By: Blake Calamas & Arthur Grau.
If you’re new to mindfulness, you may not know what being “mindful” actually means. You may think to yourself, “Wow! What I wouldn’t give for a few moments of turning off my brain!” You may have images of monks or religious figures seated in lotus poses, eyes closed, palms open, looking very reflective and calm. The good news is that you don’t need to meditate, be religious, or sit in a lotus posture to practice mindfulness. I would hazard a guess that you might already be a mindfulness practitioner and not even know it.
Mindfulness is simply the act of being aware of where we are, what our bodies are doing, and what thoughts enter and leave our brains without being overly reactive, grasping, or overwhelmed as it happens.
That means you don’t need to “do” anything to practice mindfulness. You’re simply giving yourself the time and space–say, for ten minutes–to sit in silence and observe the feelings, emotions, and sensations all around you without judgment or reaction.
There’s no need to empty your brain.
Many people approach mindfulness with a common misconception, the idea that your brain must be “empty” for mindfulness to occur. If we go back to the image of the religious figure calmly sitting atop a mountain or inside a temple with their eyes closed, we might be trying to imagine how on earth someone can get their brain to “turn off” for more than a few seconds.
But the mindful practice is not about emptying or turning off your brain. You can’t turn off your brain any more than you can turn off your digestive system, your heart, your kidneys, or the breath going in and out of your body. All of these processes keep on chugging along no matter how many words your thinking brain has to say about it. If you’re anything like me and most everyone I’ve ever met, the brain has quite a lot to say.
Your brain is constantly whirring: taking in new sights and sounds, bringing back old memories, reminding you of various to-do’s, and whatever else that it “notices” with every passing moment. So instead of emptying the brain, what do you do during a mindful practice? You sit with those thoughts, observe them, let them enter and leave from your headspace. And you simply watch all that chatter without responding, refuting, attempting to quash it, or getting carried away.
If the thoughts provoke happiness, anxiety, fear, and nostalgia, that’s okay too. Just observe the emotion. It’s neither good nor bad. It simply is. It will likely get replaced by something else in a few seconds. That’s okay. You’re practicing being present with those emotions and learning that they do not need a response. They don’t need a judgment. Your only job is to observe.
It’s not a competition.
Trying to “get mindfulness right” can be a self-defeating proposition for many first-timers. During a mindful practice, you might find yourself thinking, “Am I doing it right? Is this mindfulness? I feel like my mind is wandering. I need to focus!”
That’s okay. That feeling of doing mindfulness “wrong” is just that. A feeling. No need to dwell on it. Name it, observe it, let the thought pass or come back around if it feels like it. Remember, you can’t control your wandering brain. Because there are thousands and thousands of stimuli that your brain is taking in every moment–both external and internal. Practicing mindfulness in a quiet room might cause you to realize how much stimuli are actually present. “Is the computer’s fan really that loud? Where is that dripping noise coming from? Has my elbow ached like that before?”
Mindfulness means learning that your brain’s responses to these thousands of stimuli do not require an answer at the moment. So that when you find yourself “following” a particular thought, notice that you’re doing so. Describe the thought, the emotion, or the feeling. “Wow, that memory made me feel suddenly warm in my gut. That’s Interesting.” Then breathe. If you find yourself comparing your own experiences to anyone else’s, you can safely remind yourself that this, too, is just a thought. It’s not a competition. There are as many pathways to mindfulness as human minds. You’re not in a contest with anyone. An easy phrase to remember is, “I am just here to watch.”
Mindfulness comes in many disguises.
A working definition of mindfulness is to “purposely bring one’s attention in the present moment without evaluation.” To get a sense of this, I would invite you to think of an experience when you lost track of time because you were so involved in what was happening at the moment. You may have been playing a sport, learning something new, caregiving, or playing a game. At times like these, mindfulness occurs naturally. We bring our attention to the present when we solve problems or learn a new skill. Everyone can do it.
Practicing mindfulness is simply the act of setting aside some time to bring our attention to the present activities of the mind and body, even while there’s no problem, learning, or game at hand. As with any practice, the more we do it, the better we are at it.
Listen to “Using the Breath” on Insight Timer
What do you get out of mindfulness?
Let’s return to our mindful monk. The beauty of mindfulness is that it can have tangible impacts on the rest of your day, week, and life. The “mindful” life is not devoid of stress, anxiety, and conflict. The monk likely experiences daily frustrations with his next-door neighbor snoring, the long walk from the temple to his home, or a family member who has been lately getting on his nerves.
The mindful life is a life in which we take those emotions in stride and learn that we can handle them. We all experience fear. Grief visits everyone. Anxiety comes with the territory of being human. Being mindful is not about pushing those feelings away but embracing them for what they are, experiencing them, and acknowledging that our reactions to those feelings are 90% of our suffering.
Think of it this way. Experiencing grief is not a bad thing. It is, after all, simply an emotion. Dwelling on grief and allowing it to control your life is a bad thing. It can lead to substance abuse, neglect, or other dangers. Experiencing fear is not a bad thing. It’s simply an emotion and sometimes a useful one. Allowing that fear–typically in the form of chronic anxiety–to control your life is a bad thing. It may “force” you into being asocial or irritable as a way of coping.
Listen to “Gratitude Mindfulness” on Insight Timer
How we do it.
Our emotions are not our enemies. Our reactions to those emotions can be if we lose awareness of them. A mindful practice of even a few minutes a day can genuinely help us exercise that awareness. The technique makes us better at keeping watch.
@250 believes that mindfulness may look and feel different for everyone. That means that the mindfulness that works for you works for @2:50. Everyone is welcome to join on any day. If you’ve come to @2:50, you may see people with their eyes closed or open. Some may be observing their screens. Some may be sitting, standing, or even walking. Many are sitting at home or working in their usual chairs (no meditation cushion needed!). If you’re giving yourself the time and space to be present with your emotions, to allow them to be without reaction or solution, you’re practicing mindfulness, no matter how that may look from the outside.
Listen to “Observing the Body” on Insight Timer
@250’s global mission is for people everywhere to pause for ten minutes of mindfulness once a day, every day. It’s both a big idea (the whole world!) and also quite approachable (only ten minutes).
Interested in some well-known “practices” that are used to promote mindfulness? Check out three of the more common approaches that mindfulness practitioners carry in their daily toolkits.