You might have heard this common definition of mindfulness: paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, nonjudgmentally.
The way I break this down: regularly being able to stop and check in with yourself and identify your thoughts, your emotions, your urges to act, and your body sensations. Plus just noticing all this kind of curiously and not criticizing yourself for any of it.
Mindfulness is being able to answer the question “what is going on inside me?” while also being aware of the situation you’re currently in. With practice, you can even increase emotional insight and identify what might be going on in the people around you too.
Mindfulness is a very observant way of approaching yourself and the day. It’s the opposite of operating on autopilot, which most of us do while we are driving familiar routes or doing routine things like showering. It’s very common for our minds to wander in these moments and go to all kinds of places.
And then some of us are on autopilot or in a distracted mental state for much of our day...trying to avoid pain or simply wrapped up in overwhelming thoughts and emotions. We can even be in a live conversation with someone but our mind is distracted with worry about a previous interaction with someone else, ruminating on how that went and what it means. With practice, we can be more aware, attentive, and mindful about what is happening inside of us, and from there make changes if we want.
I distinctly remember a friend sharing an observation some years ago about what they witnessed of me from the outside. “Whenever we go over to Ann’s house, you get all edgy and your eyes look really intense. You seem more irritated too and a little short with me.” There were definitely reasons for this happening inside me, but that’s another story.
The point is that up until then, I hadn't really paid attention to my own state of being. It struck me that someone else was observing me better than I was observing myself. Shortly after that, I learned about the concept of mindfulness and how noticing ourselves gives us a lot more power over our experience in any given moment. It started making sense.
But why be mindful though? Won’t it mean I have to feel or think things I don’t want to? Things I would rather just avoid? Actually, from a more attentive place, we can better assess what’s going on and identify our rational options for coping or shifting things if we want. This leads to something most people crave….being more in control of our emotions, thoughts, and actions and less swept up in it all.
For more background, my previous blog article on mindfulness does offer some further explanation of mindfulness; the benefits of mindfulness for your physical, emotional and relational health; and 5 methods to try.
For this article, I want to offer some quick techniques to get started. It can be very simple.
Getting Started with mindfulness
Pick something that you already do easily and with some regularity, like brushing your teeth, using the bathroom, getting dressed, making coffee, walking the dog, etc.
Pair that action with a mindful moment. Decide (it's an active decision) to use that time to do a quick check-in with yourself.
You might need a little visual reminder at first, like a post it note on your mirror or above the toilet (if you’re using the bathroom option) because it will be hard to remember to pause and check in.
Go inward and check on yourself.
My favorite mindful check-ins.
Mindfulness of feelings:
Ask yourself: What am I feeling right now? What are my feelings trying to communicate to me? What is my emotional state telling me that I need or I value? Am I perceiving any dangers or risks?
Mindfulness of feelings helps us to engage the parts of the brain that are able to regulate emotions and can create a sense of safety. Often our emotions and thoughts get intense because the brain has detected some sort of threat. When we learn to recognize that our threat system is ringing alarm bells, we can quell those with naming the emotion. Naming an emotion engages the calming protocol (you can remember this with the rhyme “name it to tame it”). You can then follow this with a quick fact check about the situation at large or a soothing effort.
Mindfulness of thoughts:
Ask yourself: What’s on my mind? What am I focused on right now? Am I stuck on something? Are these thoughts helpful? What other line of thinking could be more helpful? Do I need a distraction right now?
Mindfulness of thoughts gives you insight about where your thoughts are aimed and helps you focus your attention away from unwanted things and towards things you want to focus on. You have to know what you are thinking in order to change what you are thinking. This awareness helps you make important decisions from a place of increased balance and wisdom.
Mindfulness of physical sensations:
Ask yourself: What’s going on in my body right now? How’s my breathing - is it shallow? Am I holding my breath? Where am I tensing my body? Are my shoulders tight? Are my teeth clenched? What is happening with my hands? Are they tense? Sweaty? Cold? How’s my stomach feeling? Is there pain anywhere?
Our body sends us physical signals about our emotional state. If we can clue into our body sensations, it can help us better understand what is going on inside overall. You can then choose to do something to address the physical sensation part while also sorting through the message those emotions are delivering.
Mindfulness of urges:
Ask yourself: Am I having any urges right now? To eat? To drink? To escape? To relax? To avoid? Will there be any fallout if I act on these urges? What do I need? What do I want?
Mindfulness of urges helps free us from automatic and unhelpful ways of responding. When we are unmindful, our needs go unmet and then they escalate. If we get skilled at assessing our urges and needs frequently, we can catch them early when they are just a kernel. It’s much easier to meet our needs before they get big.
For example, having a little snack at the first twinge of hunger can keep us from getting hangry and possibly overeating or making food choices we’d rather not. Or if I notice that I am getting agitated and am having the urge to quit a project I am doing, I can take 5, grab some water, watch a funny video and come back with a little more energy. But if I ignore it and the agitation grows, I might actually end up abandoning my project altogether, or worse throwing my hammer across the room.
You will benefit most if you are able to make your mindful checkins regular and frequent. They don't have to be long, but the frequency will build up the skill of getting used to looking inwards and observing yourself.
Some methods for getting skilled at observing yourself.
If you are struggling to ask yourself the mindful questions and come up with helpful information, it can help to create some distance from yourself. These techniques can help you create some distance and become an observer of yourself.
Try seeing yourself playing a video game. You are controlling the character, but you are also the character. What is happening right now to the character? What can you see that the character feels, thinks, needs?
Try seeing yourself as a Coach on the sideline watching the player, but you are also the player. What is the player struggling with? Feeling? Needing? Thinking?
Try watching yourself in a movie. You can see yourself as a character on the screen while also being the watcher. What is your character going through? Feeling? Needing?
Try narrating in the 3rd person. This pulls you out of the experience and makes you an observer. “Heather is feeling really wound up right now. Heather is spinning with worry about the roofing people not calling her back and how expensive the fix might be. Heather has a knot in her stomach right now.”
Once you master the regular quick “what’s going on inside me?” check-ins, you can then start to make the check-ins a little longer and add a second layer “what do I want to do about this?" But getting skilled at paying attention to yourself is the first most crucial layer.
Going even further - meditation.
Although it’s not the only method, because meditation is a well-researched & structured path to getting skilled with mindfulness, a lot of folks like to take that route. With meditation, you'll want to set aside some non-distracted or multitasking time to really focus inward.
Meditation is a way to grow the skill of focusing your mind where you want it to focus. The goal is not to have an empty mind, it's to get practice pausing and observing yourself despite all the internal and external distractions.
The more you practice the internal observations, the easier it is to do when sh*t really hits the fan and you are in distress. Intentional attention is the overall ability that we want to gain in order to have more awareness and control of what’s going on inside us.
If you want to try meditation, I recommend starting with guided meditations so you can have someone walking you through it from start to finish. Silent meditation is challenging, even for people who have been doing it a long time.
Phone apps for meditation
There are many great meditation apps out there. Here are 3 that I have used and liked.
Insight Timer - tons of free meditations uploaded by people all around the world; you can search by various topics & length; app also has paid content and courses,
Headspace - has a free trial and some always free content; a lot of self-improvement articles and audio; mostly paid content but high quality
Calm - some nice free resources including a “how to meditate” audio; some high quality paid content; helpful audios for meditations to improve sleep.
Recapping what mindfulness can do for you.
Whether you do the mindful moment check-ins, the 3rd person observer techniques, or structured meditation time, mindfulness has a lot to offer you:
Increases your self-awareness about what is going on inside you.
Allows you to notice your emotions, thoughts, physical sensations, and urges and choose actions thoughtfully rather than impulsively.
Gives you more choices and more control over yourself.
Reduces your emotional suffering and increases your sense of well‑being.
Helps you make important decisions from a place of balance and wisdom.
Helps you focus your attention away from unwanted things and towards things you want to focus on.
Increases your compassion for yourself and others.
Decreases your emotional and physical pain & stress.
Helps you to be more in the present moment instead of ruminating about the past or worrying about the future.
Awareness of self is a foundational part of nearly everything people seek therapy for. Mindfulness unlocks the door. Make today the day you start paying more attention to you!