What is Mindfulness, and When Does It Start Working?
As with many buzzwords and health trends, the idea of Mindfulness seems to be everywhere these days. An odd phenomenon unfolds in tandem with this sort of proliferation: you hear about something so much, that you presume the presented facts may be the "answer" in which you seek. But does reading instructions on how to play an instrument translate to mastery of said instrument? No. Because mastery requires practice. And practice takes patience and consistency over time. Sometimes, our practice helps us cultivate the discipline to approach self-care with consistency, but that’s another topic for another day.
Mindfulness, defined commonly as “maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment,” sounds easy enough. It sounds like simply living. Looking at enough inspirational quotes on Instagram means you get it, right?
What exactly is mindfulness aside from a concept as defined above? Mindfulness extends to many realms that are interconnected, yet not always the same. There’s Mindfulness-based therapy. Some practice Mindfulness as a form of meditation. Others view it is a way to approach a better life, perhaps employing Mindfulness therapy and/or meditation as a tool for cultivating it. Countless studies have proven its efficacy in treating everything from PTSD to general anxiety, lowering the pain threshold, as well as increasing our overall bliss. As a result, you’re suddenly more in tune with your surroundings -- perhaps you notice a beautiful flower box on the windowsill of your neighbor’s building that you’d simply never seen in your daily haste. Mindfulness brings about transformative moment-to-moment experience. Mindfulness is eye-opening. And ultimately, Mindfulness helps you become more in tune with your surroundings and your sense of True Self.
A few months back, I was doing a gratitude meditation which referenced thanking “your mouth that has delighted you in flavors.” It’s easy to think of food blissfully in quiet moments of a guided meditation, but ultimately, could I carry that soft, gracious attitude forward the following day, week, month, and remainder of life? As someone who’s struggled with a personal relationship to food off and on for years, I naturally wanted to end my suffering. At first, I educated myself about the Mindfulness Approach and thought of it as another potential "fix" for my problems. While I am proud of myself, and all of us, for always being proactive in seeking better solutions, it’s this desire to want a "quick fix" that leads to relapse, and broken confusion. This attitude ignores the long term work that comes with any sort of healing technique or strategy, and naturally, applies to Mindfulness as well.
One can completely understand what Mindfulness is without feeling its benefits -- a trope that applies to abounding self-help techniques. Deep breaths help calm you down, but isn’t part of the reason you’re anxious due to forgetting you should take deeper breaths?
(Pause for said deep breath, or two).
And so, very slowly over time, I realized that Mindfulness is a practice. Instead of desperately trying to be mindful a few times and getting frustrated when it doesn't work out, it's in the comfort of consistency, and making a point out of lovingly repeating an act, more than focusing on the act itself. I so wish that all self help related advice emphasized this, but it just doesn't. People are always seeking the next thing -- the thing that's going to be the perfect fit for their path of optimization and self-discovery. However, when the search itself stems from constant dissatisfaction with all that we've tried before, it's about time to start, personally, examining why. It's about time to start being our own Mindfulness guru. Everyone's way of dealing with anxiety or eating struggles differ -- what works for me may not work for you, and vise versa. But the one thing we can, and always will be connected by is present moment Mindfulness of all that is, and living the beauty within each moment as it comes to us. This is what Mindfulness is -- it is not forced, and it is not a quick fix. It just is -- like an unconscious breath in and out. It's always there for us to consciously sink deeper into, if we so choose.
Many people reference an “Ah-hah” moment in regards to some aspect of their healing. The elusive ah-hah moment is something I held out for for too long. When I switched my focus from seeking the ah-hah moment to just doing the work -- that is, making a point to consistently work on being mindful -- the ah-hah moment found me. I no longer had to find it! It snuck up on me one day when I was eating. A very nonjudgmental voice came up, offering a soft suggestion: "Chew slowly. Savor what you are tasting. Think of it as nourishment, and take a moment to offer gratitude for the fact that you even have access to this incredible meal." This voice was not about restriction, but was about acknowledgement of the sensory experience that I was given.
You don't have to be someone who's struggled with an eating disorder to appreciate this kind of phenomenon. In fact, it applies to just about every other area of life that we blindly hustle though. Deeply appreciate that freckle on your lover's face. Deeply give thanks for the way your scarf hugs your chilly neck. Pause and idly watch your anxious inner dialogue. Don't attach to any of it -- let it all just be.
With plenty gratitude, the attitude of Mindfulness will arise naturally, moment after moment, day after day, month after month, and so on for the remainder of a life lovingly lived. Cultivate plenty of gratitude with daily meditation, write, open up with those that love you best. Take time for this practice each day. And my last advice to you is this: forget about seeing the results, and just focus on doing the work. Do it with so much compassion for yourself, and with a fearlessly heaping bucketful of self-love. Because after all, love is all that you are!