“Mindfulness is simply focused awareness of the present moment.”1 It’s simple but deceptively so. You might already be wondering how focusing on the present can be helpful if your present moment is stressful or problematic. That concern is natural and why we’ve created this guide to mindfulness for beginners. Keep reading to learn all about mindfulness as an approach to life, mental health, and well-being so you can decide if a mindful lifestyle is right for you.
What Is Mindfulness?
At its core, mindfulness is a relationship with yourself and with the world around you. It’s refreshing because it isn’t another set of rules and principles to memorize and strict procedures to do or steps to take. It’s not a flashy fad with hollow promises of a perfect life. It’s not a quick-fix approach to happiness. Instead, mindfulness is a way of life, of showing up completely and relating to yourself, others, and situations calmly and purposefully no matter what obstacles, stressors, and challenges pop into your path.
Mindfulness is an approach to life that allows you to live in your real moments rather than trapped in your thoughts and emotions about the past, present, or future—your mind is full of the tangible aspects of the present moment that you take in with your senses, and you live life at face value rather than imposing judgments or expectations on yourself or your experiences.2 Mindfulness involves paying attention and noticing where you are, who you’re with, and what you’re doing.3
Mindfulness guru Jon Kabat-Zinn informs us that mindfulness involves:4
- Paying attention on purpose, intentionally focusing on the here-and-now
- Sustaining attention and gently returning attention to your moment when your mind wanders
- Open acceptance of your experiences rather than judging them
Before exploring mindfulness further, it’s important to note what mindfulness is not. Mindfulness is about living fully in each moment without judging it or overthinking it. It doesn’t mean, however, that people must resign themselves to bad situations.2 It’s not about giving in or giving up. What mindfulness does is allow people to remain focused and present rather than avoiding problems. By focusing on the present moment without judging it, people can gain clarity and freedom to decide how to respond to any situation.
People often wonder whether mindfulness is a religious tradition. It can be. It’s an integral part of traditions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.5 It also exists independently of spirituality and can be completely secular. Because it’s a relationship and approach to living without set rules and rituals, each person can attribute their own meaning to their practice and life.
Key Concepts of Mindfulness
Mindfulness serves to override the brain and body’s automatic reaction to our situations, thoughts, and emotions. Using deep breathing and your senses (sight, sound, touch, smell, and when appropriate, taste) to concentrate on the present moment causes changes in the brain and body. The acts of breathing and focusing on your moment rather than the thoughts and feelings in your mind decrease activity in your sympathetic nervous system (the one responsible for the fight-or-flight stress reaction) and activate your parasympathetic nervous system (the rest-and-digest calm response).6,7,8
Mindfulness’s work doesn’t end here, however. Once you have taken charge of your body and moved yourself from your body’s stress reaction to a state of calm, mindfulness skills and tools can help you calm your mind.
Mindfulness involves these underlying elements:4,8,10
People who practice yogic breathing use the Sanskrit term pranayama, or controlled breathing. Working with your breath to change from shallow, short breaths to slow, deep breaths sets the foundation for mindfulness. In mindful breathing, you focus your attention on the sound and feel of air entering and leaving your body to instantly refocus your negative thoughts and calm your body.
Observation and Awareness
When you focus on the present moment, you take it in with your senses and become more conscious of yourself, others, and each situation. When you’re aware, even of negative emotions or stressful circumstances, you can decide what, if anything, you want to do. When you’re stuck in your mind juggling and tripping over your thoughts and feelings, you can’t see with clarity what you need to do to problem-solve. When you’re lost in your thoughts and emotions, you also miss out on the pleasant joys of each moment because you’re not completely aware of them. By tuning in fully to what’s happening right now, you are more awake to your life.
Nonjudgmental Acceptance and Openness
Of course you don’t have to love everything that you experience, but with mindfulness you also don’t have to fight against it. When we struggle and resist our thoughts or situations, we remain focused on the negative. The more we judge things, the more powerful they become because that’s where our focus lies. In mindfulness, you notice something and accept it for what it is. You also are open to your experiences as they come. Then, you can embrace what is going well and either let go of what’s bothering you or decide to take purposeful actions to change it.
Rather than having your negative thoughts, feelings, and circumstances consuming you and taking all of your attention and energy, mindfulness allows you to choose your focus. Every time you tune in to sensations in the present moment, you pay attention on purpose to the people you’re with and the things you are doing. If you’re eating ice cream with your children or a friend, for example, instead of missing the experience because you’re lost in thought, you concentrate on aspects of the moment and the experience of being with someone you enjoy.
What’s the Goal of Mindfulness?
The key concepts of mindfulness allow you to achieve the goal of mindfulness—to live in your present moment, one moment at a time, and help calm negative thoughts and emotions so you can choose your actions. Living mindfully allows you to take back your life from the obstacles that are keeping you trapped and lets you live your life as if it matters (because your life does matter).11
Mindfulness isn’t a magic wand that will eliminate problems and challenges. Instead, it allows you to increase calm, neutral awareness of yourself—your thoughts, emotions, physical sensations, and behaviors—others, and circumstances.9 Practicing mindfulness helps you break free from your problems and remain calm and centered so you can respond to problems with intention rather than reacting emotionally.2
How to Practice Mindfulness
One of the wonderful things about mindfulness is that it is always accessible. You don’t have to spend money to do it, nor do you need special equipment or a fancy location. The only thing you need is yourself—something you always have with you. Further, you can practice mindfulness exactly how you are. You don’t have to take classes or do anything to prepare for it.
There are two ways to practice mindfulness: formally and informally.8,11 Many people use a combination of the two. A formal mindfulness practice involves setting aside dedicated time every day to engage in mindfulness exercises, such as the mindfulness techniques listed below. When you devote time to be mindful, you develop your ability to sustain your attention for an extended period of time.
Informal mindfulness is mindfulness on the go. Wherever you are and whatever you’re doing, you turn your attention to something in the present moment. If you’re rushing to an appointment and traffic is slow, for example, you might catch yourself feeling tense and frustrated and then use the opportunity to breathe deeply and notice what’s around you. Rather than stewing at a red light, watch the cars going through the intersection the other way and notice details about them.
You can also use mindfulness informally during pleasant situations to make the most out of them. If you’re playing with your kids, catch yourself being distracted with your thoughts and pull your attention into the present moment by listening to the sounds of their laughter.
Mindfulness Techniques for Beginners
Mindfulness is a way of being with yourself and your world, and it’s also a skill you can develop. Use these mindfulness techniques for beginners (but also used by seasoned practitioners) to build your practice.
With each of these techniques, the idea is to do them mindfully with your full attention on what you’re doing. When your mind wanders (and it likely will), remember the principle of non-judgment. Don’t become angry with yourself because your attention wanders but simply notice it and return your attention to the activity.
Whenever you notice yourself becoming stressed, pause where you are and close your eyes if you feel comfortable doing so. Place your hands on your belly so you can feel your body rise and fall as you breathe. Inhale slowly through your nose and focus on the sound and feeling of the air entering your body. Fill your lungs completely so that your belly expands. Pause for a few seconds. Exhale slowly and fully, again paying attention to the sound and feel of the air leaving your body.
You may wish to try one of these variations:
- When you inhale, say a word or phrase to yourself. You might simply say, “In breath.” When you exhale, mentally repeat a different word or phrase such as “out breath.” You can also use words like “calm,” “peace,” “joy,” “presence,” or any other word that is meaningful and motivating for you.
- Count as you breathe. See how long you can make each inhale and exhale—six seconds? Eight? Twelve? You can strive to keep your in breath and out breaths equal, or you can make your exhale slightly longer.
Close your eyes. Take one or more mindful breaths. Open your eyes and take in what’s around you. What do you see? What sounds do you hear? Is there a noticeable scent? What textures do you feel? Just notice without getting stuck thinking about anything in particular.
Use the opportunity to develop a mindfulness principle known as coming unhooked.12 Too often, we become hooked by problems. We become caught on them as we think about them repeatedly. In mindfulness, you can notice your hooks and just let them be there without judging or struggling. Notice your hook, and then expand your awareness to notice other things around you in the moment. When you pay attention to all of the other, positive, things around you, you slip off the hook and into your life in that moment.
Take a Mindful Walk
Take a break from a stressful situation and engage your mind and body by taking a mindful walk. You can do this outside or inside. If you can, remove your socks and shoes so you can feel the sensations of your feet moving on the ground or floor (but if this isn’t practical, that’s okay. You can mindfully walk with your shoes on). Begin to walk at your own pace. It’s often recommended to walk slowly, but if this feels uncomfortable, you can set your own speed.
As you move, focus on your feet, feeling them connect with the ground beneath you. Next, focus on your body as it moves. How do your muscles and joints move? How is your posture? Notice the nuances of your body in motion. Then, turn your attention to what’s around you. What is the temperature? Is there wind blowing air across your skin? What can you touch to experience different textures? What sounds do you pick up? What do you see? Walk mindfully as long as you are able.
Have a Mindful Snack or Meal
Mindful eating is a healthy experience. It calms the mind and helps calm the body for proper digestion. We all tend to eat in a rush, gulping our food quickly between activities. Other times, we are distracted when we eat, poking around on our phones or watching television.
Hone your mindfulness skills and nurture yourself by eating mindfully. Pay attention to what you’re doing as you prepare your food, relishing in the textures and smells. Then as you eat, fully experience your food. Sit comfortably and become aware of your posture. Let yourself enjoy the taste of the food and experience of eating.
Do a Body Scan
When you’re stressed, take a moment to check in with your body. You can lie down, sit down, or stand. Close your eyes if possible. Starting at your feet and working bit by bit up to your face and head, attend to each area of your body. Do you notice yourself holding tension anywhere? If so, keep your focus in that spot a bit longer. Take a slow, deep breath, and imagine the healthy oxygen flowing right to the tense spot to help it relax. The more you spend mindfully checking in with your body, the better able you are to prevent it from holding stress and tension.
Listen to Music
The next time you listen to your favorite music, do it mindfully. Give the experience your complete attention. Can you pick out different instruments? Pay attention to the voice of the singer if there is one. Immerse yourself fully in the sounds rather than letting them run in the background while you think about other things.
When you’re stressed or otherwise emotional, you can use this simple mindfulness technique to calm down and recenter. Place the palms of your hands flat on any surface (a table top, your legs, or anything else that is handy). Concentrate on the way it feels on your fingertips, down the length of your fingers, and across your palms. As you do so, begin to take several slow, deep breaths.
What Can Mindfulness Help With?
Mindfulness helps you get the most out of your life. It can help you be fully present for the joyful moments, and it can help you remain calm during stressful ones. It helps you learn to approach life with openness and curiosity rather than judgement, and as such it can reduce tension and increase a sense of purpose and meaning.9
The act of intentionally shifting your focus changes how your brain responds to stress, and it changes structures in the brain as well; in so doing, it can be helpful for such challenges as:9
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Relationship, work, and other life stress
- Existential issues and difficulties related to major life transitions
Mindfulness has been found to have direct, positive effects on mental health by increasing feelings of wellbeing, improving behavior regulation, decreasing emotional reactions, and reducing symptoms of a variety of mental health conditions.13
A variety of studies have indicated that mindfulness can:2
- Reduce the stress associated with chronic pain and even lower the perception of pain
- Boosts immune system functioning
- Increases attention span and concentration
- Improves empathy and tolerance
- Heightens resilience
As mentioned, mindfulness doesn’t make problems disappear. What it does is positively affect how you handle the problems you face by changing your relationship with yourself and the world around you. Mindful acceptance and presence helps you untangle yourself from your problems and fully experience your positives.
Mindfulness for Beginners Examples
The power of mindfulness is seemingly endless. People of all ages and backgrounds can use it across all situations to remain calm despite challenges and live fully in each moment, addressing problems thoughtfully and embracing positive experiences. The following examples illustrate what mindfulness can be like for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), depression, and during highly stressful situations.
Mindfulness for ADHD
Not only can kids and adults with ADHD learn to practice mindfulness, doing so may increase their ability to focus and concentrate in their daily lives.14 The beauty of mindfulness is that it needs neither strict procedures or a minimum amount of time to devote to it. Someone living with ADHD can begin to practice mindfulness gradually, focusing on their breath for one minute (or even just a few breaths) or taking a mindful walk to the end of their driveway.
Even brief mindfulness exercises work over time to increase the ability to self-regulate and to pay attention for extended periods. Focusing on the moment and cultivating an open, nonjudgmental, accepting perspective helps people with ADHD think clearly and calmly and look for patterns in their own behavior so they can make small changes that lead to big improvements in their lives.
Mindfulness for Depression
Programs using mindfulness, such as mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), have been shown in studies to be as effective as antidepressants in preventing depression relapse.15 Mindfulness gives people control over their thoughts by allowing them to recognize their negative thoughts and purposefully pull themselves away from them by focusing instead on positive aspects of the present moment. As people develop new perspectives, their symptoms of depression fade and are less likely to return.
Mindfulness During Stressful Situations
Practicing mindfulness can help people cope positively with stress. As seen, mindfulness affects positive changes in the brain and body, helping turn off the fight-or-flight reaction and activate the calming rest-and-digest response. As we learn to stay focused on the present moment, we improve our ability to deal positively with stressors rather than getting caught up in negative thoughts and emotions about them.16
Mindfulness helps us become aware of our own emotions and negative reactions so we can then shift to more helpful behaviors, and it leads us to be non-judgmental, changing our perception of stress so we remain calm and centered.17
Benefits of Mindfulness
Mindfulness improves both our physiological (body-based) and mental (thought- and emotion-centered) responses to problems and challenges. As we improve our ability to remain focused on the present moment and experience it nonjudgmentally, we can reap great benefits to both our physical and mental health.
Living mindfully can decrease stress, anxiety, depression, perceptions of pain, and high blood pressure; further, it can improve concentration, sleep, and even disease management, such as better control of diabetes.11
Mindfulness offers other benefits, too. As you learn to be present and open, you develop greater self-acceptance and a more balanced perspective on life, accepting what you can’t change, taking intentional action to change what you can, and focusing on what is right rather than what is wrong.8
Is Mindfulness Effective?
Researchers continue to conduct studies to investigate the effectiveness of mindfulness, and results are encouraging:
- A 2010 study out of UCLA examined trait mindfulness, which is a natural tendency some people have to pay attention to the present and stay accepting, open, and nonjudgmental in nearly all situations. It was discovered that people who are mindful by nature experience low levels of anxiety and react less emotionally in the face of problems. The good news about this is that mindfulness is a skill that can be learned, so that even for people who are not mindful by nature can develop this approach to life and benefit from it.18
- In 2011, a team of researchers reviewed 11 studies examining the effects of depression therapies that include mindfulness. They concluded that mindfulness interventions significantly reduce depression symptoms.19
- A different group of researchers reviewed 11 other studies into mindfulness. These researchers were concerned with its usefulness for children and teens facing various mental health challenges. Once again, mindfulness was repeatedly shown to be effective in helping people, even young people, deal with their symptoms and other life problems. A caveat of the review, though, was that some of the studies had limitations, so the researchers recommend further studies.20
It’s encouraging that so many different studies come to similar conclusions: mindfulness is effective in helping people show up for their lives and respond thoughtfully to problems and stressors. The easiest way to start living mindfully is to simply begin. Catch yourself stuck in negative thoughts and emotions, and gently refocus your attention on what is going on in your life right now. Be open to your experiences without judging them or struggling against them so you can remain calm and respond thoughtfully and positively.
As with anything, practice makes perfect. Instead of being frustrated with yourself when you aren’t mindful, just notice it and once again return your attention to your moment. The more you do it, the more natural mindfulness becomes.
For Further Reading
For more information and to jumpstart your mindful way of life, check out these helpful resources:
Mindfulness for Beginners Infographics