I’m a small-town California girl turned mental health therapist. Favorite things: babies (but don’t have my own!), comfy pants, and taking too many pictures. I'm all about realistic self-care, mental health for everyone, and personal growth even if you hate that phrase (cause I do!).
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Another hype-word these days? Mindfulness. If you’re on-board this mindfulness train––great! This post will give you a refresher on mindfulness tools to use in your practice. But you’re still confused and skeptical about mindfulness, you’re in the right place. Wondering if it’s possible to practice mindfulness without meditating? You’re definitely in the right place!
In this post we’ll cover:
Mindfulness is the practice of being aware of ourselves and surroundings from a non-judgemental point of view.
That last bit––non-judgemental–– is important. It’s easy to slip into a negative outlook, constantly criticizing, especially ourselves.
Mindfulness is the opposite of auto-pilot, numbing, avoidance, and cynicism. To put it simply, mindfulness is the practice of noticing. Having our mind “full” of our current experience. Being as present as possible in the here and now, versus shifting into focusing on the past, future, or the elsewhere.
Think of your attention or focus like the beam of a flashlight; mindfulness is about how and where we beam that light.
The truth: children have been my greatest teachers of mindfulness and being present.
I worked as a nanny for about a year for a little boy who was 9 months old when we met. His parents wanted him to get outside every day (no matter what Chicago weather we faced!), and I obliged, knowing it was better for both of us.
At first during our time outside, I would walk with urgency. I’m not exactly sure why. We had nowhere to be, and when you’re taking care of a toddler, the time can sometimes move painstakingly slow. Plus, he was learning to walk, and letting him walk forced us to slow down. So I finally gave into the process, learned to slow down, which in turn allowed me to be more mindful.
As we leisurely strolled, he’d want to look at every. Little. Thing. On the ground and in the sky. A small pebble on the sidewalk? The most fascinating discovery. A leaf? Worthy of intense observation. So we did! When I finally leaned into that process, I realized these mundane things actually can be fascinating if you’re looking at them from an open, child-like perspective.
Taking care of that little boy, I learned to become fully grounded in the moment. I became more observant of the here and now of the world around me. Not my phone. Not the tv. Not my thoughts, even. Just him. And me. And whatever we discovered along the way.
I’d later learn that among mental health experts, mindfulness has become a popular tool. Research continues to show it’s one of the best stress-reduction and relaxation-promoting tools. Traumatic stress often disconnects us from our physical experience, and minfulness re-connects our minds and bodies.
Beyond trauma recovery, mindfulness helps us connect deeper with our lives and enjoy the every day. Plus, mindfulness can help diminish anxiety and boost our mood and overall wellbeing.
Let’s review the backbone of mindfulness: noticing (with all senses) + non-judgemental (not trying to change or shame).
Mindfulness is often practiced as meditation. Meditation can seem esoteric or frankly just too difficult or unrealistic for everyday life. There are ways to practice mindfulness without straight meditation! Thankfully, there are still ways to grow in mindfulness in the things we already do daily.
Mindful walks are not just for nannies and two year olds, but for anyone! All it takes is walking, ideally outside. No phone. I suggest trying without music or audio, as well. Just walk. Pay attention to your surroundings. Try shuffling through each of your five senses, noting what you experience through that sense. I feel the chill breeze on my cheek. I smell the fresh soil from a neighbor’s garden (or the gross trash!) I hear the car doors opening and closing, the sirens in the distance. I feel the firmness of the sidewalk under each step. I notice my heart-rate increasing. I feel how my jacket makes a swish sensation with each movement. Just notice. This noticing may naturally lead to appreciation, but not always, which is okay.
Many of us eat our meals in auto-pilot mode rather than taking them in as a full body experience. How often I just scarf down a granola bar in the car and call it breakfast. And that’s fine and understandable, but mindful eating is a way to become more present (and it’s also good for our wellbeing!). I don’t mean as a “‘weigh loss” approach, but as a way to be more aware and anchoring that awareness to something we do all the time: eating.
Rather than a hurried meal, try instead taking time preparing and savoring your food (no matter how simple or unexciting). Slowing down to notice every bite can be a practice in mindfulness. For a more detailed guide or instructions on mindful eating, check out the “Eating a Mindful Meal or Snack” here or this simple mindfulness exercise (using a raison, popcorn, a chocolate, or some other simple small food item) here.
Mindfulness isn’t only about being aware of what’s going on around us. It’s also about being aware of what’s going on within us. A body scan is a simple way to practice strengthening this skill of noticing our internal experience.
To do this, imagine you are taking the flashlight of your intention and slowly waving it over every muscle and part of your body. Pause for a moment on each part, and check-in, noticing how that part of your body feels. Is there tension, ache, pain, lightness, emotion, etc?
The easiest way to add new habits into your routine is to anchor them to another habit or ritual you already do with ease and consistency. Mindfulness practices are no exception.
Consider taking a minute to mindfully check in with yourself when you do another routine. It can be something as simple as when you wash your hands after using the restroom, brush your teeth in the morning, or showering. Any of these habits can be transformed into a mindfulness ritual by shifting your focus and attention.
Take showering as an example: what would it be like to spend that time reconnecting with your body and senses, noticing how your skin feels, tending to any soreness or stiffness?
Two guideposts to consider to reconnect with the here and now:
For example, whenever I was in front of a mirror, I used that as an opportunity to pay attention to my inner-state. I even kept a small mirror on my desk at work. As a therapist, it’s easy to get swept away into your clients’ needs and world, so I used the mirror to remember myself. Something about seeing myself physically, in the flesh (dark circles, pimples and all), helped me stay present (and aware of my needs).
Sometimes we aren’t aware of all the thoughts that go through our mind. Journaling in the “stream of consiousness” fashion can help us reconnect with and notice these thoughts. To do this, set a time for 1, 3, 5 or 10 minutes (whatever seems best to you, I suggest starting small first). Grab a pen and paper of your preference, and write whatever comes to mind for that period of time. The only “rule” is that you don’t edit your thoughts. You let your mind wander and note whatever comes up.
If traditional writing doesn’t work well for capturing these thoughts, try typing on a computer, scribbling, jotting words (this isn’t English class, no grammar rules apply!), or using other diagrams or drawings instead.
It’s important to try to withhold judgement for whatever comes up during this time. The purpose is to notice, pay attention, and accept whatever it may be. You can take any needed action later.
This practice can be especially helpful for calming racing or anxious thoughts, organizing your thoughts, or if you’re feeling overwhelmed.
Grounding is another buzzword that is similar to mindfulness and being present. “Grounding” places particular emphasis on connecting with our physical surroundings (even a connection with the physical ground below us). “Grounding” also focuses on connecting deeply with ourselves. Grounding is also used therapeutically for people who suffer with dissociation, flashbacks, mild/intermittent psychosis, or heightened anxiety.
Grounding techniques can also generally help us practice mindfulness. There are so so many different types of grounding techniques to use, but here is a simple one that’s great for all ages. It’s widely practiced by therapists, so much so that I’m not sure where it originated. It’s called the 5-4-3-2-1 method (or something along those lines). To try it, pause for a moment, and then notice:
An even more simple version is like this, which I call my “Not-I-Spy I-Spy game”. To play, pick one color, then look at your surroundings and notice (either silently or aloud) all the items of that color that you can see around you. Once you have finished that color, move on to another color. I play this often with kids to help them return to a state of calm, and I usually let them pick the color and we take turns. But I also teach them how to “play” by themselves.
Driving is another activity that it can be easy to zone out (Note: going into autopilot isn’t always “bad”). But it can also be a time to practice being more mindful. This can be a great time to ask––what do you see and notice around you or within you?
Research and experience continue to show mindfulness to be an incredible way to reduce stress and to improve quality of life.
But, mindfulness can sound a bit mysterious or like something only super “spiritual” or disciplined and focused people can do, but it’s not! The trick is to find practices that work for you, push past the strangeness of doing something new, and remember the essence of mindfulness: attention without judgment.
Let me know how it goes!
by Kylie |
February 15, 2019
I'm Kylie. I’m a small-town California girl turned mental health therapist. Favorite things: babies (but don’t have my own!), comfy pants, and taking too many pictures. I'm all about realistic self-care, mental health for everyone, and personal growth even if you hate that phrase (cause I do!).