What is Mindfulness?

What is Mindfulness?

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

Philippians 4:8

“Mindfulness” is one of those words that has become trendy in the past few years, particularly as discussion of mental health has increased in the public sphere. But what is it? Put simply, it is the practice (and it does take practice) of being fully present in the moment, to the exclusion of all else. In other words, pointing your thoughts in one direction and keeping them there. For someone like me, whose thoughts sometimes feel like an angry hive of buzzing bees, having a calm, purposeful train of thought sounds – and is – delightful. 

Who and how can it help? 

All of us, from time to time, experience unwanted or unpleasant thoughts. For those of us who struggle with mental illness, such thoughts carry even more power. So much so, in fact, that they have a clinical name – Negative Intrusive Thoughts. A client of mine once shared with me that she calls them “NITs,” and I have used the term myself ever since. Just like their parasitic namesakes, NITs can wreak great havoc and are impossible to ignore. Whether they stem from anxiety, depression, PTSD, or some other illness, NITs rudely intrude on their victim’s train of thought, interrupting their ability to function or experience their surroundings as they otherwise would. Here is an example of a mother experiencing a sequence of increasingly negative thoughts:

“I’m really enjoying spending time with my child.”

“I should do this more.”

“I don’t do this enough.”

“My child is missing out because I don’t do enough.”

“I’m not a good enough mother.”

Whoa, that went off the rails, didn’t it? In real time, this decline might have taken as little as 10-15 seconds. This mother, instead of enjoying time with her child, is now lamenting the fact that she doesn’t do more and condemning herself as a mother. She is no longer present in that moment, with her child. She is regretful of the past and worried about the future, both of which take her mind away from what is actually happening in that moment: spending time with her child

NITs can be even more severe and abrupt – someone with PTSD experiencing sudden, vivid thoughts of their trauma while eating dinner with the family, for example, even without a trigger. Or a spouse wondering when their husband/wife will get home (“I haven’t heard from him/her in a while. He/she has probably had a car accident and died.”) Regardless of the intensity, NITs cause a disturbance. Mindfulness redirects the thought process in a more purposeful, less negative direction, and it can offer a reprieve from negative or stressful thoughts, even powerful ones like NITs. When your thoughts are pointed in a less destructive direction, this allows your body to calm down and gives you a chance to respond to the situation in a healthier way. 

How do I practice Mindfulness? 

I will illustrate a few examples of mindfulness exercises here, and a quick google search offers dozens more. 

  1. Mindful Breathing – take 3-5 long, slow, deep-as-you-can breaths. The object here is to focus on your breathing – the way the air feels moving into and leaving your body, the way your body responds to the deep breath, the sounds your breaths make, etc. This is helpful periodically throughout the day and especially when encountering something stressful. 
  2. 60-second Focus – choose an object from your surroundings (a pen, a sweater, a leaf, a watch, etc.) and set a timer for 60 seconds. Use your senses to observe everything you can about the object in that time (Except taste. Please don’t lick things. There’s a pandemic out there.). Can you hear your watch ticking? Does the pen feel smooth in one place and rough in another? Does your sweater smell like fabric softener? Does the leaf reveal hidden colors or patterns when held up to light? God created a beautiful world! You’ll be surprised by how much we don’t ordinarily notice!
  3. 5-minute activity break – choose a simple, fun/relaxing activity, set a timer for five minutes, and GO! Some favorites are word searches, crossword puzzles, adult coloring books, sudoku puzzles, drawing/doodling, taking a quick walk outside, a hands-on activity like knitting or woodworking…the possibilities abound. The ideal activity is something you enjoy that is easy enough to be worked on within the 5 minutes. Bonus points if it DOESN’T INVOLVE YOUR PHONE!
  4. Meditate on Scripture – choose a verse or passage, or use the daily verse feature on your favorite Bible app. Spend a few minutes reading and rereading the words. Auditory learner? Repeat them aloud to yourself. Learn by repetition? Write the verse a few times on an index card. Think about what the words mean, and ask God how He is communicating to you through that specific passage. Throughout the day, return the verse to your mind, reread or repeat the words to yourself. A handy trick can be to save the verse to your phone’s home screen or to write the Scripture address on your wrist in washable ink – you are reminded every time you see it. 
  5. See, Hear, Feel – this one is incredibly simple and can be done just about anywhere. Find 3 things in the room that you see, 3 things that you hear, and 3 things that you physically feel. Get as detailed as you can! For example, if I were to do this exercise right now, it would go like this: 
    1. I see: my water glass is almost empty, my son sitting on the floor eating his cheerio snack, and my son feeding the dog a cheerio and then eating one himself.
    2. I hear: the cheerios rattling in his snack cup, the dog crunching on the ones he drops, and the sound of my keys as I type.
    3. I feel: my son’s sticky fingers as he climbs into my lap, the warmth of my shoes on my feet, and the pressure of my desk chair against my back.

Troubleshooting & Tips:

  • There is a reason it is referred to as “practicing mindfulness” – it takes practice! This is not about success or failure. Your mind will want to wander, and that’s okay. Gently redirect your thoughts back to where you wish them to go. It’s common to have to do this multiple times, especially at first! 
  • These exercises (and others) are mix and match! Throw some deep breaths in with your See, Hear, Feel or Scripture Meditation. Write and then illustrate a verse. Go for a walk and do intermittent 60-second Focus exercises on different things that you find outside. The possibilities are many! 
  • Believe it or not, it is possible to do these exercises even without a cereal-wielding toddler!  

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

Philippians 4:8