By Christina Cardona
As you’re reading this, bring your attention to your feet’ sensation against your floor or shoes. Wiggle your toes and feel each of your toes moving. Perhaps you’re placing more pressure on either the balls or heels of your feet if you’ve never heard of mindfulness, congratulations as you’ve just completed a few moments of it.
According to recent Google data, the number of searches for yoga and meditation apps has increased by 65% between 2016 and 2017 (Singh, 2020). Over the past decade, mindfulness practices have become popular across the entire world. They have become integrated into the routines of many people’s lives, from major corporations to schools, in the hopes of improving employee and student health and well-being. Although the word ‘mindfulness’ has picked up in the media over the past decade, some believe that the roots of such practices can be traced back to the early teachings of the Buddha. Around 2,500 years ago, who presumably used the technique to attain nirvana, a profound insight resulted in suffering (Fossas, 2015).
What is mindfulness? What are its real, practical benefits and particularly for college students? How does one practice it? Some keywords that may come to people’s mind when hearing the word mindfulness are yoga, meditation, and religion. It is challenging to put mindfulness in a box as it encompasses many areas of practice and can be perceived differently across individuals, cultures, and beliefs. To simply define mindfulness, it is a state of awareness or focusing on the present moment, free from judgment. Heather Rice, an assistant dean in the College of Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, explains, “mindfulness is about being right at this moment. Not on whether you are doing well or are doing poorly – but just noting ‘this is how things are’ and being content with the current moment.”
The word ‘mindfulness’ first became popularized in the 1970s when Jon Kabat-Zinn, now a medicine emeritus professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, developed a program he called ‘mindfulness-based stress reduction’ (MBSR). Richard Davidson from the University of Wisconsin-Madison considered having legitimized the field with his first published work on the topic where he examined the brains of Buddhist monks and found exceptional brain function characteristics compared to the average person. Some brainwave patterns, and some of their responses to loud, aversive noises – how strongly their brain reacted (Pierce, 2017). The majority of mindfulness research focuses on controlling your thoughts, not letting them control you, regulating your emotions, and the idea that concentration, attention, and self-control are essential psychological well-being elements.
Over recent years, a growing body of well-designed scientific research studies suggests that mindfulness practice can be beneficial, especially for college students, whose lifestyles demand constant connectivity and information processing. According to a Scientific American article, it has been proven by MRI scans that mindfulness meditation creates changes in the physical structure of the brain. After eight weeks of daily meditation practice, the amygdala, or the brain’s “fight or flight” center, begins to shrink. The prefrontal cortex, which helps us focus and make decisions, also thickens. This has proven to permanently become more focused and less reactive, even in non-meditative states (Ireland, 2014). A study on mindfulness in college students found that medical and psychology students who practiced mindfulness reported improvements in a wide range of areas. Including improved academic success, decreased reactivity, increased curiosity and affect tolerance, improved patience, self-acceptance, and enhanced relational qualities (Solhaug, Eriksen, de Vibe, Haavind, Friborg, Sørlie, & Rosenvinge, 2016). Mindfulness has exhibited a vital link between the depressive symptoms that spring from alcohol-related problems and the incidence of drinking to cope in college students (Bravo, Pearson, Stevens, & Henson, 2016).
So how do we practice mindfulness? The essential idea of mindfulness practices includes paying careful attention to four different aspects, or foundations: the body (such as the breath), sensations or feelings, the mind/consciousness, and mental contents. There are lots of ways to incorporate mindfulness into our everyday life, and not just through meditation. Some practices include:
- Mindful Breathing: Set a timer for 5 or 10 minutes and focus on your breathing during that time. Listen to the sound it makes, feel the sensations of breath entering through your nose or mouth and filling your lungs. Each time you find your mind distracted by a thought, consciously return your focus to the breath.
- Mindful Movements: Set reminders throughout the day (some mobile apps include this as a notification on your phone) to focus your attention on your body. How does your body feel? Notice any tensions you may be holding, how your arms hang from your shoulders, your posture, or the sensation of your feet in your shoes.
- Mindful Eating: For at least one of your meals each day, focus on the sensations you experience while eating, such as the tastes, the consistency, and feeling of each bite going down the throat. Slow down, take smaller bites, and enjoy the experience.
There are many online tools, mobile applications, and books to help you learn and practice mindfulness. A few recommendations: InsightTimer (app), Calm (app), You Are Here: Discovering the Magic of the Present Moment (book), Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice (book), Mindful.org (website), and Shambhala Publications.
There are also resources for more hands-on experiences that you can research online in your community. One of Fort Myers’ own, Dr. Laura Baltodano, have found mindfulness to be a precious tool in her life and has dedicated it to helping others learn the same means. She teaches MSBR along with other wellness courses and programs for both children and adults. Her programs’ key components include gratitude, acts of service, mindfulness, art, and nature. When asked what she believes to be one of the essential health and wellness elements, she states, “mindfulness and self-compassion.” You can find more information on her website https://www.laurabaltodano.com/.
In conclusion, developing mindfulness practices and skills can be a transformative way of dealing with the increased pressure and stress in our daily lives. Paying attention to our experiences free from judgment is a way we can cultivate mindfulness and self-compassion, capture moments, and live more purposefully and peacefully.
“Live the actual moment. Only this actual moment is life.” -Thích Nhất Hạnh
Staff Writer – Community