A simple guide to mindfulness for beginners

Mental Health

by Baylor Scott & White Health

Sep 10, 2020

Picture this: you’re in the middle of a meditation. You close your eyes and think, “Breathe in, focus on your breath. Breathe out…”

As you exhale your mind wanders to, “Oh no! I forgot to get the cilantro at the grocery for that recipe. Wait, I’m supposed to be breathing. But this recipe will be terrible without it! BREATHE. Okay, maybe I can go back to the grocery after this meditation. Why am I even meditating? I’m terrible at this!”

Sound familiar?

I have, and still do, find myself in this situation quite often. As a practitioner and teacher of mindfulness, I am here to tell you: It’s not supposed to be easy. It takes practice, but it is worth it.

The word “mindfulness” has gained a lot of Instagram attention lately. It’s all the buzz — and for good reason. Mindfulness has been studied extensively for more than 20 years and has generally been shown to decrease stress and help with better focus, communication and emotional regulation. Specifically, studies have shown that when practiced, mindfulness can:

  • Improve decision making.
  • Reduce stress and emotional exhaustion.
  • Promote problem-solving and creative thinking.
  • Increase job performance.
  • Improve attention and memory.

But what exactly does this buzzword mean? Let’s break it down.

What is mindfulness?

Dr. Jon Kabat Zinn, also known as the father of modern mindfulness, defines it as “awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.” In other words, simply living in the present moment. 

My favorite part of Dr. Kabat Zinn’s definition is the word “non-judgmentally.” Mindfulness teaches us to be observers of our thoughts, emotions and connections with ourselves and others — not judgers.

You might be asking yourself now, okay, but how do I actually practice mindfulness?

Dr. Christopher Willard, Harvard Medical School professor and lecturer, explains this best with his 3 R’s method.

  1. First, rest your attention on something.  We call this “something” an anchor and it can be your breath, sound, physical sensation or even the food you are eating.
  2. When all your attention is on an anchor, it’s difficult for it to be on anything else. However, often times your mind may start to wander. Mine always does! When this happens it’s important to recognize that this has happened and identify where your mind has gone. Has it gone to the past? Has it gone to worrying about the future? Or has it gone to your grocery list, as mine inevitably does?
  3. Then, return your attention back to the anchor with kindness — this is important! I like to envision myself gently motioning my attention back to my breath, or whatever anchor I’m using, with a smile on my face. It’s pretty simple, but it takes practice and work.  

How to start practicing mindfulness

So, how can you use mindfulness in your everyday life?

For starters, you can incorporate a practice into your daily routine. I like to do a 2-minute “soft landing” when I first get to work in the morning. I take 2 minutes to focus all of my attention on my breath, or anchor — just noticing the physical sensations of the inbreath and outbreath — before starting my day. 

It’s also helpful to set a reminder on your phone to take a mindfulness break. You have appointments on your calendar for work meetings, right? Why not make an appointment for yourself and your own well-being!

Still not sure how to start? A great breathing exercise for beginners is called box breathing. Here’s how to do it.

  1. Breathe in through your nose for a count of 4.
  2. Hold your breath for a count of 4.
  3. Breathe out through your mouth for a count of 4.
  4. Hold your breath for a count of 4.

Still bothered by distractions? I often get clients saying, “it’s just too loud to meditate here!” Distractions are actually the perfect place to practice mindfulness. Think about it: when you are confronted with a stressful situation, you likely don’t have control of the distracting surroundings. Mindfulness is not meant to “clear your mind.”  The more you try to convince yourself to, the less likely you are to do so.

When we practice mindfulness, we are observers of our thoughts and emotions. This is all valuable information for us in order to learn and grow in our own health and wellness. This is the time to use your 3 R’s.

So, when distractions occur, simply notice where your mind went. Was it to the distracting noises of that call center? Was it to a conversation with a co-worker you had earlier? Then, simply invite your mind back to your anchor. Do this as many times as you need. It is called a “practice” after all.  

Happy observing, everyone!

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