Working Towards Mindfulness

Why becoming more mindful is good for body and mind.

Is life going by too fast? Do you have trouble noticing—let alone appreciating—life’s moments? Do you find it hard to manage your mind as it races from one thought to another—or gets carried away by recurrent thought patterns? Cultivating mindfulness can help.

What is mindfulness? Jon Kabat-Zinn, creator of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) has defined mindfulness as, “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” Another way of looking at mindfulness is that it helps you stop living life on autopilot, allowing you to appreciate life more fully. When you are aware of not just what’s going on around you, but what’s going on within you—your thoughts, feelings, emotions and body sensations—you can unhook yourself from habitual patterns, giving you more choice in the actions you take. You can respond to internal and external stimuli, rather than react.

Although mindfulness is more than 2,500 years old and often associated with Buddhism, there has been an explosion of research on mindfulness in the fields of psychology and neuroscience. People from all walks of life—religious, spiritual, or not—can benefit from a mindfulness practice.

Why is mindfulness helpful? It’s easy to be controlled by our thoughts and not even notice. As you develop your “mindfulness muscle,” you’ll find that you are less likely to become overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around you, or by what’s going on in your head. Not only does mindfulness go hand in hand with non-judgment—noticing uncomfortable thoughts and feelings is harder if you judge yourself for having them—but also with acceptance. When you become aware of your thoughts nonjudgmentally, you can decide if they are helpful, and let them go if they’re not.

Most research on mindfulness uses mindfulness meditation, which has been shown to reduce stress, anxiety and depression as well as improve symptoms of chronic pain and support immune system health. Research also shows that mindfulness meditation produces positive changes in areas of the brain related to emotions and behavior change.

How to practice mindfulness. Mindfulness meditation—a form of attention training—is one way to practice mindfulness, but it’s not the only way. Almost anything can be a mindfulness practice, as long as you are practicing nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment. Being aware of your posture or your movements while, sitting, walking, dancing, or even brushing your teeth can become a mindfulness practice.

One misconception about meditation is that the goal is to empty the mind, another is that you’ve failed if your mind wanders. But we all have a constant stream of thoughts moving through our minds, and even experienced meditators notice their minds wandering. What the practice of meditation does is make it easier to return your attention where you want it to be. An easy way to start is to simply sit and observe your breath, bringing your attention back to your breath whenever you notice your mind drifting—and it will!

What about mindful eating? “Mindful eating is a practice that can help you connect to the simple joy that food offers,” says Megrette Fletcher, M.Ed., RD, CDE, co-founder of The Center for Mindful Eating. “It’s about being aware and present to the smell, taste and texture of the bite. When eating, if you notice, ‘Wow, this really doesn’t taste good.’ You now have a choice, which moments earlier didn’t exist.”

One myth about mindless eating is that it’s a weight loss “trick,” when it’s really a way of living life, Fletcher says. “The weight loss industry has really pushed that mindless eating causes weight gain, so many people assume that mindful eating leads to weight loss.”

As with mindfulness itself, mindful eating promotes balance, which can help people break free of habitual—and possibly unhelpful—ways of eating. “The research on mindful eating shows that it can help you feel empowered, choose nutrient-rich foods and connect with your true hunger and fullness cues,” Fletcher says.

—Carrie Dennett, MPH, RDN

TIPS FOR TRYING MINDFUL EATING 

Fletcher offers “STOP: Four Mindfulness Bites” as a simple introduction to mindful eating:

  • The first bite is “S” for SELECT. Be purposeful in gathering this bite. Select a bite that would fit well in your mouth, and notice all the colors, textures and shapes. Let this bite be just the right size so it can carry its flavor fully around your mouth.
  • The second bite is “T” for TASTE. With this bite, you notice all the tastes that develop during the bite. Let your mind be fully present for the sensation of eating. Chew your food slowly and deliberately.
  • The third bite is “O” for OBSERVE. Place your fork down, and relax as you chew. Allow your mind to travel with the food around your mouth, down your throat and into your stomach. It’s only the third bite, but notice if your hunger has softened, and if this bite is pleasant, neutral or unpleasant.
  • The fourth bite is “P” for PAUSE. Allow yourself to pause before the next bite. Take a deep breath between bites, relax, and if it that last bite was yummy, go ahead and smile.
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