What is mindfulness?
For millennia, people have practiced meditation to learn to master their own minds. This is particularly well-known in Eastern traditions such as Taoism and Buddhism but has also had its place in Western faiths like Christianity. Many in the West became interested in Eastern philosophy and spiritual practices such as yoga and meditation during the cultural revolution of the 1960s and 70s. Western researchers like Jon Kabat-Zinn studied meditation, wondering if it could be helpful for various mental problems and physical pain conditions. From this research emerged a refined and scientifically framed version of meditation, under the nickname "Mindfulness." Here, meditation is cleansed of religious and spiritual terms and reduced to its essential component: attention-training. Mindfulness is simply about training our ability to be present with ourselves, moment by moment. Those who try this will soon find that it is more challenging than it sounds.
Why practice mindfulness?
The fundamental goal of mindfulness in the context of mental health is to make negative mental processes, which often play a contributing role in mental problems, more conscious and easier to handle and intervene with. This facilitates the possibility of achieving greater well-being, developing greater capacity for peace of mind, and improving concentration and attention. Research has shown that mindfulness can be an effective tool to help with mental issues such as anxiety, depression, pain, stress, etc. Generally, mindfulness seems to enhance the ability to regulate emotions, meaning how well we can regulate our own feelings. Emotional regulation is a central component of mental health. Good emotional regulation allows for greater control over one's reactions, making individuals more flexible in how they face challenges that arise in everyday life. There are many activities that promote mental health, such as walking in nature, physical exercise, etc. Still, what is unique about mindfulness is that it is a focused training you can do anywhere, with no equipment other than your own attention. Many people spend hours a week on activities like strength workouts, grooming, or endless scrolling on their phones. Most could likely benefit from spending about 10 minutes each day on mindfulness instead.
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Who should not practice mindfulness?
I believe mindfulness can be adapted for most people, but those who are particularly vulnerable should exercise caution, for example, if you have a mental disorder like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. In such cases, I recommend starting mindfulness under the guidance of healthcare professionals. When we direct attention inward, we may sometimes encounter things that are not so pleasant, be it emotions or other physical sensations. For those with panic disorder and health anxiety, becoming aware of signals from the body may initially activate more anxiety, so they should be aware of this before trying mindfulness and preferably receive treatment for their panic disorder and health anxiety.
Difference between mindfulness and relaxation
Some assume that mindfulness is like a relaxation exercise: something to use when you need to calm down. While it can serve this function, I believe it stems from a misunderstanding of the concept. Mindfulness is more like training, and like any training, significant results are not achieved until you have consistently and diligently practiced over time. And if you stop training, the effect diminishes. Those who meditate, therefore, refer to this as a "practice." It may not necessarily take much to derive some benefits, just as you don't need to train like a top athlete to get in slightly better shape. The most significant challenge in starting mindfulness is usually discipline. Many can follow an introductory program for a few weeks or months, but few manage to make it a habitual practice, akin to, for example, brushing your teeth.
How to get started
For those new to mindfulness, I recommend starting with a very easy program and gradually increasing the difficulty. There are thousands of books on meditation, and many different ways to do it, such as following a mantra, body scanning, visualizations, etc. In mindfulness, a few specific techniques have been highlighted and are mainly based on the Buddhist meditation form called "Vipassana." These three techniques are 1. attention to the breath, 2. body scan, and 3. loving-kindness. For most people, attention to the breath is the most fundamental and essential method. Therefore, I have outlined a simple introduction program to mindfulness on the breath below.
For a beginner, it's best to keep it simple, and these instructions should be sufficient. If you want a bit more guidance to get started, I recommend downloading a meditation app to your phone. There are countless ones available, and an example is "Headspace," which offers the first 10 meditations for free. For a more comprehensive introduction, the book "Wherever You Go, There You Are" by Jon Kabat-Zinn is recommended.
Introduction Program to Mindfulness
Start by practicing mindfulness for 5 minutes, 5 times a week, preferably at a fixed time and on specific days. For example, on workdays, right after you wake up or before going to bed. Use a timer that alerts you after 5 minutes, for instance, the stopwatch on your phone. After two weeks, try to increase it to 7 minutes, and after one month, extend it to 10 minutes. Generally, 10 minutes of daily mindfulness is sufficient for most. Over time, you can challenge yourself, somewhat like embarking on a long-distance run after weeks of training, for example, try practicing mindfulness for 30 minutes.
Sit comfortably in a chair or on a cushion. Be straight in your back but relaxed. Let your arms rest in your lap or on your legs. Close your eyes.
Inhale deeply and exhale slowly three times. Count to five while exhaling. When you breathe in, notice the sensation of the breath entering your body. When you breathe out, feel how your body relaxes.
Let the breath transition to a natural and effortless rhythm; sometimes it's deep, other times shallow. Just let it be as it is.
Try to follow the breath with your attention. Notice the sensation in your body when you breathe in, when you breathe out, and in between inhaling and exhaling. Focus either on the feeling of air entering and leaving the nostrils or on the chest rising and falling or both simultaneously.
Very soon, attention will wander, perhaps to thoughts about what to have for dinner, a sound from outside, an itch on your nose, etc. When this happens, your task is simply to notice it. As soon as you realize your attention has drifted, gently bring it back to your breath and continue the exercise. This is the most essential part of the exercise, and you should be grateful every time you lose focus because it provides an opportunity to excercise it. It's important to try to maintain an accepting and friendly attitude toward yourself, no matter how quickly attention disappears. Every time you bring it back to the breath, your attention becomes a bit stronger.
If it's too challenging to follow the breath, you can use some help in the beginning. Try counting the in-breath and out-breath while being aware of the sensation of breathing. Count silently to yourself "one" on the in-breath and "one" on the out-breath, "two" on the in-breath and "two" on the out-breath, up to ten and back down to one. When you notice your attention has wandered from the breath and counting, start again from one. Alternatively, you can simply say to yourself "in" as you breathe in and "out" as you breathe out. In-out-in-out...
Be kind to yourself. If you sitting position becomes a bit uncomfortable, move a little. If there's an itch somewhere, it's okay to scratch it. If you feel very tense in some muscles, try tensing and relaxing them.