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Everyone from Today’s Parent to the Guardian is writing about mindfulness lately – in fact, there’s actually an entire magazine (called Mindful, natch) devoted to the topic. If you’ve ever wondered what it’s all about, here’s a primer.
“Mindfulness is basically paying attention on purpose in the present moment, without trying to judge or change what’s happening to our sensations, feelings or thoughts,” says Dr. Maria Patriquin, a family physician in Halifax who incorporates mindfulness into her medical practice.
Dr. Patriquin trained with Jon Kabat-Zinn, the originator of mindfulness-based stress reduction and the man who many credit with bringing mindfulness into the common vocabulary.
“The most general benefit of mindfulness is that it reduces stress and increases our enjoyment of our day-to-day life and our experience of ourselves in it,” says Dr. Patriquin. “We tend to ping pong between reliving the past and worrying about the future, in the meantime missing the ‘now’. That causes us a huge amount of stress.”
“Yet the choices we make right now affect the future we’re worrying about, and how we’ll look back on this time in the future,” she says. “It’s vital that we pay attention to what’s happening in the present, and to bring that awareness to the choices we’re making on a day-to-day basis.”
“When we are aware of ourselves we are best able to reflect and respond to our needs and those of the outside world. This might be as simple as choosing the healthiest lunch, taking time out from work for a walk, or waiting to have a difficult conversation when we are calmer.”
In the long run, Dr. Patriquin says, mindfulness practice can rewire your brain.
“Once we become better at being mindful, it appears we are happier, more compassionate, kinder and more focused,” she says. “Studies show that mindfulness reduces chronic pain, improves immune function, decreases depression, anxiety, and stress related disorders and symptoms.”
It’s big stuff. But the most important thing mindfulness can do is help us cope with the ups and downs of daily life. The next time you’re stuck in a traffic jam or dealing with a toddler meltdown while you try to get dinner on the table, mindfulness might be what gets you through.
How can I incorporate mindfulness into my daily life?
“The great thing about mindfulness is that it’s universally accessible,” says Dr. Patriquin. “You don’t need money,education or status. You can do it anywhere, anytime. You don’t need to sit down to meditate for half an hour – you can take a mindful walk, eat a meal mindfully, even wash the dishes in a mindful way.”
Start by focusing on your breath – it’s free, it’s easy and you don’t need any special equipment. It’s as simple as noticing the sensation of air moving past your nostrils, observing as your belly rises and falls with each breath. If you get distracted, acknowledge the thought and return attention to your breath. Repeat this for a few minutes each day.
If you’d prefer, you can try this guided meditation.
Of course you’re going to want to plug in and tune out while you crank out your daily 30 minutes on the elliptical machine at the gym. For a change, try going for a walk outside. Focus on the small details, such as the texture of the moss growing on the rocks, or the cracks that criss-cross the sidewalk.
One popular mindfulness exercise has participants spend five minutes eating one raisin – but if that seems a bit extreme, try starting out by eating one meal a day without distractions. (No, really: Put down your phone). Focus on how your food looks, smells and tastes, paying careful attention to the interplay of textures and flavours.
Set an alarm on your phone or a repeating calendar reminder on your computer to go off at some point during the day; when it rings, take a few minutes for mindfulness. This can be as simple as taking three deep breaths or it could be more involved – try one of these guided meditations.
Signing up for a mindfulness class means making a weekly appointment with mindfulness. Your local yoga studio or community centre are good resources for classes. Your family doctor might be able to recommend a program, too; for example Dr. Patriquin offers eight-week stress reduction classes at Living Well Integrative Health Centre.
Instead of playing the game du jour on your commute, let your phone guide you through a mindfulness meditation. There are several great apps available for this purpose – one great option is Calm.
Whether you’re knitting, drawing or even colouring in an adult colouring book, the focus required to create your masterpiece is a great way to focus your mind on the task at hand in the moment, rather than on ruminating about the past or worrying about the future.
Dr. Patriquin recommends regular practice.
Whatever you chose to do, all it takes is 10 minutes a day or 20 minutes, three times per week, to confer the benefits of mindfulness, says Dr. Patriquin.
“Whatever we do repeatedly, we get better at,” she says. “You can even take multiple pauses throughout the day for a ‘mindfulness moment’ – an opportunity to check in with yourself, to notice your breath, to see how you’re feeling.”
Your turn — how do you live a mindful life? Share with us some of your practices in the comment section below.