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Friday, June 7, 2019

A Very Brief Introduction to Mindfulness

Photo by Feliphe Schiarolli on Unsplash

by Catharine Hannay

It seems like the word ‘mindful’ is everywhere these days: magazine covers, fitness centers, and even snacks at the grocery store. Your students have probably seen or heard the word ‘mindfulness’ but might not be clear what it means, or may have heard inaccurate information.

First of all, it's important for them to know that you don’t have to look a certain way or buy any products in order to practice mindfulness. I recently saw a display of ‘mindful’ snacks at the supermarket, which were advertised using a photo of a thin, tanned White woman in a trendy yoga outfit. 

My husband looked at the expression on my face, looked at the advertisement, looked back at me, and said, “Oh, no, I can see a blog post coming on!”

Another big misunderstanding is that it’s all about reducing stress. That can be a benefit of practicing, but it’s important for your students to understand that it's OK if they don’t feel relaxed. Nobody feels relaxed 24/7, and they may be dealing with serious issues in their lives. Mindfulness can help them handle their challenges, but it won’t make the challenges go away. 

What is Mindfulness, Really? 

I like to think of it this way:

Mindfulness = Attention + Intention. 

Mindfulness is about choosing where and how to focus our attention. Whatever is going on, you’re aware of what’s going on. Whatever you’re feeling, you’re aware of how you’re feeling. Whatever someone’s saying, you’re aware of what they’re saying.

In other words:

  • What am I focused on right now?
  • Why am I choosing to focus on this instead of on something else?
  • Am I focusing on what’s actually happening, or on what I want or don’t want to happen?

That may sound easy, but it can be quite challenging to keep our attention focused where we want it to be. Nobody is 100% mindful all the time. I’m lucky my husband is such a gentleman because he could tell you a lot of stories about my less-than-mindful moments!

How Do We Practice Mindfulness?

There are basically two ways to practice mindfulness. 

  • Formal practice, or mindfulness meditation, means setting aside a certain period of time to just be present.
  • Informal mindfulness practice means paying full attention to whatever is happening right now in this moment. You can do just about anything mindfully, from washing the dishes to walking the dog.

Not everyone uses the word ‘mindfulness’ to express this state of awareness. For example, when mindfulness coach Florenza Lee was growing up, her grandma used to tell her, “We cannot stop birds from flying over our heads, but we most certainly can stop them from building nests in our hair.”

Psychologist Melissa Sutor also first learned about mindfulness from her grandma.

"We’d listen to the crickets and the birds and the wind in the trees, and it was beautiful to just connect with myself, with nature, and with my sister and my grandmother. We were practicing just being. Come to find out, years later—wow!—that’s mindfulness." (Mindful magazine)

Mindfulness is for everyone, but it isn't one size fits all.  You'll find a variety of perspectives on the Interviews page and the Resources for Practicing and Teaching Mindfulness.

If you found this information useful, you might also be interested in the following posts: 

About the Author

Catharine Hannay is the founder of and the author of Being You: A Girl’s Guide to Mindfulness, a workbook for teen girls on mindfulness, compassion, and self-acceptance.