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You may have noticed that there’s a mindfulness revolution happening right now. The topic has made the cover of TIME magazine, been featured on 60 Minutes, and is frequently mentioned in major news outlets.
It seems as if everyone — from professional athletes to politicians — is practicing mindfulness. This philosophy was introduced into medicine more than 30 years ago, and today, mindfulness classes can be found in many major companies (like Google and General Mills), the government, the military, and even schools.
Mindfulness is a particular way of paying attention. It’s focused on the present moment and on noticing and releasing judgments. It’s practiced with an attitude of curiosity and, if possible, kindness. Anything can be done mindfully — it’s all about where and how you place your awareness.
You can practice mindfulness right now. As you breathe in, let the physical sensation of breathing get your full attention. Be curious about what breathing feels like, and stay with that physical sensation for a few moments. By doing so, you will be able to inhabit the present moment and focus on sensing instead of thinking. It’s often our thoughts, and the emotions and physical sensations that go along with the stressful thoughts in particular, that cause problems for us.
Another way you can practice mindfulness is to stop and notice which sounds are around you right now. Maybe even close your eyes for a minute or two and just focus on hearing surrounding noises. You can also be mindful about physical sensations in your body, like the feeling of your feet on the floor or the backs of your legs against a chair.
When you try paying attention to sensations in this way, it is not uncommon to become distracted by sporadic thoughts or emotions. If this happens to you, don’t fret. Notice the passing thought, and then redirect your attention back to the present moment and the sensation you chose to focus on.
With mindfulness, we can start to notice how our thoughts may be creating stress, and, over time, develop a different and calmer way of relating to life. Neuroscience research has shown us that a regular mindfulness practice changes both the structure and function of the brain. Much like a body transforming through exercise, a brain is able to change through dedicated focus.
“Imagine empowering your mind to actually strengthen your brain and give you more freedom in your life. That’s what learning to have mindful awareness can do for you. Getting more flexible, having more fun, and even strengthening your ability to pay attention and avoid distractions are all what research has proven as the positive outcomes of mindfulness training,” says Daniel Siegel, M.D., author of The Mindful Brain, The Developing Mind, and The Whole-Brain Child.
Studies have shown that mindfulness can be effective in helping students feel calmer, have higher self-esteem, and empathize with others. The research also shows that mindfulness can help students cope with symptoms of anxiety, depression, or ADHD. It can even help students deal with test anxiety. Research also suggests that students who practice mindfulness exhibit fewer conduct and anger-management problems in the classroom than the rest of their cohort.
If you want to read more about mindfulness for teens/kids or in education in general, you can find resources at the Association for Mindfulness in Education website.
Practicing mindfulness on a regular basis is much more important than reading about it — and you can begin now. If you need help getting started, Mindful Schools also provides you with guided mindfulness exercises that can help you begin this practice. Another helpful resource is the site’s free 40-minute movie about mindfulness in education, Healthy Habits of Mind, which shows some mindfulness practices and the neuroscience behind them.
If you’re curious about mindfulness and want to explore, I suggest you practice every day (or at least on most days of the week) for several weeks. In addition to the resources above, there are many more free, guided practices on YouTube, iTunes, and Noodle.
You may not notice anything dramatic happening at first, but the effects of mindfulness are cumulative. Over time, most people who practice regularly experience some of the benefits mentioned above. This simple practice can help you stay centered and grounded in today’s fast-paced world.