What is mindfulness exactly? Does learning about and applying this in my life mean I am practicing Buddhism or trying to reach a state of Zen? If I am a Christian does practicing mindfulness mean I am doing something contrary to my beliefs?
What does “practicing” mindfulness mean anyway?
So many questions! All of which I asked myself when I started learning about mindfulness and applying it to my life.
Let’s start with a basic explanation of mindfulness and some of the benefits of applying it to our lives.
According to Psychology Today
Mindfulness is a state of active, open attention on the present. When we are mindful, we carefully observe our thoughts and feelings without judging them as good or bad.
Some of the questions I had when starting to explore this concept were based in a basic fear of anything being taught “outside” of my “Christian” church. A fear of something “wrong” or “against” God in some way.
I think these fearful thoughts stemmed from a group think mentality that, as part of this particular group of Christians (more specifically western culture, southern, non denominational with some Southern Baptist influence), included anything that is taught or even seems to be “outside” the very parameters I just defined.
On that note, I want to be very clear. Mindfulness, the way I understand it and apply it in my life, is in no way contrary to anything I believe spiritually.
Actually, for me, it deepens my spiritual walk and relationship with God as well as my love and treatment of the people in my life and from what I understand – loving God and loving people are the top two things that identify someone as a Believer, the top two requirements of a Believer as stated in the Bible (Matthew 22:36-40).
Mindfulness, Buddhism and Zen
There are some ways of practicing mindfulness rooted in Zen Buddhism. However, just like most things in life, there are different forms of mindfulness to pick and choose from.
Think of it like this, some people participate in Halloween (which has its roots in paganism) but choose to celebrate it with happy jack-o-lanterns and cute ghosts, some even do Halloween outreaches at church in for form of Fall Festivals. Understanding the roots of Halloween, does this mean everyone who dons a costume and passes out candy is celebrating a pagan holiday?
The same thought process can be applied here.
Although some forms of mindfulness can be traced back to Zen Buddhism and some practice it that way today, this does not mean everyone who applies mindfulness in their lives are practicing Buddhism or any form of religion for that matter.
Mindfulness can be used as a tool in modern day society that helps us connect with and relate to life, as well as the people around us.
So what exactly is mindfulness and how do we practice it?
Our previous definition explained mindfulness as “as state of active, open, attention on the present”.
In addition to that I like this definition from Mindful.org
Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.
Sounds good right? Do you remember the last time you actually had your attention active and focused on the present moment? Completely? Without your mind wandering to the next thing on your to do list or thinking about what you will say next in the conversation? Do you remember the last time you weren’t scrolling through your phone while hanging out with your family or friends?
If so, then you were practicing mindfulness whether you knew it at the time or not.
Mindfulness is simply training our brains to focus. Training our brains, eyes, emotions, attentions to focus on whatever is currently happening in and around us.
In us? Yes. So often we ignore our feelings.
Feelings although not always a reliable, recommended source on which to base our permanent decisions, are an important part of our lives.
Joy, sadness, excitement, anticipation, loneliness, contentment, anger - just to name a few - enhance our lives and experiences. Feelings help us process difficult things. They even happen even when we don't expect or want them to.
You may or may not realize that all those feelings, if we don't acknowledge and do something with them (especially the negative ones) can become bottled up and end up becoming a big problem. What about the positive ones? If we don't acknowledge and do something with those we miss opportunities to enjoy life or express love and appreciation to those we care about.
Mindfulness can help us process, express and work out our feelings.
Being aware, allowing ourselves to feel, think about and process these feelings is healthy. More on that another time...side note for moms, how our girls “feel” about themselves is actually important.
On to the how...how do we practice mindfulness today?
The key word here is “practice” meaning, this may not be something that will come naturally for you.
Especially if you are like me and you have been mindlessly rushing through your days on auto pilot most of the time, scrolling, nodding, ummhmming your way through conversations. Daydreaming your way around town (scary right? Driving without being mindful).
Here are a few tips inspired by 7 Tips to Practice Mindfulness and Reasons Why You Should by Phoebe Waller
1. Force your focus If you do a task without thinking about it, force your thoughts back to the task at hand. Start with something small and repetitive, such as brushing your teeth. Force yourself to actually focus on the task. The bristles, the wet toothbrush, the swishing water. I know...sounds a little woo woo ...but really try it. This also ties in to tip #3 engaging your senses.
2. Breathing exercises
Deep breathing is a good way to calm nerves and focus a racing mind. What is a breathing exercise? Try breathing in through your nose while counting to 10 at a slowish pace, then hold for 10, then breathe out for 10 , all at the same slow pace. That is just one breathing exercise, it happens to be my favorite, but there are many different types of focused breathing exercises you can try.
3. Engage your senses
Actually think about what you are touching, tasting, smelling, seeing and hearing. Choose a sense to engage – such as touch. Pet your dog (or cat) and think about the pups fur, how it feels. Don't have a pet? Try a different sense such as sound or taste.
The point is purposefully choose a sense then focus on it while doing something with that sense. That may sound a little "out there" to you, but try it! You will be surprised how a little shift in thought process like this will carry over into your day and help you pay attention to your senses in other situations.
4. LOOK at the world around you
Make yourself to look at people, cars, birds, trees, where you are walking. People watching is a great way to be mindful. Think about this - do you look at the people who make up the community where you live? Or do you rush by most days, not noticing who is among you? Not in a creepy way, in a human relational, this is my community way.
I hope this little intro into mindfulness helped you in some way and inspires you to be more mindful with yourself and those you interact with.
If you had reservations about mindfulness, I hope this will help you at least consider the practice and even do a little research on your own about it. I truly believe mindfulness is a benefit to all of us, individually and collectively.
Let me know if you try any of these tips or if this post helped you be more mindful through your days! I would love to hear from you!