Practices for Improving Emotional and Physical Well-Being
It’s a busy world. You fold the laundry while keeping one eye on the kids and another on the TV. You plan your day while listening to the radio and commuting to work. In this hustle, you may find yourself detached from the present moment—missing out on what you’re doing and how you’re feeling. Mindfulness is the practice of purposely focusing your attention on the present moment—and accepting it without judgment. It is now being examined scientifically and has been found to be a key element in stress reduction and overall happiness.
3 benefits of mindfulness
The cultivation of mindfulness has roots in Buddhism, but most religions include a type of prayer or meditation technique that helps shift your thoughts toward an appreciation of the moment and a larger perspective on life.
- Mindfulness improves well-being. Mindfulness promotes a satisfied life. It helps you savor the moment, become fully engaged in activities, and better handle adverse events. It can help you dwell less on future worries or past regrets, worry less about success and self-esteem, and form deeper connections with others.
- Mindfulness improves physical health. Scientists found that mindfulness can help relieve stress, treat heart disease, lower blood pressure, reduce chronic pain, improve sleep, and alleviate gastrointestinal difficulties.
- Mindfulness improves mental health. In recent years, psychotherapists have used mindfulness meditation to treat several problems like depression, substance abuse, eating disorders, couples’ conflicts, anxiety disorders, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
How does mindfulness work?
Some experts believe that mindfulness works by helping people to accept their experiences—including painful emotions—rather than react to them with aversion. Mindfulness meditation is often combined with psychotherapy, especially cognitive behavioral therapy. Both meditation and cognitive behavioral therapy aim to help people gain perspective on irrational, maladaptive, and self-defeating thoughts.
The goal of any mindfulness technique is to achieve a state of alert, focused relaxation by deliberately paying attention to thoughts and sensations without judgment. This allows the mind to refocus on the present moment. All mindfulness techniques are a form of meditation.
- Basic mindfulness meditation – Sit quietly and focus on your natural breathing or on a word or “mantra” that you repeat silently. Allow thoughts to come and go without judgment and return to your focus on breath or mantra.
- Body sensations – Notice subtle body sensations such as an itch or tingling without judgment and let them pass. Notice each part of your body in succession from head to toe.
- Sensory – Notice sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touches. Name them “sight,” “sound,” “smell,” “taste,” or “touch” without judgment and let them go.
- Emotions – Allow emotions to be present without judgment. Practice a steady and relaxed naming of emotions: “joy,” “anger,” “frustration.” Accept the presence of the emotions without judgment and let them go.
- Urge surfing – Cope with cravings (substances or behaviors) and allow them to pass. Notice how your body feels the craving. Replace the wish for the craving to leave with the affirmation that it will subside.
Getting started on your own
Some types of meditation highlight concentration—repeating a phrase or focusing on the sensation of breathing, allowing the parade of thoughts that inevitably arise to come and go. These techniques, as well as other activities such as tai chi or yoga, can induce the relaxation response that helps reduce stress.
Here’s how mindfulness meditation builds upon concentration practices:
- Go with the flow. Once you establish concentration, you observe the flow of inner thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations without judging them as good or bad.
- Pay attention. Notice external sensations that make up your moment-to-moment experience. The challenge is not to latch onto an idea, emotion, or sensation. Instead, watch what comes and goes and discover which mental habits produce a feeling of well-being or suffering.
- Stay with it. This process may not always feel relaxing, but over time it provides a key to greater happiness and self-awareness as you become comfortable with a wider range of your experiences.
- Practice acceptance. Mindfulness involves accepting whatever arises in your awareness. It involves being kind and forgiving toward yourself. If your mind wanders, notice where it has gone and gently redirect it to sensations in the present. If you miss your intended meditation session, simply start again. By accepting your experiences during meditation, it becomes easier to accept whatever comes your way during the rest of your day.
- Cultivate mindfulness informally. You can also cultivate mindfulness informally by focusing your attention on your daily moment-to-moment sensations. This is done by singletasking—doing one thing at a time and giving it your full attention. As you floss your teeth, pet the dog, or eat an apple, slow down the process and be fully present as it unfolds and involves all your senses.
If you’re interested in mindfulness meditation, you can try attending a class or listening to meditation tapes. In the meantime, here are two mindfulness exercises you can try on your own.
Basic mindfulness meditation
- Sit on a straight-backed chair or cross-legged on the floor.
- Focus on an aspect of your breathing, such as the sensation of air flowing through, or how your belly rises and falls.
- Once you’ve narrowed your concentration, begin to widen your focus. Become aware of sounds, sensations, and ideas.
- Consider each thought or sensation without judging it good or bad. If your mind starts to race, return your focus to your breathing. Then expand your awareness again.
Learning to stay in the present
- Start by bringing your attention to your sensations. Breathe in through your nose, allowing the air downward and letting your abdomen expand fully.
- Now breathe out through your mouth. Notice the sensations of each inhalation and exhalation
- Proceed with the task at hand slowly and with full deliberation. Engage your senses fully. Savor each sight, touch and sound.
- If your mind wanders, gently bring your attention back to the sensations.
Invest in yourself
Mindfulness meditation becomes more effective with practice. Most people find that it takes at least 20 minutes for the mind to begin to settle, so this is a reasonable way to start. If you’re ready for a more serious commitment, try doing 45 minutes of meditation at least six days a week. But you can get started by practicing the techniques described here for shorter periods.