Mindfulness Meditation And Other Tips For Self-awareness
In this article we will be learning about mindfulness meditation and some other tips that will help you create self-awareness.
For most of us, at least some of the problems we have in life are related to things we do because we’ve learned to behave that way. And since we’ve learned this behavior, the good news is that we can learn other ways of behaving that will be healthier and more effective for us. The bad news, of course, is that this takes time, energy, and a lot of hard work—but if you put this effort in, you’re very likely to see some positive changes.
Increasing Your Self-Awareness
To get you started on learning these new behaviors, you’ll first be asked to engage in some exercises and do some thinking about what the problems might be in your relationships: what are some of the behaviors you’re engaging in that are causing you problems? You might know at least part of the answer to this question already; if so, good for you—you’re ahead of the game. But even if that’s the case, you’ll still want to practice these exercises because you might come to some new insights about yourself, and because these exercises will also be helpful in other ways as we move on. If you don’t yet have much awareness of your problem behaviors, keep in mind that taking an objective, honest look at yourself can be quite difficult, and sometimes even painful; nevertheless, this is where you need to start if you want to make positive changes in your life.
Before you can take steps to make any kind of changes, you first have to identify what it is that needs to be changed. I’m going to make this as easy for you as I can, and we’ll soon look at a specific skill called mindfulness—which involves being fully aware and accepting of what’s happening in the present moment—that will help you increase your awareness of yourself. But first, let’s look at the opposite behavior, which many of us often do: mindlessness, or not paying attention to your surroundings or what you are experiencing.
Avoid Acting Mindlessly
Most of us have a tendency to go through life living in the past and the future, rather than in the present. Think about this for a moment: When you’re getting ready for school in the morning, are you really thinking about what you’re doing? Showering, brushing your teeth, doing your hair, getting dressed, and having breakfast… If you really think about it, you’ll probably see that, for the most part, you’re not actually thinking about those activities, but instead about what happened at school yesterday, or the party on the weekend, or the fight you had with your best friend last night, or the test you have after lunch today, or the fact that homecoming is this weekend.
Thinking about the past isn’t always bad—for example, if you’re recalling the nice memories of the way you and your boyfriend spent last Saturday at the park or the camping trip you took with your family last summer. But usually when we’re thinking about the past, we’re not thinking about the happy memories—instead, we tend to go to the unhappy, painful events that have happened in our lives. And when we do this, we trigger the painful emotions that go along with those events: we feel sad, angry, guilty, ashamed, disappointed, and so on.
Likewise with the future: Sometimes you might daydream about how you’ll spend the summer when school’s over or about all the opportunities and choices you’ll have when you graduate. But more often, the tendency is to create a painful scenario in your head and then live in that imaginary future as though it were already happening—and this, too, triggers emotional pain, usually in the form of anxiety and worry.
Take a moment to think about how this might apply to your own life: Do you spend a lot of time thinking about the past or the future? Or both? Or do you live in the present much of the time, focusing on what you’re doing in the here and now? These typical scenarios may help you respond honestly:
- When you’re driving to school or sitting on the bus, are you really focusing on that drive—noticing the cars around you and paying attention to everything you need to do to safely maneuver your car; or sitting on the bus, paying attention to the other students or noticing the scenery and the houses on your route to school? Or are you thinking about what you’ll be doing this weekend instead?
- If you have an argument with your parents, are you really focusing on the present moment and what’s being said? Or are you also thinking that the last time you asked if you could go to a party with your best friend they also said no, and they never let you do anything and they never trust you…and so on?
- When you’re at your dance or karate class, or at softball or cheerleading practice, are you really focusing on what you’re doing and learning, or are you busy worrying about what will happen if you miss a step or don’t kick properly or miss the ball or fall—and what others will think about you if that happens?
- While you’re studying for a test, are you really focusing on that task, or are you thinking about the last test you took and how poorly you did? Or thinking about what will happen if you don’t get a good grade: people will make fun of you; you won’t get the straight As you were aiming for; you won’t get into your first choice of colleges; there’s no way you’ll get into medical school …?
These are just a few everyday examples of how we tend to be mindless: going through life on automatic pilot, not really focusing on what we’re doing, thinking about the past and future rather than the present moment.
There’s another part of being mindful that is just as important, but for most of us is even harder than being focused on the present moment, and that’s being accepting of whatever we happen to find in the present moment. So think about this: When you’re sitting on the school bus noticing the kids around you, are you just noticing them, accepting them as they are, or are you judging them? Thinking to yourself, perhaps, that they’re mean or pretty or weird or nerds or cool, or that they shouldn’t be acting the way they are you get the picture. While we’ll be talking much further about judgments in upcoming articles, for now it’s important for you to know that acceptance—being nonjudgmental—is also part of being mindful.
So we’ve kind of been talking around mindfulness, but what is it exactly? Mindfulness is doing one thing at a time, in the present moment, with your full attention, and with acceptance. It’s focusing on what you’re doing as you’re doing it, and bringing a curious, accepting, nonjudgmental attitude toward whatever your experience is in that moment.
Right this second, think about what you’re doing: you’re reading this article. Are you doing anything else while you’re reading? Are you listening to music or the television in the background? Are you petting your dog, texting your friend, or checking your Facebook page? If you are, you’re not being mindful—doing one thing at a time in the present moment, with your full attention; rather, you’re dividing your attention between two (or more!) activities.
Let’s say you are just reading this article right now. Are you accepting whatever your experience is in this moment? Are you judging this article? Perhaps your mom bought it for you and you’re reading it only because it’s making you. If that’s the case, you might be thinking that reading this article is a waste of your time that it’s boring or stupid. Or maybe, as you’re trying to read, you keep getting interrupted—you’re babysitting your little brother and he wants you to get him a snack or play with him, and you’re judging him as annoying or thinking he shouldn’t be bothering you while you’re trying to read. If you’re engaging in this kind of judgmental thinking, you’re not being mindful.
If you’re reading this article and only reading this article (so if your friend texts you, you turn your attention from the article to the text, and then bring your full attention back to reading); and if you’re practicing acceptance with whatever you happen to become aware of (for example, if you notice you’re feeling sad or anxious about some of the things you’re reading, you just notice this rather than judging yourself for it), then you’re being mindful. Here are some other examples of ways you can be mindful:
Some Ways To Cultivate Mindfulness
- Listening to music, and only listening. Not listening to music while you’re Facebooking or watching television or doing your homework. And while you’re only listening to music, just noticing whatever happens to come into your awareness (and keeping in mind that one of the things you need to do to improve your relationships is to increase your self-awareness), paying attention to any emotions, memories, or thoughts that might arise. Or perhaps your mom calls you to come set the table or the doorbell rings: not judging these interruptions or the people interrupting you, simply noticing them, as well as any emotions these interruptions might trigger for you—for example, thinking, I’m feeling annoyed at being interrupted.
- Watching your favorite television show, and only watching that show, not doing two or more things at once. And while you’re doing this, not judging whatever is going on in the present moment: If something on the show happens that you don’t like, noticing you don’t like it, not that it is stupid or shouldn’t have happened. Not judging the commercials you’re stuck watching because your DVR broke; not judging your younger sister who’s talking loudly on the telephone in the next room.
- Doing your homework, and only doing your homework, rather than dividing your attention between your homework and the telephone conversation you’re having with your best friend. And while you’re only doing your homework, not judging your teacher for giving you such a tough assignment and not judging yourself for having difficulties with it.
Mindfulness can be a really tough skill to practice, but hopefully you’re starting to see how helpful it can be. In case you’re not, let’s take a look at some of the other ways mindfulness can be helpful.
Let’s Take A Look At Some Of The Other Ways Mindfulness Can Be Helpful
REDUCING EMOTIONAL PAIN BY FOCUSING ON THE PRESENT
Living in the present has the effect of reducing the amount of emotional pain (anger, anxiety, sadness, embarrassment, and so on) in our lives; although the present can be painful as well, when we’re being mindful we only have to deal with the pain of the present, rather than the pain of the present, the past, and the future all at the same time.
REDUCING EMOTIONAL PAIN THROUGH ACCEPTANCE
Mindfulness also helps us increase our self-awareness. Think about it: if you’re focusing on the present moment more often, you’re going to be more aware of what’s happening as it happens. This means you’ll be able to learn about what’s happening that’s problematic in your relationships. You might notice that you’re not paying attention to people or that your judgments of them or of yourself are getting in the way of your relationships, or you might notice that you’re anxious a lot of the time and that you’re allowing the anxiety to prevent you from doing things that could lead to positive relationships.
For now, let’s get you practicing mindfulness so that you can learn to be more present and accepting, which will move you further in the direction of positive change.
BRINGING A SENSE OF BALANCE TO YOUR LIFE
By focusing on the present and on being nonjudgmental, mindfulness helps us get to a more balanced state of being, known as equanimity. In other words, when you’re practicing mindfulness more often, you’ll feel more balanced, calm, and at peace with yourself and the world around you. You might not like that something has happened, but you won’t freak out about it you’ll remain equanimous, able to think about it from an objective perspective, rather than reacting from your emotional experience in that moment. We’ll look at skills to help you develop this sense of wisdom further in upcoming articles, but it’s important for you to be aware that this is a big part of being mindful, and it will come with practice. The key, of course, is just that: practice.
Now that you hopefully understand more about how mindfulness is going to help you, let’s starting talking about how to do it.
How to Practice Mindfulness
Mindfulness is great because it’s so helpful in many different ways, and also because you can practice it in an infinite number of ways. Anything you do, you can do mindfully: eating, playing video games, sitting in class, taking a shower, talking to your friends, walking your dog, and so on. To bring mindfulness to your everyday activities, follow these four steps:
- Decide what you’re going to do mindfully—brush your teeth, set the table for dinner, listen to your math teacher, read a book, skateboard, breathe, or anything else you choose to focus on.
- Start to focus: do whatever activity you’ve chosen, and as best as you can, bring your full attention to that activity.
- Notice when your attention wanders. And it will wander; that’s inevitable. What’s for lunch today? How did I do on the English test? What am I going to do this weekend? I wonder if Mom and Dad will let me go to Jenny’s for the weekend? And on and on…this is completely normal. Just notice when it happens.
- Without judging yourself, the thoughts you’re experiencing, the emotions that are coming up, or the interruptions that are happening, simply direct your attention back to the activity you’ve chosen to focus on.
You’ll probably have to bring your attention back again and again to the activity you’re doing mindfully, and that’s okay—it’s pretty normal, especially when you first start practicing. Don’t get frustrated; it will get easier. But make sure you keep practicing. As with any new skill, that’s how it will start to come more naturally.
So far the kind of mindfulness exercises we’ve been talking about involve bringing mindfulness to anything you might be doing in your daily life—these are known as informal mindfulness exercises. But there are other ways of practicing mindfulness, known as formal practices, where you have to set aside a certain amount of time to practice, rather than just bringing mindfulness to your current experience. One such practice, and the most helpful one to start with, is a breathing exercise. Take your time as you read the following exercise.
FORMAL OR INFORMAL?
It’s important to practice both formal and informal mindfulness exercises. For many people, it’s easier to practice only informal mindfulness exercises because we lead such busy lives and it’s often hard to make time to fit in new things; in informal practices we don’t have to find time to practice— we can just do it as we’re doing the things we need to do anyway. However, in the mental health profession, we do see differences between people who practice only informally and those who practice both formally and informally: positive changes happen more quickly for those who practice formal exercises regularly and frequently. So while it might be easier to do just informal mindfulness exercises, if you want to make positive changes in your life, I strongly suggest you make a commitment to yourself to find the time to do both kinds of practices on a regular basis.
We’ve already talked about the kinds of activities you can practice informal mindfulness with— there are literally an infinite number of ways to practice, as anything you’re doing you can do mindfully. In addition, we’ve looked at a mindful breathing exercise. Throughout next articles, we’ll look at other ways of practicing formally, so be sure to incorporate these other exercises into your daily practice as we go along.
WHERE TO PRACTICE
With informal exercises, of course, you’ll be practicing wherever you happen to be; with formal exercises, it will be easier for you to practice, especially as you begin, if you’re in a quiet place where interruptions might be minimal—in your bedroom, or another quiet room in the house if you share a room; in the backyard; or in the library. A quiet place isn’t necessary; if one isn’t available, it just means you’ll have more interruptions and distractions to notice. So just because it isn’t quiet and peaceful doesn’t mean you can’t practice on the bus, or in the backseat of the car, or in study hall; you just might find it a little more challenging!
HOW LONG TO PRACTICE
I encourage people to start off with shorter practices, whether it’s a formal or an informal activity; otherwise it can get somewhat frustrating as you find yourself more and more distracted as time goes on. So if you choose to practice informally while you’re doing your homework, practice for two minutes, then five, then ten, and so on. Or if you’re walking the dog, choose a fairly short part of your route that you’ll walk mindfully. With formal exercises, likewise, it will be helpful to start off with shorter periods of time—again, two to five minutes—and then gradually increase your practice.
EYES OPEN OR CLOSED?
Mindfulness experts have different opinions on this question. I like to be flexible, so here’s my suggestion: if you have to close your eyes in order to stay focused, then close your eyes. However, you want to be able to practice mindfulness wherever and whenever you can, and you might feel kind of weird sitting on the bus with your eyes closed. The overall goal with mindfulness is for us to live our lives more mindfully, and it’s hard to go through life with our eyes closed! So as much as you can, practice with your eyes open.
Your Next Steps
Over the next week or so, be sure to practice formal and informal exercises as often as possible. Schedule some time to do formal practices such as the breathing exercise you did earlier. Bringing mindfulness informally to activities you’re doing throughout the day is also important, so do this as often as you think of it. You may want to do things to help you make a point of remembering, like putting a reminder in your smartphone or daily planner.
In addition, you need to put your mindfulness skills into practice in interactions with other people in order to increase your self awareness. So when you’re talking to your parents, a teacher, your boyfriend or girlfriend, or your closest friend, do your best to really pay attention to what’s happening in the moment instead of trying to figure out what you’re going to say next; or worrying what the other person is thinking about you; or wondering if you’re coming across as awkward, and so on. Focus on the conversation, and work on increasing your awareness of yourself in that conversation: notice your facial expression, body language, and tone of voice; be aware of your emotions as they come and go; and see if you can pick up on the other person’s responses to you as you speak.
As best you can, remember not to judge yourself for what thoughts, physical sensations, or emotions you may find yourself noticing as you practice—you may not like it, but that’s where other skills will come in to help you change. And the only way to make the changes is to first shine a light on what’s interfering with your ability to be effective in your interactions with others. It may be painful, but remember: short-term pain for long-term gain!