As I settle into my seat to write this article, I take a deep, slow, breath. The sun’s rays are beginning to seep through the curtain, my cup of rooibos-ginger tea warms the palm of my left hand. I notice the slight kink between my shoulder blades. I remember to text a friend to confirm our walking date, resisting the urge to quickly pick up my phone. I note the smell of the jasmine-scented incense burning on my bookshelf, and the purr of my cat as he curls his tail around my right calf. I take another deep, slow, breath. And then I open my laptop.
This is my mindfulness meditation practice.
Founded by meditation coach Will Williams, World Meditation Day is observed on May 21st as a time to pause from normal everyday life and find calmness through participating in the ancient practice of meditation. While meditation remains a fundamental component of many religions around the world, including Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and other Eastern or New Age belief systems, it is also practiced by individuals who don’t identify as religious or spiritual. In India, written texts on meditation practices date back as early as 1500 BCE.
Mindfulness meditation, in particular, is a mental training practice that is rooted in Buddhism. It rests on the premise of intentionally honing into the present moment, observing your thoughts, feelings, physical sensations, and external environment through a lens of kindness, while resisting the urge to place value judgements on all that arises. So, rather than reflecting on a completed task or anything else specific in your day, and labeling those experiences as “good” or “bad,” and “right” or “wrong,” mindfulness meditation encourages you to simply observe the thoughts and feelings that come up, even when they register as unfamiliar or uncomfortable.
A study looked at the benefits of mindfulness for law students who were awaiting their results on bar exams. They found that relative to other forms of controlled meditative practices, the participants who exhibited high levels of intolerance for uncertainty reportedly benefited from mindfulness the most. Now, bar exams may not be the stressful waiting period you might be wading through currently, but something like the COVID-19 pandemic would definitely be an example of global uncertainty that most can relate to. It wouldn’t be a surprise if mindfulness meditation practices were on the rise post-2020.
Over time, mindfulness meditation has been associated with various health and well-being benefits such as:
Lowered stress levels
Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) is a therapeutic approach that was developed by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn in 1979. It combines mindfulness meditation and yoga with the aim of reducing stress. When your body registers fear or danger, it naturally releases your cortisol hormone to induce a fight-flight-freeze-fawn response. By increasing mindfulness, emotional reactivity and arousal can be lowered, while increasing a sense of calm. A research review also found that mindfulness-based interventions within workplace environments reduced the production of cortisol, which suggests lowered stress levels.
Increased immune response
An old, small 2003 study of mindfulness’ effect on brain and immune function found that an 8-week mindfulness meditation program had a positive effect on brain and immune function. It’s been well reported that stress suppresses the immune system. Nevertheless, this study found that not only did the participants’ moods indicate a marked improvement, participants also showed significant increase in antibodies which, help prevent and fight illness.
Reduced psychological distress
A research review found that mindfulness-based interventions can aid in the treatment of several mental, physical, and social health conditions, which can lead to psychological distress.
Some of these include:
- chronic pain
- cancer-related symptoms
While mindfulness alone may not successfully treat all of these conditions, these findings highlight mindfulness meditation’s ability to increase self-awareness, connectedness, insight, and a sense of purpose. These can, in turn, promote health changes.
The notion of mindfulness meditation may conjure images of being seated in the cross-legged position with a straight back and palms resting gently in a mudra on your knees for a set period of time. You may even want to lay out a specific space and symbolic tools such as crystals, incense, affirmations, or essential oils for your practice. But normal, everyday activities can serve as an opportunity to practice mindfulness, regardless of where you are. All you really need is you, your breath, and your ability to observe.
Below are some of the ways I practice mindfulness in my daily life that you can adapt as you wish.
Waking up. Resisting my mind’s urge to immediately jump out of bed. Feeling the cozy warmth of my covers, scanning my body for any stiffness, wiggling my toes, noting the coolness of the room when my bare feet touch the floor.
Preparing a morning cup of tea. Noting the sound of the boiling kettle, the scent of the tea leaves, the sound of water filling my cup, and its changing colors as the leaves steep. The warmth against my tongue and the insides of my cheeks when I have the first sip.
Taking an afternoon walk. Listening to the sound of my shoes against the gravel beneath my feet in the woods. Broken branches along some paths, cooler temperatures beneath heavily-shaded canopies, cars whirring by in the distance.
Cooking a meal. Lighting a scented candle on the kitchen counter. Noting the sound of the knife against the vegetables and the board as I chop. Noticing the sound of steaming pots and crackling sautes. Taking in the smells of various seasonings.
Painting as play. Feeling the softness of my cushion beneath me on the floor. The sound of my paintbrush against the jar when I shake the water off it. Noting the slightly varied shade of colors when they are no longer on the palette. Hearing the light swish of the bristles against the paper.
On this World Meditation Day, take some simple habits that are already a natural part of your day, and use them as a vehicle of mindfulness meditation. Take some extra time to appreciate them and experience them on a deeper level than just completing a task.
Ultimately, mindfulness practice is exactly that — practice. But this isn’t the kind of practice that’s about doing something over and over to perfection. Rather, it’s about being. Being in the moment. All that matters is that you show up, even if it’s only for a few minutes every day. Then, return as often as you need to — and always without any judgement.
Tšhegofatšo Ndabane is a health and wellness writer based in South Africa. Some of her primary interests include indigenous food & nutrition, mental health, and intentional living. You can connect with her on Instagram.