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Mindfulness Meditation 101: What It Is, Why Its Great, and How to Start By Leighna Harrison

The benefits of mindfulness meditation practice are vast, far reaching, and still being discovered – from better sleep and improved mood to clearer thinking and increased compassion it seems like mindfulness meditation can revitalize our lives from top to bottom. It even changes and strengthens the structure of our brain in only eight weeks.  But what is it really? Mindfulness. Meditation. These terms get thrown around a lot these days. Seems like every time you turn around there’s an article on your news feed, a flyer in your workplace, or it’s even being taught at your kid’s school.

So lets break it down.

Mindfulness is the act of being fully and non-judgmentally in the present moment. Why is this important? Oftentimes many of us are living in either: a painful past or an anxious future. This polarizing tendency keeps us from focusing on the present moment. The present moment is where all the magic happens: it’s the only moment we ever truly have. Why would we ever want to miss that? Yet, instead of being mindful and enjoying the magic, we are more often than not mindless.

Have you ever…

…been driving, arrived at your destination, and realized you have no recollection of how you got there?

…gone into a room to get something and once you get there you can’t remember what it was you wanted?

…been in the shower, rushing to get ready in the morning, and you can’t remember whether or not you’ve already washed your hair?

…found yourself in a conversation, but realize you have no idea what the other person just said?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you have experienced some mindless moments – it’s ok, most of us have. So how do we become more mindful? How do we connect fully and non-judgmentally with the present moment? Well there’s one thing that we have with us from birth until death that consistently, constantly, without fail anchors us to the present: our breath.

Breathing is the most basic way to connect with the current moment. Unfortunately… most of us aren’t breathing right – especially when we’re living in a painful past or anxious future. When we are worried like that, when we have all these thoughts churning inside of us, we start to breathe more shallowly from the chest, which, instead of decreasing our anxious feelings, actually has the opposite physiological effect and increases anxiety.

 

By now you’re probably wondering, “ok so what is the correct way to breathe?” Well how do we come into the world breathing? Ever seen a baby sleeping? Notice how they breathe from their belly – you can see the baby’s belly rise and fall. They are breathing from their diaphragm. A quick and fast way to determine whether you’re breathing correctly is to place one hand on your chest and one hand on your belly right below your rib cage (this is where the diaphragm is). Breathe normally and notice which had moves more. The goal is for the hand on your belly to be moving the most. Once you have the breathing down you can begin to practice meditation.

 

Meditation. The most basic form of meditation is to simply focus on your breathing -- in and out. Apps out there for keeping time as you breathe include: meditation timer or insight timer, but you don’t have to get fancy with it: simply setting the timer on your phone and choosing a soft alert melody will do the trick. As you begin this practice, you will notice that your mind might drift. The key is to simply notice that it’s drifting and to non-judgmentally return the focus to your breathing.  Beyond basic breathing exercises, other mindfulness meditation practices included: guided imagery, visualization, progressive muscle relaxation, and passive muscle relaxation to name a few. My two favorite books for meditation exercises include The Healing Power of the Breath and 30 Scripts for Relaxation, Imagery and Inner Healing.

 

Getting Started with Your Mindfulness Practice: 5 Easy Steps

  1. Pick the same time each day (double points if you can do it twice a day!): Research shows that linking a new desired habit to an old established habit is one of the best ways to ingrain new practices in your daily life. An example might be practicing your meditation directly after you brush your teeth, or directly after you put the coffee on.
  2. Start small: So as not to overwhelm yourself, just practice for one minute at first, then work your way up to two minutes, three minutes, and so on.
  3. Be non-judgmental: this is key! There is no “wrong” way to meditate. Whatever thoughts come into your head are perfectly ok. Simply notice them, observe them curiously, and let them go – like clouds passing by overhead or leaves floating down a stream.
  4. Add to your practice: Once you have practiced with only breath work, begin to try out some of the meditation styles listed above – guided imagery, progressive muscle relaxation etc. Once you find some scripts you like, you can use the record feature on your phone and record yourself reading the script aloud: voila you become your own personalized meditation guide!
  5. Share the results: once you start to experience the benefits of a mindfulness meditation practice, pass it on! The world could use a lot less judgment and a lot more compassion.

When I am consistent with my mindfulness practice, I find that I handle stress better and feel more rested. Colors seem brighter; I actually take the time to stop and smell the proverbial roses. Meditation allows me the space to fully appreciate the world and practice gratitude. So what are you waiting for? Close your eyes, focus on your breath, don’t judge, and let the magic happen.

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Dr. Leighna Harrison is a licensed clinical psychologist, providing therapy, training, and consultation to individuals, groups, and organizations. Her specialty areas include anxiety & depression, life transitions, women’s health and wellness, sexuality and intimate relationships, leadership development, and diversity, intersectionality, and inclusion. Dr. Harrison is a clinical psychologist at the VA Palo Alto Health Care System and also maintains a private practice. Visit her website, or connect with her on Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn.