Are you mindful or is your mind full? And how do you tell the difference?
The mind is a great tool for problem-solving, but it’s not great at settling down and being with what is. Most of the time, the mind is wandering around in the past or the future rather than in the present.
That means it’s full of thoughts, stories, and narratives that don’t necessarily have anything to do with what’s actually happening at the moment.
In some cases, the mind may be caught up in stories that aren’t even based in reality. Mindfulness can offer respite from a busy mind, though it takes conscious intention and regular practice.
Want to learn how to incorporate mindfulness in your day-to-day? You’re in the right place.
Mindfulness is the practice of gently focusing your awareness on the present moment over and over again.
It often involves focusing on sensations to root yourself in your body in the here and now. It can be practiced during formal meditation or during everyday activities, like cooking, cleaning, or walking.
On the other hand, a full mind means you’re not rooted in the present moment.
It’s the nature of the mind to think, analyze, and figure things out. That’s its job. That means that left to its own devices, the mind will constantly seek out new stimuli, new things to think about, and new ways to check out from reality.
Mindfulness practice is a way to gently retrain the mind to settle into the present moment. It’s kind of like becoming a parent to your mind rather than letting it control you.
In the end, the mind is simply a willful toddler.
By practicing mindfulness over and over with patience and compassion for yourself, you can teach the mind to be still.
Eventually, the mind may even dissolve altogether, meaning that there is no intellectual or conceptual overlay between you and what you’re experiencing.
Instead, you’re fully immersed in and at one with the present moment. This experience is what’s known as true presence.
The benefits of mindfulness have been well-documented in research.
Formal investigations into mindfulness in the Western world began in 1979 when John Kabat-Zinn developed what would become the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center.
Kabat-Zinn combined his studies of Hatha yoga with mindfulness practices and Buddhist principles he learned from his many teachers.
Since then, research into MBSR and general mindfulness has exploded, and the benefits are many.
This can include:
- improving cognitive ability
- slowing brain aging
- reducing stress, anxiety, and depression symptoms
- increasing a sense of well-being
- helping with pain management
- improving quality of life for those living with chronic conditions
Improving brain health and slowing brain aging
A 2020 study of 50 long-term meditation practitioners between the ages of 24 and 77 found significantly lower rates of annual brain tissue loss in meditators, specifically in regions shown to play a role in mood regulation, nervous system processing, and emotional/cognitive integration.
The study noted that “the results add further evidence to the emerging notion that meditation may slow the effects of aging on the brain.”
Anxiety, depression, and overall well-being
A 2019 study found that MBSR was effective at increasing well-being, reducing perceived stress, and increasing job satisfaction in the workplace based on self-reports from participants.
A 2020 review found that MBSR was better than controls at treating young people with anxiety symptoms, but that treatment duration was an important factor.
A 2020 study noted that introducing mindfulness and meditation practice during the pandemic was a lower-cost way to complement anxiety treatment. The study also noted that mindfulness and meditation practices translate well to people of different ages and ranges of ability.
A 2018 review noted that it was the first meta-analysis to show that regular mindfulness practice is beneficial for anxiety and depression, even without being integrated into a larger therapeutic framework.
Pain, disease management, and quality of life
A 2019 review showed that mindfulness interventions offered multiple benefits for individuals with cancer, including:
- reducing stress
- reducing pain
- improving quality of life
- reducing fatigue
- reducing cachexia, or fat and muscle loss in the late stages of the disease
- providing relief from digestive disorders
- improving symptoms of sleep disorders
- improving immune response
- providing support for caregivers
The review also noted that mindfulness may even help prevent cancer by increasing levels of melatonin, a hormone known to have anticancer properties.
The easiest way to practice mindfulness is to focus on the breath, resting your attention on the inhalation and exhalation repeatedly.
This technique is detailed in the Siva Sutras, a 9th-century text belonging to the nondual mystical tradition of Kashmir Shaivism, believed to be written by the sage Vasugupta.
While it may be ancient in origin, this technique is just as fresh and relevant today. It can be practiced in almost any context as a way to continually bring your attention back to the present moment over and over.
Try it: resting your awareness on the breath
No matter what you’re doing, you can practice placing your attention on your breath. Whether you’re making the bed, surfing the web, or walking the dog, nearly every moment is an opportunity to become more present.
- Start by becoming aware of the sensation of your breath. Feel the rise and fall of the belly and chest. Feel the breath moving in and out of your nostrils. Notice how it’s cool on the inhale and warm on the exhale.
- Eventually, you’ll likely notice that your mind has wandered or you’ve gotten distracted by something going on around you. Simply bring the attention back to the breath without judging yourself or “rating” your performance. There is no objective other than being with the breath.
- Repeat this process over and over again. You can practice for a set amount of time or throughout your day.
Want to start out with a guided mindfulness practice? Try this 10-minute mindfulness meditation on YouTube.
Other ways to practice mindfulness
Mindfulness is a very broad category, and the ways to practice are almost limitless. You can try particular techniques to see what works for you, like:
No matter what methods you use, it’s important to find ways to integrate your mindfulness practice into your life in ways that are meaningful and enjoyable to you.
There are also plenty of effective, age-appropriate ways to practice mindfulness for kids and teens.
Mindfulness doesn’t have to include formal meditation, but it’s a great tool if you feel drawn to it or want to learn to sit with whatever you’re feeling without distraction.
There are multiple ways to integrate mindfulness with seated meditation as well as countless other types of meditation.
What’s most important is to find a technique that works for you and your lifestyle so that you can be consistent. After all, meditation is most effective when it becomes a habit.
When it comes to different types of meditation, you can try:
- mantra meditation
- metta or lovingkindness meditation
- guided imagery meditation
- Vipassana or insight meditation
- spiritual meditation
- mala or prayer bead meditation
- qigong meditation
- zazen meditation
- transcendental meditation (TM)
- visualization meditation
TM and MBSR offer introductory classes and courses if you prefer to learn from live instructors. Silent 10-day Vipassana meditation retreats are held all over the world, but these intensive retreats generally aren’t recommended for beginners.
In addition to different schools and techniques, there are also meditation practices for specific needs, like:
- meditation for anxiety
- meditation for depression
- meditation to improve sleep
- meditation for pain relief
- meditation for weight loss
- meditation for kids
- meditation for pregnancy
- meditation to stop overthinking
- meditation for perfectionists
- meditation for fibromyalgia
There are also a number of different meditation postures you can try. This can be helpful if you have mobility limitations, injuries, or simply find that your feet fall asleep when you sit in one position for too long!
If you’re looking for therapy that incorporates mindfulness, you’re in luck. These days, there are plenty of options. Just a few styles of therapy that include mindfulness are:
- holistic therapy
- cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
- dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT)
- somatic experiencing (SE)
Holistic therapy is an approach that considers the whole person when developing a treatment plan, including personal history, beliefs, culture, and more.
It often involves receiving complementary therapies from a therapist, like reiki, breathing exercises, or hypnosis. Your practitioner may be a licensed marriage and family therapist or a psychologist.
Cognitive behavioral therapy
Cognitive behavioral therapy involves recognizing and retraining unhelpful thought and behavior patterns. It’s based on the idea that your thoughts, emotions, and actions are connected.
It has components of mindfulness in that it doesn’t focus on the past. Rather, it focuses on recognizing how your thoughts and feelings can lead to distress and how to redirect your thinking and behavior in light of this.
It helps cultivate self-awareness and reflection, both important elements of mindfulness.
Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy
There is also a branch of CBT known as mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT). It combines the ideas of cognitive therapy with meditation practices to help people get to know the modes of mind that lead to negative states, like depression or mood disorders.
According to an older 2008 randomized clinical trial, MBCT was found to reduce rates of relapse in those with recurrent depression.
Dialectical behavioral therapy
Dialectical behavioral therapy is similar to CBT, but it places more emphasis on dealing with difficult emotions and navigating relationships. It was originally developed to help treat borderline personality disorder and suicidal thoughts.
DBT involves cultivating tolerance to distress as well as mindful acceptance of your thoughts and behaviors. Emotional regulation and interpersonal skills are then used to help you change your thoughts and behaviors.
Somatic means “of the body.” SE uses the mind-body connection to help with physical and psychological symptoms.
Developed by Peter Levine, it’s based on the idea that stress and trauma can lead to dysfunction in your nervous system. It involves noticing bodily sensations to address trauma that lingers in the body.
Ecotherapy is an approach based on the deep connection between humans and the environment.
It involves the practice of affirming your interconnectivity with the planet and life itself, whether through nature hikes, coastline cleanup, or digging in a garden.
Ecotherapy also focuses on using your senses to experience your natural surroundings, which can help ground you in the present moment.
As mentioned above, there’s plenty of research to indicate that mindfulness can offer benefits for anxiety.
Aside from practicing formal mindfulness and meditation techniques, you can try a number of mindfulness activities that can help root you in the here and now and ease anxiety symptoms.
- focusing your attention on the breath or body sensations
- taking pauses throughout the day
- taking breaks from social media
- walking in nature
There are also strategies you can use when your anxiety is heightened or you’re experiencing a panic attack. One of these is progressive muscle relaxation (PMR).
Try it: progressive muscle relaxation
Anyone can try PMR, even if you aren’t experiencing anxiety or panic.
- Start by lying or sitting down. Try to relax your entire body. Take five deep, slow breaths.
- Point your toes upward. Hold, then let go. Point your toes downward. Hold, then let go.
- Next, squeeze your calf muscles, then let go.
- Rotate your knees toward each other. Hold, then let go.
- Tense your thigh muscles. Hold, then let go.
- Make your hands into tight fists. Pause, then let go.
- Engage your arm muscles. Hold, then let go.
- Clench your buttocks. Pause, then let go.
- Squeeze your abdominal muscles. Pause, then let go.
- Inhale and tighten your chest. Hold, then exhale and let go.
- Raise your shoulders to your ears. Pause, then let go.
- Purse your lips together. Hold, then release.
- Open your jaw as far as you can. Hold, then let go.
- Close your eyes and scrunch your face. Pause, then release.
- Raise your eyebrows. Hold, then release.
Want to learn more about mindfulness or start a practice? Check out the resources below.
- The Center for Self Compassion offers tests, videos, and trainings to develop mindful self-compassion for yourself or to teach it to others.
- UMass Memorial Medical Center is the birthplace of MBSR and offers an 8-week live online course.
- Transcendental Meditation has a teacher directory so you can find a certified local instructor to teach you the technique over 4 sessions.
- “Fierce Self-Compassion: How Women Can Harness Kindness to Speak Up, Claim Their Power, and Thrive” by Kristen Neff
- “Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness” by Jon Kabat-Zinn
- “Stop Overthinking: 23 Techniques to Relieve Stress, Stop Negative Spirals, Declutter Your Mind, and Focus on the Present” by Nick Trenton
Mindfulness programs for kids
- Mindful Schools is a nonprofit that works to create mindful and heart-centered learning environments, inspiring educators to spark change by cultivating awareness, resilience, and compassionate action in students. They offer a free online mindfulness class for kids.
- Mindfulness in Schools Project aims to improve the lives of children and young people by making a genuine, positive difference in their mental health and well-being. They offer trainings for educators to bring mindfulness to their students.
- Positive Mindfulness offers training for kids and teens as well as teachers so they can learn how to quiet overactive thinking, self-regulate, and find calm even in the midst of stress.
- Go Zen provides online programs to help kids learn self-regulation skills and overcome anxiety. They focus on building resilience to overcome negative thinking, perfectionism, anger, and worry.
Mindfulness books for kids
- “Each Breath a Smile” features words by Thich Nhat Hanh.
- “Peace of Mind” offers a series of mindfulness books for kids in English and Spanish.
- “My Magic Breath: Finding Calm Through Mindful Breathing” teaches children how to use the breath to come back to the present moment.
Even though the name may seem like a contradiction, mindfulness is a way to empty the mind, not fill it. It can be a beautifully simple, universally accessible, and absolutely free way to show up to the present moment.
Practiced regularly, it can lead to a richer and more vivid experience of the gift of being alive.
Crystal Hoshaw is a mother, writer, and longtime yoga practitioner. She has taught in private studios, gyms, and in one-on-one settings in Los Angeles, Thailand, and the San Francisco Bay Area. She shares mindful strategies for self-care through online courses. You can find her on Instagram.