What is Mindfulness? And Why Does It Matter?
Mindfulness? Even though this topic has garnered a lot of attention the past decade or so, most people still have a hard time defining and understanding it. I hope that the concept of mindfulness, that is often met with apprehension, confusion, or opposition, will feel more accessible, tangible, and beneficial to you by the end of this blog. After all, the practice of mindfulness has an enormous amount of mental, emotional, and bodily benefits. It’s a skill that will improve your health, performance, and definitely help you do better, by thinking better.
Let’s break it down
Living mindfully does not require a yoga mat or years of sitting in silence upon a mountain (though both those activities can be great experiences if that is what you desire to do). Living mindfully can be as simple as paying closer attention to your behaviours, bodily sensations, and thought patterns. It can be practiced while you eat, shower, walk, or even have a conversation. You can practice being present and aware in silence or in a dance club. What its really about is: acting consciously, being present, and enriching your awareness.
I often describe mindfulness as the tool that keeps us from swinging to extremes. On one side of the extreme there is constant rumination and/or worry about the future or past. On the other side there is a tendency to ignore or avoid life’s cues, challenges and invitations for personal growth. Both are often automatic and unchecked in character. It is mindfulness that can break these extreme swings and bring you back into balance by training the brain to focus on the present moment.
Some synonyms to the word mindfulness, are: meditation, awareness, self-awareness, focus, concentration, being present, and mental control. The act of consciously choosing where your attention is drawn, and being present with those. What you choose to put your attention on or focus on is entirely up to you! Learning to maintain that focus while allowing for interrupting thoughts to come and go, without judgement, is the skillful act of mindfulness.
Mindfulness is a practice. Which means you have to practice it. The brain is like a muscle, and therefore needs to be trained to function optimally and build strength, focus, and control. Mindfulness is the training, and you must take on the responsibility of a trainer. As the trainer, you have direct access to your focus exercise of choice. Begin by picking one of your five senses (touch, sight, hear, taste, smell) to focus on. It sounds simple, but you may find you need ongoing practice to keep your focus on the sense of choice for extended periods of time.
To start you may want to begin with mini-workouts. Here are some examples for you to try:
You can focus on your breath. Spend 30 seconds paying attention to the various sounds your breath makes and sensations you feel as your breathe enters and leaves your body.
You can try this practice as you sit down to have a meal. Try focusing on all the tastes and smells and sensations felt in your mouth of the first three bites of your meal.
When listening to music, pick one instrument and focus on the various sounds it is producing. The low rumble of the bass or the high of the treble. How well can you pick out each individual note being played?
Doing any of these exercises activates, what neuroscientists call, the Direct Experience Circuitry (DEC). This is a network of neurons connecting to various areas of the brain responsible for collecting data in real time, hence using your five senses to initiate the mindfulness exercises. Furthermore, once your DEC is recruited the Default Circuitry (DC), also known as Narrative Circuitry, is directly inhibited. This is the network of neurons associated with thinking of the “story” or “narrative” and memories relating to you, others or objects. The DC is always playing in the background when you are not consciously choosing to activate the DEC. Therefore, it is your responsibility, as the trainer, to consciously activate the DEC to build your mindful muscles.
What else can you do to build these muscles?
Mindfully Building Muscles
Once you feel comfortable with your mini-workouts, you can start adding time onto the exercises. Often I recommend my patients and clients to spend a minimum of 15 minutes a day building their mindfulness muscles. Of course, one can go longer if desired, but I do not recommend spending less time than that to develop and maintain optimal results.
So next time you are looking to give your brain a mindful workout, stay present by engaging one of your five senses. This will help you do better, by thinking better.
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Dr. Yashar Khosroshahi, ND, ACC is the Chair of the Medical Advisory Board (MAB) for Relyf and co-founder of MINDSHIFT NINJA, a Leadership Development company.