By Ali Nicole

The practice of mindfulness has become a staple in mental health settings, workplace wellness seminars, and classroom lessons. It seems to be a new concept but the reality is that mindfulness has been around for thousands of years and has been studied through scientific research for over 50 years. If you haven’t yet explored mindfulness – what it is, how it works, and how to make it work for you – now is the time to learn about this research-supported practice in wellness.

What is mindfulness? Most mindfulness experts and practitioners will define mindfulness as the practice of being present in the moment without judgment. 

By breaking the definition down, we are better able to understand what mindfulness is and what it can do. The first part of the definition is the word “practice,” which is exactly what you’d expect – doing an activity regularly and repeatedly to hone a skill. Just like anything else you want to become good at, you have to practice mindfulness consistently to make it work for you. 

Being present is the bulk of mindfulness. It’s the idea that your mind and body can exist in the here and now, fully taking in your experience in real time. This is different from how many of us live our busy lives, focused on the future and what has to be done, living one (or even 10) steps ahead of the present. Or the opposite – focusing on the past filled with regret and missed chances.

To do all of this without judgment means to let an experience happen, full stop. This isn’t turning off thoughts or feelings, it’s quite the opposite. When you’re present in the moment you recognize experiences inside and out. Taking away judgment of these experiences provides the freedom to let life happen. You meet life exactly where it is and not where you think it should be or should have been.

In practice, the concept looks something like this. Instead of focusing on what awaits you at the work site on the drive to your job, you focus on the feel of the steering wheel, the sound of the wind outside, and the smell of the coffee sitting in the cup holder. Removing judgement from the expectation of how the traffic should flow lets you make choices based on what is happening in the moment, not what you want to happen — judgements such as go faster, get through the light, or get to work before someone else.

Mindfulness is taught and practiced in schools, at mental health treatment centers, yoga studios, the workplace, correctional facilities, and more, for people of many ages and backgrounds. The benefits include stress reduction, enhanced focus, emotion regulation, self-awareness, improved physical and mental wellness, and overall better well-being.

Getting started in mindfulness is simple. Resources range from watching online videos to engaging in treatment with a therapist skilled in mindfulness practice, and everything in between. While there are resources out there for basic mindfulness, body awareness, addressing specific emotional or physical targets, and much more, you can get started right now with mindful breathing.

Mindful Breathing Exercise

Find a quiet space and sit comfortably. Do not lock your limbs, such as crossing your legs and arms, and try to be in a neutral position. 

You may want to set a timer to start out to help you get used to practicing for certain lengths of time. Begin with five minutes, then 10 and 15.

Close your eyes or soften them on one neutral spot in the room and bring all of your attention to your breathing. Experience the smallest details of breathing — the temperature of the air as it moves in and out of your body, the expansion of the diaphragm as you breath out, the sound of your breathing and the way your shoulders, stomach, back, chest, and entire body reacts to each inhale and exhale.

Try not to change each breath or make judgments. This is a simple exercise in awareness and being present. There is no other goal than to breathe.

Resisting judgment also applies to the thoughts that will interrupt your practice. Thoughts will surface and try take your attention away from your breathing. This is normal. When you notice your mind has wandered, acknowledge it, gently let the other thoughts go, and return to your breathing.

At the end of this practice, you may want to journal briefly on your experience. Did your breath change from the beginning to the end? Were there certain intrusive thoughts that returned more than others? Did you pick up on other body sensations? Were there moments where you judged the experience and caught yourself? Over time, journaling will help build even more awareness for you.

If you choose to take a journey with mindfulness, find what works for you – videos, written walk-throughs, apps, meditations, activity-based practices, targeted practices, and more. The options are many but the important part is taking that first step to living in the present.