Yes, I go to a liberal arts school. Yes, it’s in Southern California. Yes, I like avocado toast. Yes, I attend the odd farmer’s market. And, to answer your follow up question: yes. I occasionally drink kombucha.
Ok. It’s all out there. You have outed me as the hippy college student that I might very well be. And now that my undeniably cliché personality has been revealed, it seems only logical that the following page be dedicated to perhaps the most stereotyped of all hippy pastimes: meditation.
Well, actually mindfulness (there’s difference). And despite my own tote-bag-tendencies, I am going to do my best to show you why mindfulness should not be limited to kombucha lovers, and why it might actually provide you with a valuable tool for coping with stress in your day to day life.
Let’s get this part out of the way: mindfulness does not (necessarily) mean meditation. Furthermore, mindfulness – nor meditation for that matter – is what you’re picturing. It does not mean sitting cross-legged on a rock, in the middle of a river, barefoot, with your eyes closed and your fingers clasped. It could, but it doesn’t have to. Mindfulness practices have long suffered from too close an association with “meditation” and other more polarizing ideas when, in fact, mindfulness is a practical, accessible way for anyone (and especially college students) to reduce anxiety, increase focus, and lift mood.
So how did I get my start in mindfulness? Let’s first abandon entirely the idea that I am some sort of professional. I’m not. In fact, I can’t even claim to be an exceptionally mindful person myself.
Now I know that seems like a strange thing to say. I’m not exactly establishing much credibility by telling you that I am a total amateur.
Or am I? I may not be some sort of mindfulness guru, but I think I do have a pretty good understanding of the college student’s experience. I know the stress and anxiety that comes from a tough term, a never-ending finals week, and long nights spent in the library. And with that, I can speak from my own experience and how I feel mindfulness has helped me.
Oddly enough, my introduction to mindfulness practice came in the classroom – a required first year seminar. But going into it, I was anything but convinced. Did I really want to begin my college life in some kind of feel good, chakra balancing, meditation circle? Who was this professor going to be anyway? Some guy living in his car? To say I was hesitant would be an understatement.
But to my surprise, I soon had my understanding of the topic – as well as my opinions towards its credibility – flipped upside down.
As it turns out, it wasn’t a meditation circle. There was no chanting or incense. We weren’t even sitting on the floor. Instead, we focused on research. Peer reviewed articles on the validity of mindfulness in helping mental health. And my professor? He was a clinical psychologist. Oh, and we sat in chairs.
This is all to say that my introduction to mindfulness was a full 180 from what I expected. And, in many ways, the shock value of this introduction further encouraged me to keep an open mind.
Since those first few weeks, my commitment to regular mindfulness practice has ebbed, flowed, come back stronger, and disappeared completely, only to come back when I least expect it. Once again, I cannot pretend to be a pro. To be honest, I can’t even pretend to be good at this.
My personal commitment to regular mindfulness practice has been neither committed nor regular and yet, here I am, apparently still preaching the benefits.
This is because although I recognize that this stuff is not easy, and it takes effort to make time for mindfulness, I truly believe in its benefits.
In the process of sitting down to write this, I have once again restarted my journey to enlightenment (or something like that…). And through this refresh, I have once again been reminded that mindful thinking helps me be my best self. It has helped me stay calm in stressful times. It has helped me realize the importance of holding on, as well as letting go. It has served as a support mechanism when I need to remove myself from negative thought patterns. And it has helped me to enjoy good times more deeply.
So… that was a lot. And despite my gushing, we still don’t really know what this “mindfulness” thing is all about. So let’s do what every 10th grade English teacher taught us: define our terms.
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So, what is mindfulness? In short, mindfulness is non-judgmental awareness. Let’s start there.
Awareness. What does it mean to be aware? In this case, it means to observe – to acknowledge the present moment and immerse yourself fully within it. Focus on where you are and what is in front of you. Allow yourself the time to notice the details of the moment. And then, in turn, acknowledge how you are feeling. How does your body feel? What emotions are you experiencing? Don’t try to explain them, just notice.
Non-judgmental. Now for the hard part. It’s human nature to attach values to our thoughts. When we observe a moment, we inevitably tend to critique it – to judge it. We compare it to previous moments and previous feelings. This tendency is even more potent when it comes to our own thoughts and emotions. We constantly analyze our emotions, often coming to the conclusion that the ones we are feeling aren’t the correct ones. We think we “should” be feeling something else. And oftentimes, in the process, we only further feelings of dread or frustration.
Mindfulness aims to put a stop to this cycle. It is to acknowledge not only your surroundings, but also your internal state, without judgement. The goal is to take note of what you are feeling, acknowledge that you are feeling that way, and let it pass without critique.
But how do you begin? Do you need an app? Do you need a river? What about the kombucha? Beginning to practice mindfulness shouldn’t be a headache. In fact, incorporating mindfulness into your day to day life is much easier than it sounds.
The beauty of mindfulness is that it is not limited to any one setting, activity, or action. Rather, it is a state of mind that, through practice, can be incorporated throughout your daily life. Here are a couple tips to get you started:
- Start with your breath – you don’t need a special cushion to sit on, or fancy incense to burn. Instead, focus on your breath. Follow the air in through your nose, filling your chest, all the way to your fingers, and then back through your mouth. Focus your attention on only your breathing. Try to let all of your other thoughts drift away.
- Limit distractions – turn your phone off. Better yet, give it to a friend for a while. Mindfulness practice is all about tuning out distractions, and with practice it is something that can be done in the midst of daily life. But when starting out, it can be helpful to limit your distractions from the start.
- Be gentle – when you find your mind wandering, as it is bound to do, gently refocus your attention on the task at hand.
- Start small – Mindfulness practice doesn’t need to be a huge time investment. Just a couple minutes each day is all it takes. Pick a time to practice each day and build it into your routine.
Take things one step at a time. These days, we are constantly multitasking. We’re doing our homework while listening to music while our roommate is talking on the phone and simultaneously thinking about what we’re going to do the second our assignment is finished.
That’s not mindfulness. In fact, true mindfulness aims at just the opposite: single mindedness.
One simple way to think about mindfulness is this: focus on the task at hand. Not only big ones like essays and tests, but also little ones. When walking somewhere, focus on walking. When doing the dishes, focus on the dishes. Keep your attention on the present moment. And if it feels overwhelming, refocus on your breath.
I know this probably feels like a lot. Perhaps the greatest irony in all of this is that it feels stressful. It shouldn’t, right? Afterall, we’re talking about reducing stress. And yet, getting started in mindfulness feels like a monumental commitment – or at least it did for me. When I first began trying to practice regularly, the one thought I could never get out of my head was “Am I doing this right?”. It’s a worry I still feel often during my practice and it is one that I have worked hard at dismissing.
But the truth is, there really isn’t a right or wrong way to practice mindfulness. There isn’t even really a set goal. The only real “goal” of mindfulness practice is the one you set for yourself. It could be to relax or destress or remember what is really important to you. Or it could be to refocus, tune out distractions and work more efficiently. Or it could just be something that makes you feel good. And just as there are no set goals, there are no predetermined rules to limit how you work toward those goals.
If you are having a hard time sitting still, get up and move. If you need to do something with your hands, do it. If you are struggling to focus on your breath, try something new. The best way to practice mindfulness is the way that works best for you. It’s as simple as that.
- Mindful Walking – Personally, I focus better with movement. Rather than focus on my breath, I prefer to focus on my feet. Pick a spot where you can pace slowly. I like to choose a place where I don’t feel self-conscious that people might be watching me walk in slow motion. Slow your pace and focus on each step. Acknowledge which muscles engage in each part of your step. Notice the roll from heel to ball to toe. Notice the sounds different surfaces make. Pay attention – focusing on the action and let it take the place of your breath.
- Mindful Listening – Rather than simply trying to tune out the sounds inside your head, instead try focusing on those around you. Notice what is happening around you without assigning value or status to any of them. Let yourself acknowledge the way different sounds make you feel. Do your best not to judge yourself for any feelings and if you find yourself becoming judgmental, gently remind yourself to refocus on the sounds.
- Mindful Dish-Washing – As I mentioned earlier, this is one of my favorites. It is important to remember that mindfulness practice does not – and should not – always involve sitting and breathing. Instead, try applying the same approach to daily tasks. Each time I find I notice new feelings and sensations that I was previously unaware of. Take your time, don’t try to multitask. Turn off the music. Turn off the TV in the background. Just wash the dishes and focus on each piece intently.
Once again, I feel it is important to remind ourselves that there is no right or wrong way to be mindful. The very notion that there could be a right and a wrong goes against everything mindfulness aims to teach us. You don’t need a river or sandals or incense to get started and you don’t need to live in a van to make mindfulness a part of your life. So, go at your own pace. Experiment with different forms of practice. Start small and set goals. And, most importantly, be gentle with yourself.
Many people prefer to be led through mindfulness practices, whether in person or over a recording. If this sounds intriguing, here are a couple resources to help guide you:
- Insight Timer – https://insighttimer.com/
I’m not usually one to recommend apps, but this is an exception. With a variety of meditation and mindfulness practices, timers, and guided meditation recordings at varying lengths, Insight Timer does a good job keeping it simple while helping you focus your efforts without the stress of self-guiding your practices.
2. My Life – https://my.life/
This is perhaps the most intuitive mindfulness app I have found. Rather than forcing you to navigate a bunch of different menus or options, My Life begins by asking you questions about your current mental state, your mindfulness goals, and what you are looking to improve, before providing a curated list of practices that are simple and easy to use.