Mind Full or Mindful? Steps to practicing mindfulness

Do you feel pressured to incorporate mindfulness in your life?

Are you struggling with self-judgement and a feeling of defeat?

With the mainstream popularization of mindfulness, you may be feeling torn – part of you is interested and part of you may feel defeated or even annoyed by the practice. There is a lot of implicit pressure to adopt a mindfulness practice, especially during this time. Everyone seems to be doing it, so why aren’t you?

Let’s discover what’s getting in the way of your practice and how to overcome it.

“Ommmmmmm….”

“Ohmmmmmm…”

“Ahhhh…Oooo…Mmm…”

“…uh….ummm?”

To this day—after countless yoga and meditation classes, I still have never really figured out the “correct” way to chant an “Om.” If you’ve ever done guided meditation or yoga, you may have had the experience of an instructor bringing in a version of an “Om” chant to end your practice. Yogic and meditation philosophies believe the om to be the basic sound of the universe, the chanting of which tunes us into acknowledging our connection to the world and universe. Being amongst the chant is very beautiful and charged. Everyone around me seemed so peaceful, so connected, so easily able to do the chant in unison. But for me, I would find myself being unbearably awkward and uncomfortable, a thousand thoughts running through my head.

“Is there somewhere they all learned this?”

“Am I ruining the chant?”

“Oh my gosh I’m way too loud”

“Is it ‘om’ but has a sound ‘h’ somewhere in there?”

“Well, I just ruined the whole point of the practice”

“wait, in the video I watched it was like ahhhhh not ohhh…”

“I’m just going to do it quietly to myself…this is even weirder.”

It is amazing how in less than 30 seconds I had entire conversations with myself about how wrong I was doing the “Om,” how I was ruining an experience that was supposed to be a practice of reflection, connection to myself, to the world.

Not only did my self-judgment take me out of the that moment, but I also started experiencing anxiety and criticism throughout the entire yoga class leading up to the “Oms.” How was it that a practice of mindfulness, which was supposed to be grounding and calming, was rather becoming a source of mental and emotional exhaustion?

What is Mindfulness?

In the most basic of terms, mindfulness can be summed up as purposefully focusing one’s attention or awareness on the present moment. Most of us are familiar with some iteration of this definition, as well as the benefits of mindfulness that research and science has brought to our attention (boosted immune system, deactivating our stress response, increasing gratitude and overall happiness, etc.)—making the desire to engage in mindfulness more rampant than ever before.

And there is a plethora of ways in which we can practice mindfulness. Some of these other practices include deep breathing, mindful eating, and journaling. And while this all sounds great, what is less often focused on—yet stands as an essential player—when it comes to talking about mindfulness is judgement. Mindfulness asks us to not only to focus our awareness on the present moment, but also to do so without judgement. And sometimes that can be a tall order.

We all have an inner critical voice that can take over and twist even the most mundane things we think or do. It often comes out when we are trying something new and especially when that something involves practice or growth.

Take a second, close your eyes, and think about an early memory in which you recall your inner critical voice speaking up. Not too hard to think of such a memory, huh?

Your first time learning how to ride a bike: “I suck! I’m never going learn.”

Being the new kid in class: “No one is going to like me.”

Your sibling often defeating you in games: “I’m always going to be the loser.”

As you think of these memories, I can imagine you are recalling more recent instances in which your inner critic has been an unwelcome intruder. This brings us back to the personal anecdote with which I began this blog. My inner critic came out as I was trying to embrace a new and positive—albeit uncomfortable—experience, and it just shut the whole practice. Our inner critic has a way of doing that—violating moments of vulnerability and self-discovery. In doing so, the inner critic gets stronger as it fuels itself with your festering feelings of self-doubt and insecurity.

So, when this inner critic is getting in the way of us exposing ourselves to life-changing practices and opportunities for growth and self-connection, what do we do? How do we practice mindfulness with an inner critic when the practice of mindfulness is all about non-judgement?

Well…

We utilize that moment of judgement as a moment of present awareness—using our inner critic against itself by becoming aware of it through mindfulness! I know what you’re thinking. Using a time when you’re judging yourself as a mindfulness practice?! Doesn’t this go against the principles of mindfulness?

Myths of Mindfulness:

Mindfulness Myth #1: I have to quiet my inner judgement in order to be able to do mindfulness.

Actually, this is EXACTLY when and where we can start to bring in a mindfulness practice that can positively impact our mental health and well-being. Mindfulness is about focusing on the present moment; it’s a state of awareness for anything—positive, negative, or neutral—that we may be experiencing presently. The power of mindfulness is acknowledging what is happening for you in that moment. So, when our inner critic comes out, we can take this as an opportunity for a mindful moment in our day and just notice. 

“I notice my critical self is starting to speak up.”

“I feel myself starting to have defeating thoughts.”

“I’m going sit to in this feeling.”

“It’s okay that it doesn’t feel  good.”

“I want to send some compassion towards my critical self right now.”

By doing this practice, not only are you engaging in mindfulness, but also addressing your inner critic. Acknowledging your critic is the crucial first step to healing that part of yourself. When you sit with and notice your inner critic, rather than letting its wrath of judgement take over, you are actually fortifying your inner compassion, soother, and supporter.

Mindfulness Myth #2: Mindfulness means you are completely present in the moment, and so you shouldn’t have any thoughts.

This myth is a big one. The whole purpose of the practice of mindfulness is to return to the present moment, and that includes recognizing and engaging in refocusing your thoughts. A thought that pops up in your head should be embraced as a moment to come back to the present.

I want you to imagine the space in your mind is a clear sky. Every so often, a cloud floats by, into your sky, then out of the picture. Now I want you to imagine these clouds as being thoughts that wander into your mind. Acknowledge the thought, then allow it to drift by while refocusing your attention on your clear sky.

This activity of noticing your thoughts, then coming back to your present moment is a great way to practice mindfulness.

Mindfulness Myth #3: You have to carve out a specific time of day to practice mindfulness.

Not true at all! As evidenced by debunking our first two myths, mindfulness can be practiced throughout your day in very different ways! You can engage in mindfulness while eating, or talking a walk, or enjoying your favorite hobby (cooking, coloring, etc.). Of course, you can also make it a scheduled activity if that works better for your needs.

Mindfulness Myth #4: Mindfulness is Meditation. Meditation is the only mindfulness practice.

Oftentimes I find that people use the terms “mindfulness” and “meditation” interchangeable. Although meditation is considered a mindfulness practice, mindfulness is not always meditation. Meditation can be a great way to practice mindfulness, as there are a variety of wonderfully free apps that you can download as well as classes available. But like I discussed previously, mindfulness can be practiced throughout your day in a variety of ways.

(Some) Mindfulness Practices:

I want to share a few ways in which you can start incorporating mindfulness in your daily life today. We’ve already discussed utilizing your inner critic in your practice, as well as thoughts that may come up—two mindfulness practices that can be done at any point throughout your day when you need a moment to recharge and reconnect with yourself. Here are a few other activities you can engage in as well. You can pick whichever activity/practice—there is no right or wrong choice or order you need to go in. Discover the ways that work for your unique needs.

Practice 1: Mindful walk

Engaging your mind in mindfulness in an atmosphere in which you are also involving physical movement is a great practice. Taking a mindful walk is a wonderful way to do this. You can decide however long you would like your walk to be for—again, there’s no rulebook here, it’s what you need.

As you walk, you can start by noticing what it feels like when your foot touches the ground: Is it a hard surface? Or soft and cushioned like grass? Going along with the sensation of feeling, continue with noticing the temperature and how you’re experiencing it—are you warm? Cold?

Practice 2: Mindful eating

Mindful eating is often one of my favorites to share with others, as we often eat while doing other things (work, errands, etc.) and really neglect to acknowledge the experience and be present with our meal. Additionally, we often don’t notice our body’s way of signaling our hunger cues. Mindful eating is a great way to reconnect with your body and what it needs to be nurtured.

When you’re having a meal, sit with your meal and only your meal—no television, no work. It is in this setting we can best engage in mindful and intuitive eating. Before you start eating, notice how hungry you are: Is your stomach gurgling? Or maybe you feel a little full. Notice any hunger cues. On a scale of 0 to 10, how hungry are you? As you begin to eat, take one bite and set your utensil down. Notice what the food feels like in your mouth. Is it hot or cold? Mushy? Crunchy? Pay attention to all of your senses; what do you see when looking at your food? Bright colors of a salad? Warm hues of a soup?  What do you smell?  

Practice 3: Breath awareness

Another accessible practice of mindfulness is through breath awareness. This one is similar to notice your inner critic or your thoughts. Here, you reconnect with and simply notice your breath.

You can start by describing where you feel the root of your breath: “I feel my breath starts in my stomach.” Then notice it as it moves describing “then it moves through my lungs, chest, and out my mouth.” Acknowledge other qualities about your breath: Is it slow or fast? Forced or natural? Deep or Shallow? Are you sensing an urge to “fix” or “better” or “deepen” your breath? Try not to make any adjustments, just connect and observe.

What happened with the “Om”?

You may be wondering, how can I still maintain that I “never learned the ‘correct way’” to chant an “Om”? You’re right—this isn’t true. I can no longer say this because there is no “correct way.” By embracing the idea that mindfulness is simply noticing what you are experiencing in the present moment—even if it means acknowledging my discomfort—I felt a sense of empowerment and connection. Now when the “Om” chant comes along, I notice where I am at in that moment: “Do I want to do the chant today? Or do I just want to sit and be engulfed by the energy? Does my ‘Om’ sound like “ohm” or “aum” today? What did today’s chant feel like in my body?” I overcame what was getting in the way of my practice of mindfulness by embracing it as part of the practice.

About the Author

Cindy is an Associate Marriage and Family Therapist under the supervision of Dr. Menije, a licensed psychologist, in private practice in Los Angeles, CA. When she works with her clients individually or as couples, the goal is to help you turn your life around and create the one you are meant to live. Cindy helps her clients turn their disconnection to connection so that they can feel the true confidence, empowerment, and acceptance they deserve. The practice is currently accepting new clients and offers online therapy.

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