This article was written by Dr. Matthew Mandel
If someone asked you to define mindfulness, what would you say? You can probably ask 10 people to define it and get 10 different answers. Many people have trouble grasping what mindfulness really means and often think, “Oh no! I’m too busy to be mindful. There’s not enough time to add another thing to do!”
Common definitions of mindfulness are ”being in the present moment” and “clearing the mind of all thoughts”. First, what does being present really mean? Second, it’s impossible to clear the mind of all thoughts, so don’t even try. Some people even think mindfulness involves sitting on a cushion with candles or a Buddha statue while in deep meditation searching for enlightenment after doing a yoga class. (Just so you know, enlightenment doesn’t work that way.)
Jon Kabat Zinn, a Western scholar, pioneer of mindfulness since the late 1960s, and founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program, defines mindfulness as “the awareness that arises through paying attention on purpose in the present moment non-judgmentally.” That sounds pretty serious. To keep it simple, here are some less formal definitions.
- Knowing where your mind is.
- Paying attention to what you pay attention to.
- Being aware of when and how your mind gets distracted.
- Waking up over and over again.
- Remembering to observe how your mind’s attention moves from one thing to another.
- Catching yourself being on autopilot.
- The opposite of being mindless.
Most of us run on autopilot day after day, week after week, year after year, busy with our careers, family, home repairs, taking care of others, satisfying our addictions, etc. We’re thinking about and planning for the future or regretting and dwelling on past mistakes and missed opportunities. Many of us are also absolutely consumed with our weapon of mass distraction (aka cell phone), which can cause more stress and suffering than we realize. We are constantly waiting for text replies, checking our email, or seeing how many likes we get on social media.
Add to that the challenge of being a healthcare provider. Many clinicians are overwhelmed with caring for dozens of people every day who are facing illness, pain, disability, lifestyle, and role disruption, along with mounds of documentation, phone calls to payers, pharmacies, consultants, and more. They are stuck in the fight and flight response, overstressed, have anxiety, and suffer in part due to the inability to control and handle the mind’s thoughts and reactions. Clinicians (and others) can become paralyzed by fear or be too hard on themselves trying to reach perfection. The mind can run wild with worse-case scenarios that almost never actually happen. The good news is people can train the brain to turn off the parts that cause them to be on autopilot, always striving for more, trying to satisfy cravings and addictions, and stressing them out while activating the parts of the brain that help people relax, change perspective, have more compassion, feel grateful, make wise decisions, and be more content.
Mindfulness can take many shapes and sizes. Many think they must sit down and meditate to be mindful, but mindfulness is not meditation. Mindfulness encompasses awareness, breathing, and/or any form of mindful movement (i.e., yoga, tai chi) where you notice your breath, mind, and body connection. You can be mindful while playing an instrument, performing a sport, exercising, dancing, eating, journaling, practicing gratitude, and having compassion for yourself and others.
Getting Personal and Next Steps
Until a few years ago, mental health and mindfulness have not been a part of training and athletics. For decades, people have been told that to be really “fit” and healthy they should exercise, usually at high intensity or for long durations so that they can feel the burn or endorphin rush, reduce stress, clear the head, and feel better. Yet, despite physical exercise, many still struggle with stress and anxiety and there’s still an obesity epidemic!
Now, let me tell you a little about myself. For most of my life, I ran and lifted weights completing marathons and an Ironman, thinking that was the best and only way to really be “fit” and healthy. I consider myself a thinker, worrier, dweller, and perfectionist and I continued to allow those thought patterns to thrive, even as I trained and competed. I essentially did my physical training and competitions on autopilot. I was never fully present because I still thinking ahead about my to-do list or behind about my past mistakes and regrets. When I started to practice mindfulness and began to train my brain to be fit, (and not my body) my stress, anxiety, and worry seemed to melt away and my connection with my family greatly improved. I learned how to be open to my thoughts and emotions instead of trying to push them away with distraction. I began to realize that I was actually grateful and just walking mindfully, breathing, meditating, practicing yoga, and mindfully lifting weights.
When attempting to become mindful, there are two things that are crucial for success: awareness and remembering to actually do it. This sounds simple, but being mindless is much easier than being mindful. Have you ever driven somewhere and can’t remember any part of the trip? What about that conversation you had, but can’t remember what was decided? How often do you get lost watching YouTube videos for 2 hours late at night? This is not the type of mental state anyone should be in.
Mindfulness is about noticing. Fortunately, there are many ways to incorporate mindfulness into our daily lives starting from the moment we wake up, to walking to the bathroom and taking a shower, to eating breakfast, and so on. Even during the most basic routines of life, you can simply start paying attention. Try being aware and open to noticing the senses of sight, touch, sound, taste, and smell during everything you do. If that seems too much, focus on your breath. It's an easy way to become present and can be done at all times. Just noticing yourself breathing air in and out in different ways can help you discover just how tense and stressed you are and what your body goes through every second of the day.
However, like anything that’s worth doing, mindfulness takes practice and commitment. It takes time to build mental muscle just like it takes time to build strength and definition in your biceps, abs., or wherever. Many people train their bodies in the gym for 1 to 2 hours a day; over weeks, months, and years, they build strength and improve their fitness. Others may spend months or years improving their aerobic capacity, technique, and endurance to successfully complete a marathon, triathlon, or Ironman (Remember, I was one of those people.)
For many, thoughts, especially those of judgment, fear, and regret are well-practiced. They’re like habits, hard-wired into our brains. For us to break old, bad habits and develop new, healthy ones, we literally need to rewire the brain. And that takes practice, LOTS of practice. The same dedication that’s needed to change the physical body is needed to change our brain.
What’s my strategy for fitting in all that practice while being a busy clinician, spouse, father, and coach? I practice living each day in a state of awareness. What does that mean? I try to be aware of my physical body and my thoughts, and how my presence, words, and actions affect me and those around me. I try to use all the senses to create new habits of thought including happiness and gratitude. In other words, instead of just doing, I try actually “being”. I have found that being mindful and mastering strategies that improve awareness and the way I think has truly changed my fitness for life.