The Practice of Mindfulness

I’ve recently been writing about various ways to nourish that unseen part of ourselves—our hearts or souls. Learning to nourish our hearts leads to feelings of peace and well-being, even in a chaotic world. One of the most powerful ways to nourish ourselves is the practice of mindfulness. This is a popular concept these days and so you’ve probably heard about it. I define it as paying attention to your moment-by-moment experience in a non-judgmental way.

Notice the two components of mindfulness. The first is conscious attention to your immediate experience including what is going on in your mind, body and/or surroundings. The second is paying attention to your experience in an open, curious and nonjudgmental way.

The Difference Between Being Present and Being Mindful

You may be wondering about the difference between the concept of mindfulness and being present, which I wrote about in a recent article. I define being present as being totally engaged in one thing at a time, what is going on now.

Mindfulness builds upon being present. You can’t be mindful without being present. And yet you can be present without being mindful. Think of children at play. They are fully engaged in what they’re doing although not observing their inner thoughts and feelings. Mindfulness brings a non-judgmental watchfulness to being present and so becomes a powerful means of emotional and relationship growth.

What Mindfulness Looks Like

Mindfulness means that you quiet your mind and become more aware; you notice how your emotions, thoughts and behavior fluctuate from moment to moment. For example, you’re driving down the highway thinking about your boss; a song pops into your head, followed by a memory of childhood. Soon you’re thinking about your own children and then remember the clutter in a child’s room which you need to discuss tonight. You feel irritated that your kids don’t listen or appreciate all you do for them. You’re feeling a little discouraged when suddenly another driver cuts in front of you. Now you’re angry and can’t stop thinking about all of the lousy drivers on the streets these days.

Mindfulness means that you are not only caught up in these thoughts and emotions, but you are aware that you are caught up in them. You observe your various reactions and pay attention to what arises in you from moment to moment. The idea is to observe with compassion and non- judgment, whether what you find is pleasant or unpleasant. You don’t try to change it or criticize it. Instead, you simply allow it and pay attention to it.

Benefits of Mindfulness

Although Mindfulness is an ancient practice, it has been well-used since the 1970s as a form of psychological treatment. The practice is being used, with positive outcomes, in the treatment of pain, anxiety, depression, addictions, eating disorders, etc.

Practicing mindfulness takes a commitment. However, it will also produce some powerful benefits.

  • Your awareness of your experience increases and you’ll be able to be present and live more fully in the here and now.
  • You’ll begin to detach from your experience. You’ll realize that you are not your problems or frustrations so are less caught up in suffering from them.
  • You’ll begin to learn from deeper feelings and programming that you’ve defended yourself against most of your life. Old, habitual patterns gradually begin to fall away.
  • You’ll stop fighting and resisting your experience. Life will become more effortless.
  • You’ll relax, find greater peace of mind, love, and make contact with your spiritual self and higher power.

Two Types of Mindfulness

Let me suggest that there are two types of mindfulness—inward focus and outward focus. By inward focus I’m talking about being fully present in the moment by paying attention to your thoughts, sensations, feelings and behavior. You’re observing or witnessing yourself, non-judgmentally, not just what you are doing but your inner experience as you are doing it. Witnessing your experience, in this way, results in the benefits I described above. It allows you to detach and become more at ease with your inner experience.

The second type of mindfulness is an external focus, on something in your environment. You notice, in vivid detail, your surroundings. Or you pick an object and really see and become totally present to that object. It could be a tree, leaf on a tree, pebble on the ground, if outdoors, or even the rug on the floor or pen in your hand, if indoors. You take some time to really see and even describe the object of your attention in detail. This form of mindfulness is a way to bring greater enjoyment to your life (savoring) or interrupt unhelpful ruminating or painful emotions.

How to Become more Mindful

The idea is not that you have to be mindful all the time. That is, in fact, impossible. It is okay, especially as you’re learning, to do it for brief moments throughout the day. I set the alarm on my smart phone to go off every so often. At the sound of the alarm, I take stock of myself for two to five minutes. I start by paying attention to my senses—what do I see, hear, smell, touch? Then I focus on my breathing for a few breath cycles. Then I look inside—what are my inner sensations? Feelings? Thoughts? Then I go back to whatever I was doing. The value of this pause is to take me off automatic and keep me connected to my inner being, the source of satisfaction and fulfillment.

Being mindful also keeps me refreshed and able to work for longer hours. It helps me become more emotionally aware and intelligent. Furthermore, it alerts me to stresses and negative thoughts and feelings that can inhibit my effectiveness and, thereby, gives me options about how to manage them.

So I want to encourage you to find some mindfulness triggers that you can use to get into the practice—a timer, every time you get up from sitting, getting off the phone, or whenever you make a transition from one activity to another. Gradually, you’ll become more aware of the practice and, as you feel the rewards, will seek to do it more often throughout the day.

Exercise: A Mindful Pause

So let me make the practice a little more formal by offering you an exercise. It need not take long, usually between two and five minutes. Here is the procedure:

  1. Pause from your normal routine.
  2. Pay attention to external stimuli. What do you see? Hear? Touch? Smell? Taste?
  3. Focus on your breathing for a few cycles. You don’t need to alter it, just pay attention to its ebb and flow.
  4. Then notice the physical sensations going on in your body by doing a scan from head to toe.
  5. Notice your feelings or emotions without trying to alter or change them. Just notice.
  6. Pay attention to your thoughts. Let them drift in and out of your mind without trying to control them, kind of like watching the clouds in the sky.
  7. Then go back to whatever you were doing.

Getting Better and Better

The more you practice mindfulness the more you’ll realize it’s benefits and the easier it will become. Not that you won’t ever (frequently) go unconscious, but then you’ll become aware again and bring your attention back to the present moment. Most of the time you’ll enjoy it.

Of course, sometimes something worrisome or painful is going on. As I’ve shared with you before, you can learn to simply be aware and accept these feelings. By avoiding them you become more alienated from your inner self which will lead you away from happiness and joy. Just remember that, during mindfulness, you don’t need to fix your emotions. You just notice what is going on inside and by so doing reconnect with your inner self in a way that can allow you to heal. If something painful comes up, you actually lean into the pain and let yourself experience it fully with compassion and nonjudgment. By noticing the pain and staying with the pain for a few minutes, you allow it to flow through you. It will, after a time, begin to dissipate or diminish in intensity.

So I want to invite you to learn and practice mindfulness. Make it part of your daily life and you’ll discover it is a powerful pathway to personal growth and fulfillment. And please leave a thought. What do you think about this concept? Have you practiced it? What is it like? How do you do it? What benefits have you been able to realize by being more mindful in your day-to-day life?


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