In simple terms, mindfulness can be thought of as a particular state of awareness developed by engaging in practices that brings one's attention to the present moment. For example, a person counting their number of breaths as they inhale during a yoga class is practicing one form of mindfulness. So is someone who deliberately draws their attention to the full sensory experience of washing the dishes.
Although more traditional mindfulness practices have been around for more than 5,000 years, today's mindfulness practitioners bring these unique skills to a number of contemporary venues, often to help others manage the many challenges of life. Psychotherapists use it to help people reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety. Health care professionals use it to help patients decrease stress, pain, and manage chronic illness. Business school professors teach it to graduate students as a means of boosting concentration and creativity. Indeed, there are many known benefits of practicing mindfulness. Scientific studies show that repeated mindfulness practice can lead to a number of positive life-changing events. For example, mindfulness can help us:
- Reduce stress
- Reduce chronic physical pain
- Boost the body's immune system to fight disease
- Cope with painful life events, such as the death of a loved one or major illness
- Deal with negative emotions like anger and fear
- Increase self-awareness to detect harmful reactive patterns of thought, feeling, and action
- Enhance performance at work, in sports or academics
To be clear, mindfulness does not remove the challenges of life, rather it equips us with the tools we need to change how well we are able to respond to them. In other words, the practice of mindfulness changes our relationship to the circumstances of life: Instead of constantly struggling with problems--often making the situation worse--we can learn to be with things just as they are, with an open heart and the wisdom of knowing that nothing lasts forever.
Now that you are reminded of the meaning of mindfulness and how it can help, here is a simple exercise called RAIN to get you started on the path of mindfulness if you don't already have a regular practice. "RAIN" is an acronym that stands for Recognize, Accept, Investigate, and Not-Identify. Each of these key words is a mnemonic for a specific mindfulness-based tool that can help you manage self-defeating thoughts, disruptive emotions, and painful physical sensations:
Recognize. Recognizing what is happening for you is the first step to being mindful. In this step, you recognize your emotion and give it a gentle label like "frustrated," "angry," or "anxious." Research has shown that just by labeling an emotion you can calm of the emotional centers of your brain. In the midst of the emotion, you may find that by simply identifying and labeling it, you are not so overwhelmed.
Accept. From the perspective of mindfulness, whatever you are experiencing is completely fine. This step asks you to accept what is happening in the present moment without any shame or blame. Unconditionally accepting what you are sensing helps you "let go" of any resistance your mind may be creating toward the situation you are in and what is happening in your body.
Investigate. This step asks that you become curious about your situation by doing some personal exploration. To do this, you are encouraged to ask yourself questions about your emotions and body sensations such as: What does the emotional or physical sensation feel like in my body? Is it focused in one spot in my body or is it moving from place to place? Does it have shape or color? Is it pulsing, piercing or dull?
In this step, you are additionally encouraged to ask yourself questions about the stories you might be telling about your situation such as: Does this situation seem unfair? Is the situation ruining my day; is it ruining my life? Do I imagine that the situation getting worse in the future? Does the story I'm telling seem hopeless and depressing? Am I blaming myself for what has gone wrong?
Not-Identify. Finally, this step asks that you try to separate yourself from the stories you are telling about the situation through the practice of "bare attention." When you get caught in a difficult emotion or body sensation, you may get lost in the story about it, which only intensifies it. The key is to stop dwelling on the story and tune into the feelings and bodily sensations as they are expressed moment-to-moment within your body.
Try to practice this mindfulness exercise whenever you are beginning to feel yourself overcome by negative emotions and see what it does for you. And, remember: As with any skill we hope to learn, mindfulness takes practice. Consequently, the health-promoting effects of mindfulness tend to flourish most when exercises like RAIN are practiced over time and with frequent repetition.
Less stress, less pain, more concentration and creativity...no doubt, practicing mindfulness is a proven way to enhance the quality of your life. And, mindfulness doesn't have to take a lot of time: One study shows that positive changes in attention may arise in as little as twenty minutes of meditation a day for just five days! With all of the benefits and no disadvantages, other than the time you spend mindfully, wouldn't you say that mindfulness is worth a try?