Mindfulness. I see this word everywhere—on my social media, in the news, in blog posts and articles. Sometimes I feel like as common as this word is, its meaning is starting to get lost. For example, many of the platforms where I see "mindfulness" mentioned are part of the problem. They contribute to the overwhelming proliferation of content via social media, websites, news sources, and apps. They inundate us with notifications, taxing our attention, memory, stress response, and even social skills beyond their capacity, according to recent studies1,2.
In many ways, being part of contemporary society means increased interaction with new technology, faster pace of life, more stimuli competing for our attention. And, to me, what the ubiquity of the word "mindfulness" signals, is that we're taking note of the cognitive, social, and mental changes we're experiencing. Humans are resilient, and our ability to adapt to change has stood the test of time. Our brains have the plasticity to use tools that can help us improve how we function every day. There are upsides and downsides to the cognitive changes that many people are experiencing in our fast-paced, tech-savvy world. But mindfulness is one tool that has helped many people feel more integrated, more human, and more like themselves, even in the midst of change and challenges. Now that mindfulness has become such a buzzword, it's important to draw attention to what mindfulness really is, and why it's powerful enough to have garnered so much attention.
Although it's become so popular in the U.S. in the past several years, the practice of mindfulness dates back thousands. The earliest roots of mindfulness-based practices are found in Buddhism and Hinduism, and this history has influenced the development of current-day Westernized mindfulness practices3. Mindfulness has always been a practice: a daily habit to promote wellness, not an achievement to unlock. And though it is historically and culturally associated with things like yoga and meditation, mindfulness practices can be as individual as the minds practicing them.
Because mindfulness can be applied to so many different kinds of activities, it can seem at times like the phrase is just a catchall term that people throw around, but it doesn't really mean anything concrete. Or seeing it applied so broadly can make it feel inaccessible, like an abstract concept more than a useful skill. I see frequent references to mindful walks or exercise, eating mindfully, listening mindfully, interpersonal mindfulness, even mindful relaxation. I've wondered in the past if mindfulness is just another word for focus. At other times, I've suspected that it just means drifting off into relaxation or daydreams. Some days it's seemed that mindfulness is only for people who got enough sleep the previous night and woke up chipper and attentive. Having finally educated myself on what the practice of mindfulness really looks like for me, I want to share a few components that help me remain mindful, even when life gets overwhelming.
Anything can be done mindfully, so long as it incorporates the three basic tenets of mindfulness: awareness, the present moment, and acceptance.
Awareness can one of the hardest parts of mindfulness, but as I've started practicing it, I've also noticed that it comes the most naturally. Often, we have an awareness of what's going on with us, but we just aren't taking the time to attend to it. For example, I've become aware that my social media use contributes to my baseline stress level. Mindfulness means taking that time to check in with myself, to notice how I'm feeling during different points in my day. Even when I'm not intentional about checking in with myself, how I'm feeling will begin to affect other parts of my life, my daily functioning. This component of self-awareness comes naturally, as a consequence of living life. But it doesn't end there—practicing mindfulness also means having the self-awareness to take some time to analyze my daily habits, and what might need to change so that I can function and feel better. In doing this, I've started setting more boundaries for myself with how much time I spend on social media. This means designating specific times to take breaks from my phone, and catching myself when I notice that I'm doing something I don't want to be. Often, mindfulness can manifest in mundane moments like this—it's not all yoga poses on mountaintops.
The present moment simply means that we can only control right now. So much of our mental energy is spent analyzing the past or planning for the future, yet that mental energy can only translate into action when we are focused on the present. This is part of why movement and exercise are such a common component of mindfulness practice. Physical movement, especially when we're learning a new skill or exploring a new environment, require enough of our attention, that it can really pull us into the present. I've begun trying new kinds of exercise as a form of mindfulness practice. Sometimes this means yoga, but I also find mindful moments when I take a dance class, or go for a swim, or walk my dog in a new place.
Acceptance is essential to practicing mindfulness in a way that challenges us enough to improve our quality of life. Acceptance is a challenge—for me, it's actually the most difficult part of mindfulness. As we practice paying attention to how we're doing, and asking ourselves questions about what we may need to change, acceptance means that we aren't judging or criticizing ourselves for what we find there. I like to think about mindfulness as simply information-gathering. Acceptance creates a space for us to feel safe enough to explore what's really going on with ourselves, and I can't make change until I've challenged myself to question how I'm doing and why. This component of mindfulness isn't just about analyzing ourselves, and it's not just about validating everything we feel. It's about how practicing both those things together enables each to be more genuine and useful.
So, the next time you see #mindfulness crop up in your newsfeed, let that be a reminder to circle back to what this practice really means for you. Take a moment to check in with yourself. Accept however it is you're feeling that day. Plan a time to do something that keeps you focused on the present. Educate yourself further on how others practice mindfulness. I'm certainly not the expert—I'm just one mind out here doing my best to stay mindful.
2. Samuel Merritt University: https://www.samuelmerritt.edu/news/2017/5-ways-technology-altering-our-brains
3. "History of Mindfulness: From East to West and from Religion to Science" https://positivepsychologyprogram.com/history-of-mindfulness/#origins-mindfulness
Written by: Ellie Borgstrom