Mindfulness for Impatient People
When we hear the word “mindfulness,” most of us first think of a Buddhist monk sitting atop a mountain for hours at a time in total silence with his legs crossed. We think of a lifelong practice of meditation that requires incredible dedication and time. And if you’re anything like me, you think “that sounds like torture.”
Research shows that practicing mindfulness can come with many benefits. These include better emotional regulation, increased empathy, and decreased anxiety and depression (David & Hayes, 2011). It’s been shown to benefit people’s cognitive abilities as well, resulting in better impulse control, memory, and concentration (Van Vugt, 2015). Fortunately, there are several ways to get the benefits described in the research without committing time for lengthy meditation.
While it’s true that the origins of mindfulness can be traced back to Buddhist practices and India, the term “mindfulness” has a much broader meaning (Singla, 2011). It has been defined by mindfulness researcher Dr. Jon Kabat Zinn (1994) as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgementally.” Worth noting is that this definition doesn’t say anything about time requirements. Mindfulness practice can be something short that you sprinkle in throughout your day. This is great news for those of us whose brains start internally groaning after five minutes without something interesting to engage in.
But how can you tell if you’re being mindful? Mindfulness is often divided into two types, “focused attention,” and “open awareness” (Van Vugt, 2015). Words do a poor job of describing the state of mindfulness. So instead, I invite you to think back to a time when you were “in the zone”, focused on a single task, and for that brief time nothing else existed except for you and the activity at hand. Perhaps you were snowboarding, or playing a video game, or reading a book. Chances are you weren’t thinking much about the past or the future or concerned with what might be happening on the other side of the world. This can be a form of focused attention. To recognize open awareness, think back to a time you enjoyed a gorgeous view or listened to music that spoke to you. That experience of openly taking in the situation with your senses is another way one might be mindful.
We’ve already identified ways to practice mindfulness day-to-day. The first is to find ways to make activities that fully engage your attention part of your life. Sports or hobbies or even work that calls for you to be present and focused entirely on the task at hand provide a great opportunity. In order to benefit, we let go of thoughts about weekend plans or problems at work, acknowledge those thoughts, and then return to being fully engaged.
You can practice mindfulness by taking even just a few seconds out of your day to notice what your five senses are telling you. The classic example that is often talked of in books on mindfulness involves using all your senses one by one to examine a raisin with curiosity, treating it as the first time you’ve ever experienced a raisin. People are first asked to describe the raisin’s appearance, then its smell, until finally you eat the raisin while taking conscious note of the sensations (Baer & Krietemeyer, 2006). I’m not a fan of raisins, but you can apply this to any experience. Whether you’re taking a walk or enjoying a meal, you can take time out to consciously take note of your experience. What does the air smell like? What kind of rustling sounds are the trees making as the wind blows past them? What ingredients do you recognize in the food? You might find joy in noticing something new about an object or sensation that has become part of your every day.
For those seeking some more structure there are exercises like “dropping anchor” which comes from acceptance and commitment therapy. There are three steps. The first step is to take note of what’s going on in your mind. Notice the thoughts, the feelings, and label them for yourself. Next, turn your attention to your body, taking note of sensations on your skin, your muscles, how the chair you’re sitting in feels, etc. Then return your attention to the outside world by taking note of what your five senses are telling you about the space you are in (Harris, 2019). This exercise can take as long or as little time as you need. When I guide my clients through dropping anchor, we’re usually done within five minutes. An even simpler exercise is making a habit of taking a deep breath and using that time to take note of your thoughts and feelings. This also has the added benefit of slowing your mind down and providing a sense of calm.
Try your best not to judge whatever you’re noticing during your mindfulness practice. When thoughts you’d prefer not to have float through your mind, acknowledge them and then let them go. Next, try not to judge yourself for judging what you’re noticing, as you inevitably will. If you practice mindfulness with the expectation that you will be able to completely clear your mind, or focus only on what you’d like to focus on, then I encourage you to let go of that idea. It is similar to working out your body. The goal is gradual improvement, not to perform a single feat of strength and then declare that you have completed the process of working out. The struggle to maintain your attention without judgment towards what you observe or towards yourself is the whole point of mindfulness practice.
Try your best not to judge whatever you’re noticing during your mindfulness practice. When distracting thoughts float through your mind, acknowledge them and then let them go. Then, try not to judge yourself for judging what you’re noticing, as you inevitably will. If you practice mindfulness with the expectation that you will be able to completely clear your mind, or focus only on what you’d like to focus on, then I encourage you to let go of that idea. It is similar to working out your body. The goal is gradual improvement, not to perform a single feat of strength and then declare that you have completed the process of working out. The struggle to maintain your attention without judgment towards what you observe or towards yourself IS mindfulness practice.
While there is evidence to suggest that the more you engage in mindfulness practices the more benefits you get, there is also research suggesting that people new to mindfulness benefit most by starting off small (Strohmaier, Jones, & Cane, 2021). So, consider trying one of the strategies mentioned here. And if you have a therapist, I encourage you to share your experiences with them, as mindfulness can be a rich source of useful insights.
Written by Andrew Listvinsky, LCSW
Singla, R. (2011). Origins of mindfulness & meditation interplay of eastern & western psychology. Psyke & Logos, 32(1), 20.
Black, D. S. (2011). A brief definition of mindfulness. Behavioral Neuroscience, 7(2), 109.
Davis, D. M., & Hayes, J. A. (2011). What are the benefits of mindfulness? A practice review of psychotherapy-related research. Psychotherapy, 48(2), 198.
Van Vugt, M. K. (2015). Cognitive benefits of mindfulness meditation. Handbook of mindfulness: Theory, research, and practice, 190-207.
Baer, R. A., & Krietemeyer, J. (2006). Overview of mindfulness-and acceptance-based treatment approaches. Mindfulness-based treatment approaches: Clinician’s guide to evidence base and applications, 3-27.
Harris, R. (2019). ACT made simple: An easy-to-read primer on acceptance and commitment therapy. New Harbinger Publications.
Strohmaier, S., Jones, F. W., & Cane, J. E. (2021). Effects of length of mindfulness practice on mindfulness, depression, anxiety, and stress: A randomized controlled experiment. Mindfulness, 12, 198-214.