You’ve likely heard by now that practicing mindfulness can give you a significant boost when it comes to performing at your best. Elite endurance athletes cite personal meditative practices as their secret weapons for success. Yet, in spite of the increasing buzz surrounding the term, mindfulness remains, in the minds of many, an elusive concept.
It’s impossible to implement, let alone benefit from a practice you don’t fully understand. Yet, because of the hype, so many of us feel a sense of urgency to jump on board the bandwagon before we even truly comprehend what it is we are signing up for. Ironically, this stress of keeping up with the Joneses is what true mindfulness practice can address.
So, first thing’s first, what does mindfulness really mean?
Stemming out of Buddhism, the practice traditionally involves a combination of meditative techniques that together, work to uncover the difficulties that lie at the heart of one’s stress, and gently guide us towards a sense of calm and serenity.
In our contemporary world, we’ve taken this ancient tradition of using meditation to heal and adapted it for daily use. The simplest definition for the concept of mindfulness nowadays is that it is the process of devoting a quality of awareness to moment-by-moment experience. In other words, it is being alert to the present, and being grateful for the precious, fleeting gift that it is. Being curious, non-judgmental, and purposeful help in this path to savouring the here and now.
What are the benefits you can expect?
There are a number of ways in which this practice has been cited to help its practitioners. The first recorded clinical benefit was found in the treatment of chronic pain. In a study conducted over a ten week period, chronic pain patients were put through a program wherein they were taught how to incorporate the meditative practice of detached observation. They learned to separate the physical feeling of pain from the mental distress to such pain, ultimately reducing the level of suffering experienced. At the end of the ten weeks, an astounding 65% of the patients showed a reduction in their pain by 33% , while 50% showed their pain reduced to half of what it had been originally.
With such encouraging results, further studies were conducted on how mindfulness could be used to treat ailments. Promoting greater health by easing anxiety and stress, it’s been found to be particularly helpful in the reduction of psychological illness, including emotional and behavioural disorders.
However, the benefits aren’t restricted to those with severe, or even diagnosed, health conditions. Anyone facing minor, daily stressors could benefit. After all, consistent stress—even if low intensity—can snowball into mental illness with negative or tragic outcomes.
Examples of daily stressors involve an overloaded work day, an argument with a friend or teammate, sitting in traffic, and even over-training—facets of life we are all too familiar with. According to a study conducted by the American Psychological Association, the most agonizing form of day-to-day stressors are interpersonal conflicts, which were found to be the most upsetting at the outset, and also the longest lasting. So, don’t discount the effect of a “small fight” with a loved one on your health.
Instead of worrying more, however, you can use mindfulness practice proactively to counter the negative effects of stress and risk of ill health. How will it help? By building your patience and compassion, and above all else by promoting a greater sense of intimacy with yourself.
The following tactics will help clarify what it is that you truly value, what genuinely excites you, and what gives you your raison d’être. Over time, you will find that you have grasped a sense of serenity, which will provide you the strength to handle hardships thrown your way, and simultaneously savour the moments of joy in your life.
5 tools for daily mindfulness in your life
1. Pay attention to the present
When you find yourself feeling anxious or upset about something, you’re pulling yourself out of the present and into the uncontrollable past or the indeterminate future, neither of which will serve you well.
When you notice yourself thinking in such a way, say, as you’re warming up for a big race, begin to actively absorb all facets of your surroundings. Focus on all of your senses.
What do you see right now? What do you smell? What sounds do you hear?
Describe your multi-sensorial experience, in as much detail as possible. Think as if you’re writing a narrative and trying to translate your current predicament to your readers. Or, imagine you’re describing the details of your being in that very moment to a friend.
If you find yourself so inclined, take it a step further and write out what you are feeling.
Being hyper-aware of your surroundings in this way empowers you to transform any moment into an opportunity for deep meditation. This is a wondrous way to make doing your chores a spiritual practice. If you’re washing the dishes, for instance, concentrate on the sound of the running tap, the warmth or coolness of the water, the smell of your soap; relish in feeling these senses deeply, and know that in feeling, you are living.
2. Tune into your body
On a similar note, rather than tapping into the external world that surrounds you, you may find it beneficial to examine something confined uniquely to you, to how your body feels.
The next time you go to do your stretches, ask yourself, how do you feel in this present moment? Are you sitting? How does your back or bottom feel in the chair? Are they supported? Numb? Are you standing? How do your feet feel as they strike the ground? Is it a hard surface?
Go through questions such as these to begin to unite your mind and body. Start at the top with your head; work your way down. You’ll find a sense of calm wash over you as you strengthen this connection between your mental and physical self.
As Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh teaches, “When your mind is with your body, you are well-established in the here and the now. You are fully alive. You can be in touch with the wonders of life that are available in yourself and around you.”
Carve out some time at the beginning and/or end of the day for quality time with yourself, by way of journaling. This practice is unique as it combines the external, tangible world with our inner, emotional world. Allowing us to release any built-up feelings or emotions, the activity promotes healing, empowerment and transformation.
There are many different ways to implement this practice. You can write freely, in a therapeutic, stream-of-consciousness format. This style of writing leads to an intimate discovery of the self, by unwinding one’s thoughts, clarifying them, and thus promoting problem-solving or general insight into one’s personal issues.
Alternatively, you can approach the art of journaling in a more specific and deliberate way; i.e. by writing down things you are grateful for, or detailing intentions you would like to set for yourself. For more on this topic, listen to lectures by UJ Ramdas, the founder of The 5 Minute Journal, or check out the articles regarding his work that have been linked to below.
Each of these approaches will promote self-awareness, which will help you in honing your skills as an athlete, and also when it comes to achieving a more authentic, fulfilled state. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.”
4. Breathing techniques
Simply focusing on your breath can be a powerful method of incorporating mindfulness, anytime and anywhere. Try the breathing pattern below while you’re awaiting the starting whistle at your next game or competition:
Follow your in-breath for three seconds; 1…2…3…
If any interrupting thoughts come into your mind, don’t fret. The sudden realization that there is laundry to get done or food to be purchased for your dinner is bound to happen at some point in the start of your journey to quiet your mind. When they arise, recognize them, acknowledge them, and let them go.
Return to concentrating on your in-breath.
After three full seconds, release your breath. Focus on your out-breath for three seconds; 1…2…3…
Repeat this practice.
This exquisitely, easy, internal concentration on the breath will result in deeper, slower breathing over time. This reduces the speed of the heart rate, decreases beta waves, and increases alpha and theta waves, putting the body into a more harmonious, relaxed state.
5. Get outside help
If you’re a bonafide beginner, don’t feel the need to “master” mindfulness over night, or on your own. Start out by listening to guided meditations. You can enjoy them when you’re out—on the subway, on a run, or whilst grocery shopping—and in the comfort of your home, in your own makeshift home sanctuary, if you will. A highly recommended download is Tara Brach’s “Smile” meditation, found on the Podcast app of your iPhone. Additionally, look to the many helpful mindfulness apps that deliver real results, including Headspace & Calm.
Mindfulness is a universally beneficial practice that promotes being fully present in the moment. Embracing this way of being leads to finding happiness in the simplest of things: the smell of coffee brewing, the warmth of the sun on your face, the fresh, crisp air felt during your early morning run.
Adopting this practice means you are appreciating whatever you are currently engaged in, noting your present is the most precious moment. As Kabat-Zinn notes in Full Catastrophe Living, “Why rush through some moments in order to get to other ‘better’ ones? Each one is your life in that moment.”
As you do this, you will not only find happiness and calm, but the truth of who you really are. Slowing down and paying attention to yourself, your inclinations, your patterns of thinking, allow you to see yourself more clearly, and therefore help you to set meaningful goals and meet them.
So, spread the word and seize the day, begin living your most Zuberant Life right now.
If you found this to be an interesting read, be sure to check out these likeminded articles that delve deep into some of the subjects discussed here:
Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh’s book on meditation, Breathe. Breathe.
Bishop, et al. (2004). Mindfulness: A Proposed Operational Definition. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 11(3), 230-241. doi:10.1093/clipsy/bph077
Bolger, N., Delongis, A., Kessler, R. C., & Schilling, E. A. (1989). Effects of daily stress on negative mood. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57(5), 808-818. doi:10.1037//0022-35220.127.116.118
Bryant-Davis, T. (2014). Surviving sexual violence: a guide to recovery and empowerment. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield .
Hanh, T. N. (2016, September 30). Thich Nhat Hanh on The Practice of Mindfulness. Retrieved February 23, 2017, from https://www.lionsroar.com/mindful-living-thich-nhat-hanh-on-the-practice-of-mindfulness-march-2010/
Kabat-Zinn, J. (1982). An outpatient program in behavioral medicine for chronic pain patients based on the practice of mindfulness meditation: Theoretical considerations and preliminary results. General Hospital Psychiatry, 4(1), 33-47. doi:10.1016/0163-8343(82)90026-3
Kabat-Zinn, J. (1990). Full catastrophe living. New York, NY: Delacorte Press.