Using Mindfulness to Improve Your Life and Train Your Brain
In this video about practicing mindfulness in nature, I mention that mindfulness is paying attention to the present moment, on purpose, and non-judgmentally. The focus of your attention or the place you are practicing mindfulness could vary greatly but as long as you utilize these elements you are practicing mindfulness. Mindfulness doesn’t necessarily mean sitting on a cushion with our eyes closed thinking about nothing, or doing a specific breathing practice, or doing a certain type of meditation. Mindfulness could simply mean that we really focus as we enjoy a cup of tea or coffee, we notice how the sun feels as get our mail, or we take a walk focusing on how things look and sound right now, in each passing moment.
If you decide to start practicing mindfulness one huge element you will immediately become aware of is distraction. I typically get distracted within the first 15 seconds of trying to pay attention to something on purpose. It’s normal to get distracted, our brains are not automatically good at paying attention to something on purpose for any extended period of time. You might notice the urge to check your phone, feel restless in your body, or get lost thinking about the future or the past. While this can be frustrating in the beginning, it’s important to recognize that this is normal and an important part of the process. Practicing mindfulness is the equivalent of doing strength training with a particular muscle group. You have to do the exercise over and over again before the parts of your brain used to pay attention to the present moment get stronger. Redirecting your attention back to the original focus without judgement is a key to learning to use mindfulness. Be curious about your experience and gentle with yourself as begin focusing again.
So why would you want to start doing mindfulness after hearing it isn’t easy and that you have to practice before it gets any easier? I mentioned in the video that practicing mindfulness can help you feel calm and relaxed, be generally more focused, and can be important for your mental health. I would argue that if you are practicing mindfulness the goal is not to feel calm and relaxed, the goal is to be aware, but sometimes we end up feeling calm and relaxed as a nice bonus. Better focus is a common result of practicing mindfulness because you are able to exercise the “brain muscle” of paying attention which will lead to it become stronger and to the ability to use this skill across different areas of your life. I know from my own experience as well as working with clients that if you are able to be mindful for even a few minutes a day it can help us check in with how we are doing physically and emotionally. If we get focused on how we feel in the present moment we may notice we are holding unneeded tension in our shoulders or we might notice we are hungry and need a snack. If we take a few moments to check in maybe we realize we’re holding onto a difficult experience from earlier in the day and be able to let go and move forward more effectively. Being mindful throughout the day helps us check in and see how we are feeling and what we need so that we can care for ourselves.
Being in touch with ourselves in this way has also been shown to help decrease behaviors that we know aren’t serving us. We all get caught up in habits or patterns that don’t help us live our best lives, but when we try to control ourselves or push ourselves to change the behavior, we often aren’t successful. This is because the part of our brain (the prefrontal cortex) which is in charge of making decisions that are in line with our morals and values goes offline when we become stressed. So we might have good intentions to quit smoking or not use our phone while driving, but something stressful happens and we go back to a bad habit that we have been trying to work on. According to Judson Brewer, a psychiatrist who has studied the connection between mindfulness and addiction, the key is curiosity about what is going on in our bodies and minds from moment to moment. This curiosity of what is going on in the present moment helps us notice the urge to do the behavior, become aware that the urge will pass, and be able to let go of the thing that is no longer helping us and move closer to the life we want.