What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is defined as a mental state achieved by focusing one's awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one's feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations. When we talk about mindfulness-based nutrition counseling, this allows individuals to check in with their bodies and make mindful decisions in the present moment, based on their own cues and values.
Mindfulness is a practice; to stay in the present moment requires consistently catching yourself and bringing it back to the "now".
Mindfulness + Your Health
Scientific studies also demonstrate the benefits of mindfulness-based exercises in improving acceptance, feelings vitality and coping strategies (1). Mindfulness is commonly used as an intervention for binge eating, emotional eating, external eating (eating that takes place based on external cues rather than physical hunger cues) or impulse-based eating (2). In reviewing the effects of mindfulness-based strategies on women with disordered eating practices, one study found that emotional and external eating, cravings and body image disturbance decreased with mindfulness interventions.
Mindfulness is important in making a food decision-making, but can also be practiced when eating. Mindful eating brings present awareness to all of your senses when eating: the taste of the food, the smell, the colors, the mouthfeel. When you’re cooking, the sounds of ingredients sizzling or the feeling of the food in your hands when preparing your meal can help bring mindfulness to that present moment and bring enjoyment to the experience - this I call mindful cooking.
While employing mindfulness-based therapies can positively impact food decision-making and eating behaviors, it can also greatly impact your mood, including increased energy and reduced symptoms of depression, anxiety and mood problems (3).
We can employ mindfulness into the everyday, normal practices of our life, starting by bringing awareness to the present moment and observing (not attaching) to thoughts, non-judgmentally. We can fully accept the present moment for what it is, without creating stories or labels.
To get a sense of what mindfulness is like, here are a few exercises from the writings of Eckhart Tolle to practice:
All exercises from Practicing the Power of Now: Essential Teachings, Meditations, and Exercises from The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle.
1. Free Yourself From Your Mind
Take any routine activity that is normally only a means to an end and give it your fullest attention.
Choose one or two activities that you do routinely and bring your attention to them:
Every time you walk up and down the stairs in your house or place of work, pay close attention to every step, every moment... even your breathing. Be totally present.
When you wash your hands, pay attention to all of the sensory perceptions associated with the activity: the sound, the feel of the water, the movement of your hands, the scent of the soap, etc.
When you get into your car, after you close the door, pause for a few seconds and observe the flow of your breath. Become aware of a silent powerful sense of presence.
2. Listen for the Voice in Your Head
A few times a day, listen quietly for the voice in your head, the stream of continuous self-talk. Then, ponder the following questions. Just be with the questions. Don't necessarily try to answer them.
Am I the thoughts that are going through my head?
Or, am I the one who is aware that these thoughts are going through my head?
Pay attention to the gap between your thoughts - when one thought subsides and before another arises. In this way, you draw consciousness away from mind activity and create a gap of no-mind in which you are highly alert and aware but not thinking. When these gaps occur, you disidentify from your mind and feel a certain stillness and peace inside you. This is the essence of meditation and the single most vital step on your journey toward enlightenment.
3. Grow in Presence
Are you so busy getting to the future that the present is reduced to a means of getting there? There are simple things you can do to bring your attention to the here and now. You can measure your success in this practice by the degree of peace that you feel within.
Be patient. It is not easy at first to be there as the witnessing Presence, especially when the ego is in survival mode, but once you have had a taste of it, you will grow in Presence power, and the ego will lose its grip on you. The ultimate purpose of human existence, which is to say, your purpose, is to bring that power into the world.
Become aware of your breathing. Feel the air flowing in and out of your body. Feel your inner energy field. All that you ever have to deal with, cope with, in real life—as opposed to imaginary mind projections—is this moment. Ask yourself what "problem" you have right now, not next year, tomorrow, or five minutes from now. What is wrong with this moment?
Give up waiting as a state of mind. When you catch yourself slipping into waiting...snap out of it. Come into the present moment. Just be, and enjoy being. If you are present, there is never any need for you to wait for anything. So, next time somebody says, "Sorry to have kept you waiting." You can reply: "That's all right, I wasn't waiting. I was just standing here enjoying myself."
4. Use and Relinquish Negativity
Recurring negative emotions do sometimes contain a message. Any changes that you make, whether they have to do with your work, your relationships or your surroundings, are ultimately only cosmetic unless they arise out of a change in your level of consciousness. When you reach a certain degree of presence, you won't need negativity anymore to tell you what is needed in your life situation. But as long as negativity is there, use it. Use it as a kind of signal that reminds you to be more present.
Whenever you feel negativity arising within you, whether caused by an external factor, a thought or even nothing in particular that you are aware of, look on it as a voice saying, "Attention. Here and now. Wake up. Get out of your mind. Be present."
Feel yourself becoming transparent, without the solidity of a material body. Now allow whatever you are reacting negatively to—the noise of the car alarm, the dog barking, the traffic jam—to pass right through you. It is no longer hitting a solid "wall" inside you.
Become like a deep lake. The outer situation of your life, whatever happens there, is like the surface of the lake—sometimes calm, sometimes windy and rough. Deep down, however, the lake is always undisturbed.
My personal favorite way to practice mindfulness is to just be still in nature. Find a quiet spot in nature and just breathe and be. Find a tree or flower to look at. Do not label it or judge it, just take it in, observe. Let your thoughts pass by like clouds in your mind. Be at peace and one with the nature that is around you, let it show you how to be quiet and still.
A philosophical teaching I once came about taught the following message:
There are two people walking through a field. One person walks past a flower and acts as if it was just another common part of life to encounter.
The person walking next to them encounters the flower, stops, becomes still and marvels at its beauty. Without thinking, she took in the flower for every ounce of magic that it was. She did not judge, but was fully present and one with this piece of nature. She found peace and joy by being present with even the smallest of things.
And this is the true meaning of life.