Here’s the problem: “Mindfulness“ is talked about so frequently these days, by everyone from Oprah to the CEO of LinkedIn, and encapsulates so many concepts that it’s become a catch-all phrase. But many of us are unsure of what it really means.
People I polled defined it as “being in a yogic state,” “being fully present,” or “thinking only about the task at hand." A few people told me they think it’s a form of meditation. Others said it means “not forgetting stuff”—in which case I’m the worst at mindfulness since I’ve lost two pairs of iPhone headphones in the past week.
The dictionary defines mindfulness as “a mental state achieved by focusing one's awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one's feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.“
In case you didn’t find this definition particularly enlightening (you're not alone), here’s my attempt to break down mindfulness into bite-sized chunks that will make your life way more awesome.
1. Get out of your head.
One of the reasons I find the word mindfulness especially confusing is that it actually has nothing to do with your mind—and 100 percent to do with being present in your physical body.
When you’re present, you’re not thinking about the past or future. You’re rooted firmly in this moment with the sights, smells, and sensations that are around you right now.
When I'm in yoga class, this means striving to enjoy the pose I’m in (instead of wondering what we’re going to do next) and focusing on the ambiance of the studio—the light, the colors, the music (instead of thinking about where I’m going after class).
The concept of getting out of your head and into your body extends way beyond the studio. As opposed to texting or composing an email, focus on tasting every flavor in the chai latte in front of you. Rather than thinking about how to interject in a meeting, notice the overall energy of the conference room, truly listen to what your boss has to say, and notice that his consistent pencil tapping means he’s nervous. When you simply take note of the tense energy (instead of subconsciously being a part of it), you crack a joke to set people’s fears at ease instead of just launching into your presentation. Boom—mindfulness scores you a promotion.
2. Let go of preconceptions.
You know those blanket statements like “all men are evil” and “everyone in New York is an egomaniac”? They are basically the opposite of being “mindful.“ You're shutting out your sensory perception of the present moment and jumping to conclusions about what's true based on past conditioning.
Of course, conditioning isn’t all bad. Our brains like to make sense of the world around us by accumulating facts so we can operate safely and efficiently. For example, you touch a hot stove as a child and your brain learns that fire = hot. That’s a universal truth that’s helpful to know.
Yet most of us hold onto other so-called “universal truths” that aren't true at all. When you’re fully present, you stop listening to your brain’s endless narrative about what happened in the past, who’s to blame, why it was unfair, etc. Instead you focus only on the facts in front of you using your physical senses, kind of like a toddler tasting ice cream for the first time.
Pay attention the next time you’re judging something or someone based on a past experience. Then take a deep breath and try to cultivate the awe of a little kid as you see, smell, touch, and react to what’s actually in front of you. News flash: Realizing you're not always right can be liberating.
3. Ditch knee-jerk reactions.
Many mindfulness practices talk about acceptance without action. For example, as opposed to focusing on how satisfying it would be to punch the person who just snagged the last taxi in sight (or actually punching them), notice how anger feels in your body. Perhaps it feels like your stomach tightening, your jaw clenching, or your shoulders rising.
Mindfulness teaches that all emotions—good and bad—are simply energy. Once you realize this, you can choose to breathe, relax your body, and channel that stream of angry thoughts (and curse words) into a sigh.
One of my favorite mindfulness exercises, which you can do before meditating if you have trouble clearing your mind, is to label your thoughts as different base emotions.
- “I have to do the laundry“ = worry
- “I need to remember to take the dog out“ = worry
- “What if I stink at meditating?“ = fear
- “This is really hard“ = judgement
You’ll soon realize your internal monologue is worry, fear, judgement, and shame in an endless loop of crazy. Pretty soon it gets comical—and boring. Then you’re usually able to dismiss each thought, focus on your breath, and calm down.
The Bottom Line
If the word “mindfulness” still doesn’t resonate with you, don’t panic. There are tons of other words and phrases you can use to help stay calm and present. Some of my favorite alternatives: being “centered,” “grounded,” or acting from my “gut” or “heart” instead of my head.
Or just forget the semantics completely and focus on taking deep breaths anytime you feel angry, fearful, or upset. At the most basic level, being more present in your body and less caught up in narratives in your head is what mindfulness is truly all about.
Brett Larkin teaches vinyasa flow yoga at top San Francisco studios and on her YouTube channel, where thousands of students have studied with her for more than 5 million minutes. Find free yoga playlists, yoga teacher training tips, and free dance, yoga, and meditation classes at BrettLarkin.com.