After Time magazine declared the “Mindful Revolution” in 2014, the momentum and allure of mindfulness practice has only grown.
– by Ben Epstein, Ph.D / Talkspace Therapist
No longer confined to yoga classrooms and meditation retreats, mindfulness has entered the “mainstream” – from the boardrooms of Fortune 500 companies to the chambers of the United States Congress. Recent developments in mindfulness research, published in The Lancet journal, indicate that Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) offers a similar level of protection against depressive relapses as antidepressants.
What exactly is mindfulness and how can it be practiced?
Jon Kabat-Zinn, a mindfulness-practice teacher and developer of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) technique, defines mindfulness as an “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.” Seems pretty simple – we all know how to pay attention, right? And yet, anyone who has attempted to bring greater mindful presence into their day-to-day quickly found out that the mind often has a mind of its own! Don’t fret. At first, pretty much everyone has a hard time maintaining and sustaining attention. While it certainly does help having access to a formal meditation practice, it’s not critical for living a more mindful life.
When people come to me, looking to learn how to be more present in their lives and relationships, as a Talkspace therapist I strive to provide them with concrete suggestions on how to do that.
Part of Talkspace’s appeal is the convenience with which we, the therapists, can help and support our clients without throwing them off of their daily routine. This, however, poses a unique challenge – we have to provide them with concrete exercises that they can do independently of us, when we cannot connect with them. It’s also important for us to make sure these exercises are easy enough to stick into the client’s daily schedule. So, we often recommend they start practicing mindfulness.
Below you’ll find five suggestions for fitting mindfulness practice into your lives – although, if you can take a formal class, you should totally do so.
1. The best part of waking up.
I am not myself until I have my morning cup of coffee. However, I spent a large portion of my life thoughtlessly gulping it down while trying to satisfy my craving for it. Mindfulness changed this for me. Buddhist spiritual leader, Thich Nhat Hanh, literally made the act of preparing a cup of tea into an art form. He simply showed how each step can be taken with care and attention. To clarify, nothing fancy or sexy actually happened, but something very real did.
By practicing mindfulness over your regular morning coffee, you can be creating an intentional pause in what otherwise could be an incredibly hectic day. Take the time to really examine and play with the cup, smell and taste the coffee (yes, you can focus on the smell for quite some time), pay attention to the sound of you drinking it, and linger on the aftertaste. All of these moments can help create a mindful sanctuary in your morning routine, free of disturbances and worries.
2. Email and exhale.
When it comes to technology, it often feels like we have very little control over the amount of time we spend checking our emails, updating our social media pages, or responding to pressing texts. Many of my Talkspace clients have stressful work demands and are looking for ways to lighten their load. One of my suggestions is to make sure they are seated when engaging in some sort of technological communication.
I assure you – this practice helps focus your attention. You can’t help being more in the moment if you know you have to sit down to reply to a text or email. For example, a client of mine once told me that he sat down in the middle of an elevator to respond to an urgent text. While this may have gotten him some sideways glances, ultimately he was able to focus on the task at hand. This can be said to be the ultimate goal of the mindfulness practice and living a more fulfilling life.
3. Let it Ring.
True – technology has been blamed for the distractibility and mindlessness of our societies. At Talkspace, however, we believe that when used properly, technology can actually foster mindfulness. When we instinctively lunge to answer the phone as soon as it goes off, that’s probably the epitome of mindlessness. It’s an automatic reaction; we don’t think about it – we just do it without any intention or focus.
Let it ring. Once. Twice. Three times. And with each ring, take a breath. This will serve as a built in reminder to be in the moment. One of my Talkspace clients told me that by incorporating this tactic into her life, she noticed a change not only in her demeanor, but in the people she was having the conversations with as well! “[It’s] almost as if my feelings of calm are passing through the phone lines.”
3. Shake it off.
You don’t need a prestigious publication to tell you that sitting for extended periods of time isn’t great for your health, but according to the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, this behavior can actually be fatal.
I encourage my clients to get out of their seats and stretch. By tuning into the physical sensations of lifting up your arms or bending down to touch your toes, you will be able to move your body without disappearing from your desk. There are some great basic Hatha yoga poses, like hands to heart or Tadasana, that can restore the balance in your mind and body in the middle of a hectic workday. Remember it’s about paying attention, so choose one area of your body and maintain your focus on it in a methodical way. As one client told me, “I feel invigorated even when I am entering mind numbing data.”
5. One day at a time.
One of my favorite comedians, Hannibal Buress, made a hilarious (you had to be there) and very astute observation in one of his stand-up routines. He remarked, “when people go through something rough in life, they say, ‘I’m taking it one day at a time.’ Yes, so is everybody, because that’s how time works.” He is absolutely correct. We are often trying to make things happen faster than they would at their natural pace. This futile endeavor often leaves us feeling frustrated and burnt out, which is even more worrisome from a psychological perspective.
So, what can we do to curtail this self-sabotaging process?
In his seminal work, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shunryu Suzuki writes, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few”.
I encourage my clients to cultivate and practice a beginner’s mindset. It means being open to every experience during each moment, as if encountering it for the first time. It is a mindset that supports and encourages you to take one step at a time, which in truth is all we can really be doing anyway. (Go ahead. Try taking two steps at the same time. Get my point?)
By learning to cultivate a beginner’s mindset, you are practicing mindfulness and bringing value to each experience, giving you the power to carefully respond to life’s many curveballs.