often evoke emotions – strong and automatic reactions to the thoughts in your mind that make the whole thing worse.
Mindfulness can help improve wellbeing by helping us become aware of and move away from automatic unhelpful thinking. In fact, the research evidence for mindfulness shows it has an incredible range of benefits for us, including reducing stress, improving emotional regulation, improving immune functioning, lowering blood pressure, reducing anxiety, increasing clarity in thinking, better focus and better sleep.
If you want to improve your executive functioning, or your overall wellbeing, mindfulness training is a great place to begin.
What does it mean to be mindful?
Being mindful involves paying attention to what is going on both internally (your thoughts, your emotions, your body sensations), and outside your body (sights, sounds, sensations, events). It involves becoming curious about all of these things, rather than avoiding, ignoring or judging.
By becoming curious we turn off the automatic judgements and learn to observe, and to accept what is happening in and around us. Both the pleasant, and the unpleasant. Acceptance is not the same as liking or disliking. We learn to pay attention, to notice, and to take the time to decide what we want to do next. Autopilot, automatic reactions become more controllable, and we learn how to act in line with our values rather than our immediate reactions.
One of the most common challenges I hear in workshops and seminars is “How can I make the time?”.
My answer is always two parts –
One, consider whether you want to invest the time to improve clarity and focus. Consider what mindfulness might give you in return for your time. And two, interestingly, mindfulness is not time consuming, but an approach to life. Many people who practice mindfulness find that it doesn’t take extra time to be mindful, unless you want to extend the work into meditation. Although they do report that it does seem to slow them down – but in a good way that improves their wellbeing!
Here are a few ways you can practice being mindful every day. All of these exercises are designed to bring you back into the present moment, to cultivate attention and curiosity.
The clock watch (a great one for times when you have to wait – bus stops, waiting rooms, queues).
- Find a clock, watch or app timer that you can use to time the passing of one minute.
- Focus your attention on your breathing and the clock for the minute – watch the hands go round.
The five things (a great one when you are caught up emotionally, or stuck in traffic in the car with children as it can be played as a game). This exercise is a favourite of many for getting into present moment.
- Bring your attention to your breath. Breathe deeply and slowly 3 times.
- Look around you – name 5 things you can see
- Listen – name 5 things you can hear
- Feel – name 5 tactile sensations you are experiencing
A Mindful Snack
- Choose your snack or meal
- Sit down at the table without any distractions – no book, TV, phone, electronic device, music, or talking
- Pay full attention to the food.
- Check in on your body. How hungry are you? What does that hunger feel like?
- Notice how the food looks. Notice how it smells.Notice how it feels, the muscles you use to cut it and to lift it to your mouth.
- Chew the food slowly. Notice the texture, the taste, the warmth or coolness of the food.
One of the benefits of mindful eating can be that food tastes differently, and that the body has time to register feelings of fullness – which we then pay attention to.
The check-in (a great exercise at any time).
- Bring your attention to your breath.
- Breathe deeply and slowly 3 times.
- Move your attention into your mind. Finish the sentence “I’m thinking….”
- Move your attention inside your body, scan it from top to bottom
- Notice any physical tension, do your best to release it by changing posture
- Notice any strong emotions. Finish the sentence “I’m feeling….”
- Notice how it feels to be aware of what’s going on
- Focus on breathing out any tension until you feel more balanced.
- Finish the sentence “The most helpful thing I can do next is….”
If you find these helpful, you might like to join an introduction to mindfulness course such as the one we run at Mindworx Psychology and Performance Coaching, or try out some popular apps such as Smiling Mind, HeadSpace or Calm.
Dr Amanda Mullin is a Doctor of Clinical Psychology, and the Director of Mindworx Psychology, an award-winning Clinical Psychology and Executive Coaching Practice based in Sydney, Australia. With a family of her own, a stellar career, and her own set of hurdles to jump, Dr Amanda understands the challenges faced in avoiding burnout and the search for positive mental health.
Dr Amanda is the creator of the popular “Think Differently” program, with the big, fat,hairy, audacious goal to change lives for the better.
Think Differently is now being taught in schools and workplaces.
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