Mindfulness, or the mental practice of being aware of the present moment, is a powerful way to regain balance and achieve mental wellbeing in a busy world. From its origins in Buddhist meditation, practising mindfulness has spread popularly with a multitude of benefits backed by science. Research from 163 different studies suggested that mindfulness-meditation practice had an overall positive effect on improving anxiety and stress management. Furthermore, just 11 hours of meditation is enough to show structural changes in the parts of the brain involved in monitoring our focus and self-control.
It is no wonder that the mindfulness movement has found its way to Google offices here and the National University of Singapore (NUS), where students can opt to take a Mindful Psychology module as part of their course. However, with a multitude of stressors and distractions in modern society, practising mindfulness is easier said than done. Though if persisted, successful practitioners stand to reap benefits such as relaxation, stress reduction, happiness and an overall sense of wellbeing.
Mind Over Matter – What Is Mindfulness and How to Practice It?
Mindfulness, quite simply, is the moment-by-moment awareness of thoughts, feelings and environment. It is a mental training technique that focuses on the present moment. Instead of worrying about the past or being anxious and fearful of the future, mindfulness is about bringing your attention to the here and now. It is a mental state of being that is both relaxed and highly alert at once. For some, it is also a state where creativity and insights can flow easily without judgment. With practice, mindfulness can help to clear your mental clutter and create distance from your thoughts so that you can view them from a new perspective.
Numerous studies have shown that practising mindfulness can make people happier in the long run, and the technique is also being used in psychological therapy to treat patients with anxiety and depression. Other scientifically backed benefits include:
- Better immune functioning and pain management
- Reduced levels of depression, anger, stress and anxiety.
- More positive emotions including self-compassion, empathy and satisfaction with life
- Greater productivity with improved focus, attention and ability to multitask
- Enhanced quality of sleep
- Better cardiovascular health
- Reduced chronic pain
The great thing about mindfulness is that it can be easily and conveniently incorporated into our daily lives. As long as you bring your attention to the present moment, you are mindful. Here are some techniques and tips you may try to help you along:
Breathing In and Out – Managing Stress and Anxiety by Focusing on the Breath
Have five minutes to spare? Take the time to focus on your breath. This practice can be done anytime, anywhere: in the MRT, on your walk home, or even while waiting for the traffic light to turn green.
While there are several techniques to aid one in practice, the most common and easiest one is to begin by focusing on the breath. To do this, first, gently bring awareness to your breath. Notice how the air goes lightly in and out of your nostrils and how your abdomen extends in and out. Do not attempt to take in more air or make an effort to breathe harder than usual. Accept your natural breathing pattern the way it is and rest in it. No correction is needed. Repeat as often as needed.
At any time when you are feeling stressed, anxious or out of balance, simply take a moment to return your attention to your breath as above. Several minutes are enough to create some space and relief in your day.
Raisin Your Consciousness – A Mindfulness Exercise
It seems like an easy thing to do, but keeping your focus on one single thing without distraction is harder than it seems. ‘The Raisin Consciousness’ is a popular mindfulness exercise designed by mindfulness guru, Jon Kabat Zinn that can help you, and it goes like this:
- Take a raisin in your hand and focus your attention on it as if you are seeing it for the first time
- Touch the raisin, turn it over in your fingers while noticing its colour, texture, maybe even with your eyes closed
- Smell the raisin, inhale its fragrance and aroma, notice if it triggers any sensations in your mouth or stomach
- Slowly place the raisin to your lips and on your tongue, take a few moments to explore the object in your mouth
- When you are ready, chew and taste the raisin consciously, noticing further experiences in taste changes or texture
- Then, swallow the raisin and carefully notice your body movements as you do so
- Finally, sense and appreciate how your body is feeling after completing this exercise in mindful eating
You can repeat the above exercise with any object of your choice, such as a flower. Pay it the same undivided attention and discover a new sense of joy and wonder in the process.
Savour Moments with All Your Senses to Cultivate Mindfulness
How many of us live moment to moment without any pause? If we do not take time to savour the present, we will find that time passes us by too quickly. So slow down, be mindful and savour the moment by involving all your bodily senses. Like the above exercise, start to immerse yourself in each moment, every day. Appreciate the cup of tea in your hands and enjoy every sip. Stop to notice the shape, curve and texture of a flower petal. Feel the gentle caress of a breeze on your arm. Spare five minutes of your day to take a walk in a peaceful environment: for example, HDB void decks in the wee hours of the morning before you head for work, or a detour through the town park on your way back from lunch. Allow yourself to relax and stroll. Enjoy the act of walking, and be conscious of each step you place on the ground. Instead of hurrying through to the next activity, allow yourself to experience each moment for what it is, and tap into a space of happiness and calm wherever you are.
Refocus to Focus Your Attention
While practising mindfulness, thoughts often arise or intrude as distractions. Your mind may wander and attempt to take you away from the present moment. Thoughts such as “This is boring” or “What shall I eat later?” or “Am I doing this right?” will wrestle for your attention. When this happens, be a witness and observer to each thought instead. Allow each thought to pass by without engaging in further thought or judgment, then refocus your attention back to your breath or the present moment. Over time, you will train your mind to be at rest and be open to whatever arises without being reactive.
Gain a New Perspective
Mindfulness offers an alternate perspective to you by creating distance between you and your thoughts. Where you might previously be overly attached to a certain point of view, practising mindfulness puts you through a process of “re-perceiving”. By stepping back, recognising and observing your thought patterns, you are able to reassess whether your thoughts have been habitually supporting or sabotaging you.
This new perspective can also create empathy and compassion towards others and bring greater awareness into relationships, whether at home and at work. It is a powerful tool to create shifts in our lives — simply by offering a perspective from another side.
For as little as just 20 minutes a day, practising mindfulness can not only help you to relieve stress and anxiety in the short run, it can also lead to long-term happiness, wellbeing and greater satisfaction in life. Now, who wouldn’t mind that?