What is Mindfulness?
For the last couple weeks, I've been enjoying a Great Courses audio book, The Science of Mindfulness: A Research-Based Path to Well-Being, by Ronald D. Siegel. It's pricey if you buy it through their site, but I got it as part of my Audible subscription, so it was no more expensive than any other book.
Before I started listening to the course (and yes, this was an off-shoot of my education week, which you may recall was a failure for the most part), I had no idea what mindfulness was, other than a vague idea that it meant paying attention to things or being mindful, nor was I clear on how it related to or differed from meditation. I feel like I got something out of my week of meditation practice, but it wasn't enough to keep me practicing.
Psychology Today defines mindfulness as "a state of active, open attention on the present. When you're mindful, you observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance, without judging them good or bad. Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to experience."
In The Science of Mindfulness, Siegel simplifies it even further - mindfulness is paying attention to one thing. Your breath, the food you're eating, the feel of the wind, the tail-lights of the car in front of you. While you're focusing, if thoughts come to mind, you acknowledge them, then go back to your mindfulness practice. Your focus stays on that one thing.
Through that focus, you keep your mind out of the "thought stream." The book explains how our thoughts are always there and pretty much any time we give our minds the chance, they jump in and take off. It's easy for me to think of times when I've become lost in thought when I was doing something else. My mind just got away from me. But if you're in the thought stream, you're not in the moment. Focusing on something can help bring you back to the moment.
The Many Benefits of Mindfulness
Mindfulness can help in a lot of ways besides keeping us in the moment. Some of the benefits include improving relationships by making us more present and available to others, reducing worrying by keeping us in the moment, helping us manage pain by improving our capacity to feel it. And many more - see the chart below for an idea of what all mindfulness can influence.
What appeals to me about this is that, unlike meditation, I can practice mindfulness anywhere, any time. There are longer practices, but anyone can practice mindfulness here and there, at any time of day.
Someone once told me that the reason time seems to go faster as we age is because fewer things are new to us, so we stop attending to them - we stop being mindful. As children, we are forced to be mindful, to live in the moment, because there's a lot we don't know yet. But as we get older, we know a lot more and life becomes routine. We can live without really thinking much about the moment-to-moment aspects of living. I've driven to work before and not remembered much about the trip, taken walks and not been able to recall how I crossed the streets, put the ice cream in the refrigerator, been unable to remember if I put makeup on without looking in the mirror... Not every time or every day, but often enough. If you're mindful, you pay attention to what you're doing and keep yourself out of the thought stream. I think this might help slow time down again.
One of the techniques Siegel mentions in the course that I've been using is called "naming." Naming helps us deal with unwanted thoughts. When a thought you don't want comes through your mind, you name it and move on. This has already worked out well for me in a lot of situations. When I use it on the hostility I feel while driving, instead of telling myself to stop being that way, I instead observe and name, as in "That was a hostile thought," or "That was a mean thing to think," or "You're being critical of other drivers." They all work. I've had a couple commutes since I started practicing this where I didn't think judgmental thoughts about other drivers at all.
It also works with obsessive thoughts. When I find myself thinking about something I don't want to dwell on, I think to myself, "You're thinking about such-and-such again." And most of the time, the thoughts go away. I don't know why it works, but it does. Often as soon as I name my thoughts, they go away. Here's an exercise for naming from Naomi Goodlet:
Naming is just one of the techniques I've been able to understand and use immediately, but there are many more in the course. What I hope to do this week is make time for the longer practices in the audio course. It came with five longer mindfulness practices, each covering a different technique, but I haven't done any of them. My plan is to do one longer mindfulness practice every day.
The Science Behind Mindfulness
With something like mindfulness, I admit the skeptic in my likes to hear the scientific evidence that backs up the claims. Ultimately, my own experience will determine how much I use mindfulness, but at the beginning, I find the science encouraging.
Siegel brings science into mindfulness by sharing studies that support the practices. It turns out mindfulness has a lot of evidence backing its usefulness. Siegel is a psychotherapist, so he uses mindfulness with his patients in his practice and he shares the reasons why. Just this week, Lifehacker posted "All the Benefits of Meditation and Mindfulness According to Science," with this image, and at the end of that post, they share links to all their articles about the two practices. The larger the words in the image, the stronger the supporting evidence.
What all these things have in common is that mindfulness teaches you that you are not your thoughts. You can engage or disengage with your thoughts, and the ability to disengage gives you more control over your behavior.
Can Mindfulness Help Me Lose Weight?
I do a lot of mindless eating. Over the last year, I've lost and kept off 30 pounds and the only real change I made was to start tracking my food intake with My Fitness Pal. I still eat a lot, and sometimes I eat way too much, but I guess tracking everything makes enough of a difference.
Once I get it into my head that I want to eat something, I have a difficult time saying no. With practice, maybe mindfulness will help me resist the urge to eat junk when I'm not hungry. My success with how I react to other drivers gives me hope that I can learn to get away from that kind of eating, too. If I could gain control over whether or not I ate something, I'd be quite happy.
Taking The Easy Way Out
What I've done so far with mindfulness hasn't felt difficult at all. In the past, when I've tried to change my behavior, it's seemed nearly impossible (such as the week I tried to not be critical). Of course, most of the diets I've tried over the years felt the same way. After a while, I tend to give up because it takes a lot of work to keep doing something difficult. I feel like mindfulness practice offers an easier way.
This week, I'm going to work on deepening my practice by doing a longer practice every day. If I keep practicing, maybe this time next year I'll have another success story to tell.
Week Twenty-seven: Mental Health/Spiritual - Mindfulness