by Bill Russner, Ph.D., CAPS Clinical Director

“Mindfulness” or “being mindful” are words that get tossed around a lot these days, but what does it really mean to “practice mindfulness” or to “be mindful”? A standard definition of mindfulness is “the act of being conscious or aware of something”. However, in a mental health context, mindfulness means something more than just awareness. Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, describes mindfulness as “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally in the service of self-understanding and wisdom.”

Focus on One Thing

Essentially, practicing mindfulness is an intentional act of focusing your attention on what you choose to focus it on in your present experience (e.g., your breathing, the food you are eating, the scenery around you as you walk across campus).

A close up of a single maple leaf on some weathered wood.  The leaf is more orange close to the stem, but at the top edges, the color has blended into red.
Photo by Bill Russner

This is in contrast to what most of us do all too frequently – doing one thing but thinking/planning/worrying about other things at the same time. While thinking, planning, and yes, even worrying, can be useful, necessary activities, if our minds are always elsewhere, we rob ourselves of the benefits of fully experiencing our present situation.

In addition, constantly doing one thing while thinking about one (or several) other things is tiring and stressful. There is ample research from the fields of psychology and medicine that demonstrate the positive impact that consistent mindfulness practice can have on mental and physical health.

…if our minds are always elsewhere, we rob ourselves of the benefits of fully experiencing our present situation

How to “do” Mindfulness

A narrow walking path through a forest stretches ahead and turns to the right.  The path is covered with leaves in Fall colors--mostly shades of orange.  Trees reach over the path and still hold about half of their orange leaves.
Image by Bill Russner

There are myriad ways in which one can practice being mindful, for example – meditation, walking, eating, but the core components of mindfulness are the same regardless of the activity:

  1. Making an intentional decision that you are going to practice being mindful for the next several minutes.
  2. Focusing all of your attention on whatever activity you have chosen for your practice and then noticing any physical, cognitive, or emotional reactions you experience.
  3. Accepting whatever thoughts, emotions, or sensations you experience without trying to judge or avoid them.
  4. Acknowledging that, even though your intent is to focus on your chosen activity and your body’s experience of it, your mind will inevitably wander and turn to thinking about other things.
  5. When you realize that your mind has strayed from your intended focus, gently redirecting yourself back with an attitude of gratefulness for having been able to refocus yourself.

Stop and Smell the Roses

It is all too easy to become caught up in the whirlwind of activity and stress that comes with being a college student. Regularly practicing some type of mindfulness activity can be a means of getting yourself to “stop and smell the roses”. If you do this, you might also find that your stress level, anxiety and sadness decrease, and your physical and mental health improve!

Resource Links:

Try this 16-minute mindfulness meditation
Try this mindful eating exercise

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