Mindfulness is the act of being fully present in your daily life, paying attention to your five senses, and not being overly reactive to things that are happening around you . Mindfulness is something that, as human beings, we are all capable of. However, being mindful in your daily life is often easier when you have a daily mindfulness meditation practice. You are being mindful when you actively notice the sights, scents, tastes, sounds, and sensations around you. You are also being mindful when you bring awareness to your thoughts and emotions.
While many people may roll their eyes at the idea of being mindful or meditating in their daily lives – perhaps because they have a preconceived image of someone sitting cross-legged and making “ummm” noises – these activities have been shown to benefit a person’s mental health over time. Mindfulness and meditation are also free activities that can be done in the security of your own home and will often reduce stress and emotional reactivity.
When you train your brain to be mindful, there is growing research to show that you are likely to notice a reduction in depression, stress, and anxiety, better emotion regulation, and increased ability to positively reappraise stressful situations. According to one study, mindfulness may even change the physical structure of your brain. MRI scans have shown that, after an eight-week mindfulness meditation practice, the amygdala appears to shrink . The amygdala is the part of your brain that controls the “fight or flight” response. It is associated with fear and emotion, and it is a part of the body’s triggering response to stress. When the amygdala shrinks, the pre-frontal cortex (the part of the brain that controls decision-making, concentration, and awareness) becomes thicker. This allows a person to have more thoughtful reactions to stress, rather than more primal (fight or flight) responses .
Another study suggested that, through the practice of mindfulness, individuals developed an expanded and non-judgmental state of awareness in the present moment . This meant that these individuals were able to see more benefit from the challenges they experienced, and rather than reacting negatively to challenging situations, they were able to see opportunities for growth and self-actualization.
So, how can you begin to practice mindfulness? It is important to set aside some time for a mindfulness practice, generally at either the beginning or the end of your day. You can even start with just five minutes per day, and increase the time you spend in a mindfulness meditation from there.
For many people just starting out, it is difficult to be mindful for long periods of time, especially if it is silent. For this reason, finding a guided meditation (either through an app such as 10% Happier or Headspace, or via YouTube) can be helpful. Guided meditations allow you to have something to focus on, and have a definite length, so you do not have to check the clock throughout your meditation. If you choose not to do a guided meditation, set a timer so that you can really focus on being mindful in the present, and not concerned with checking the clock to see how much longer your meditation will last.
Next, bring your awareness to the present moment. You may keep your eyes open or close your eyes altogether. If you keep your eyes open, focus on a spot and soften your gaze. Try not to focus on the past or the future, and pay attention to the sensations around you. How does your breath feel? Where can you feel your breath? Are you breathing through your nose or mouth? Can you follow the sensation of your breath all the way down through your lungs, and back out again? What temperature is the air coming in and going out? Are you tensing your body in any way? Relax your jaw and your shoulders. Feel the pressure from the chair you’re sitting in. Is it a cushioned chair? Is it hard? How does your body feel sitting in this chair? Do you have any pain in your body? Where is the pain? What does that pain feel like? Listen to your surroundings. If it is quiet, can you hear the sound of the air conditioning around you? Are there birds chirping outside? Do you hear traffic noises? Are there people walking by? Is your cat snoring nearby? Are your children laughing in the next room? What does your own breathing sound like? These are just some examples of things to notice while you are being mindful.
While you are being mindful of the present moment, it is inevitable that you will get distracted. You will begin to concentrate too strongly on trying to hear passersby’s conversations, you will remember you have a big meeting tomorrow, or you will begin to question if you said the right thing to your partner earlier that day. While being mindful, it is important not to pass judgment on yourself or others. Notice that your thoughts have gotten off-track, and bring your attention back to the present moment.
Instead of wrestling with your thoughts, try to observe them without reacting to them. Sit and pay attention. Do not judge yourself for being distracted. Just recognize that your mind has wandered, and refocus on the sensations around you. Distraction happens to everyone, even the most experienced meditators. Mindfulness is, in essence, the practice of bringing yourself back to the present moment over and over again.
Mindfulness can be accomplished in our daily lives as well. Eating, conversing, walking, and even answering the phone can be done mindfully. For example, mindful eating helps you pay attention to your body’s physical cues about whether you are hungry or full, and can help you replace automatic thoughts and actions with more conscious choices about the food you are putting into your body. This has been shown to lead to more healthy eating habits, and shows positive outcomes when applied to individuals with eating disorders or other unhealthy eating habits [5, 6].
For mindful eating, it is also important to pay attention to what your body is telling you. Are you actually hungry, or do you just feel hungry because you are bored or stressed? Ask yourself these questions before you begin eating.
Once you have determined that you really are hungry, it is important to eat slowly and without distractions. Turn the TV off, set your phone aside, and focus on the flavor and texture of the food you are putting into your mouth. Notice the color and smell of your food as well. Chew slowly, fully experiencing the act of eating, and swallow only when your food is fully chewed.
Only eat until your body tells you it is full. It takes your brain about twenty minutes to determine when the body has had enough food, which is why it is so important to eat slowly. Our fast-paced lives have led to eating becoming a mindless act, done quickly, which can lead people to overeat because their brain does not realize it is full until they’ve already overeaten .
Mindful eating allows you to determine why you are eating and decreases the amount that you eat as a reaction to your emotions. It also reduces the amount that you eat in reaction to your environment (eating because you see or smell food, eating because people around you are eating, etc.). It takes practice to eat mindfully. Try choosing one meal per day to eat mindfully, in order to focus on these points. Once you feel more comfortable with mindful eating during this one meal, mindfulness will become more natural, and you can implement these habits into the other meals in your life.
Of course, mindfulness does not always have to be a solo or silent practice, like a mindfulness meditation or mindful eating. These techniques are invaluable in training yourself to be more self-aware and live in the present, but you often cannot take twenty minutes to meditate when you are arguing with your partner, annoyed by your boss, or feeling exasperated with your children.
Therefore, practicing mindfulness in social interactions can also be beneficial for yourself and your relationships. To be mindful in conversations, it is important to “fully arrive” in the moment and be present in the conversation. Often, people are physically present with one another, but they are distracted by their phones, the television, eating, or are still frustrated with the traffic they encountered earlier that day.
To be mindful during an important conversation or meeting, you can be fully present by putting your phone away, turning off the TV, and focusing in on the conversation you are having. Sit in an upright but relaxed position that expresses your attentiveness and respect for your conversation partner.
When you are talking with someone, you can also pay attention to the quality of your breath. If you find yourself breathing fast and heavy, or holding your breath, this may be a sign that your energy is getting too high in this conversation. Refocus your energy to take slow, deep, calming breaths to decrease your emotional reactivity in this exchange.
Try to remain curious within the conversations you are holding, rather than passing judgment or blame in a conversation. By remaining curious, you can resist the urge to interrupt your conversation partner with questions or your own thoughts, and may find yourself better able to understand the other person. In addition, the person you are speaking with will feel heard and better understood, simply by the act of your listening and validation.
Learning to detect and modify your posture, your breath, and your interactions with others can sound like a lot to manage in a conversation. However, with practice and by checking in with yourself, these mindful actions will begin to feel easier and more natural .
Yet another important step in mindful conversations is to interpret the other person’s thoughts, words, and actions generously. This step does not apply to abusive relationships. However, in many healthy relationships, when we are caught in a challenging argument with our partner, we begin to have a stress reaction, usually a “fight or flight” response to the argument. The first step is to notice that you are having this reaction to the conversation.
When you notice yourself getting defensive or wanting to shut down (having a “fight or flight” response), return to your posture and refocus on your breath. By centering yourself in this way, you may be able to move toward a more generous interpretation of what the other person is saying, and you will be able to reply in a more loving, respectful, and understanding way.
This kind of mindful conversation takes practice. Do not expect yourself to “get it right” immediately, and try not to judge yourself harshly if you forget to focus on one or more aspects throughout your mindful conversation. It is important for any mindful person, whether they are just beginning or consider themselves well-versed in mindfulness practices, to realize that these are mindfulness practices and meditation practices. You are only practicing these techniques, and you will never perfect them.
This is just a general overview of some of the benefits and ways to practice mindfulness in your life. Some of these practices may come more naturally or easily to you, while others may seem nearly impossible or difficult. However, each and every one of us is capable of being mindful throughout our lives, and through practice, we can reap the benefits of mindfulness by feeling calmer, more alert, and being more present and less reactive in the relationships we have built in our lives.
As a challenge to yourself, try practicing a short (10 minute) mindfulness meditation once a day for the next eight weeks. Keep a journal and track your mood daily throughout the eight weeks. You can organize your mood by color (red = mostly angry, blue = mostly sad, green = mostly happy, etc.) or you can simply rate your mood and general well-being on a scale from 1-10. Then, compare your average mood at the beginning of the eight weeks to your average mood at the end of the eight weeks. I hope this helps, and welcome to practicing mindfulness in your life!
 Mindful. (2018). Getting started with mindfulness. Mindful. Retrieved on September 20, 2018 from https://www.mindful.org/meditation/mindfulness-getting-started/
 Taren, A. A., Creswell, J. D., and Gianaros, P. J. (2013). Dispositional mindfulness co-varies with smaller amygdala and caudate volumes in community adults. PLos ONE, 8(5). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0064574
 Ireland, T. (2014). What does mindfulness meditation do to your brain? Scientific American. Retrieved on September 20, 2018 from https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/what-does-mindfulness-meditation-do-to-your-brain/
 Garland, E. L., Gaylord, S. A., and Fredrickson, B. L. (2011). Positive reappraisal mediates the stress-reductive effects of mindfulness: An upward spiral process. Mindfulness, 2(1), p. 59-67. doi:10.1007/s12671-011-0043-8
 Camilleri, G. M., Mejean, C., Bellisle, F., Hercberg, S., and Peneau, S. (2016). Mind-body practice and body weight status in a large population-based sample of adults. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 50(4), p. 101-109. doi:10.1016/j.amepre.2015.10.005
 Sojcher, R., Gould Fogerite, S., and Perlman, A. (2012). Evidence and potential mechanisms for mindfulness practices and energy psychology for obesity and binge-eating disorder. Explore, 8(5), p. 271-276. doi:10.1016/j.explore.2012.06.003
 Bjarnadottir, A. (2016). Mindful eating 101 – A beginner’s guide. Healthline. Retrieved on September 23, 2018 from https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/mindful-eating-guide
 Powell, L. (2016). Can we talk?: Three mindfulness practices that encourage generous conversations. Mindful. Retrieved on September 24, 2018 from https://www.mindful.org/can-we-talk/