When was the last time you did nothing? I mean absolutely nothing.
The other day I was asked to do just that. As our team prepares to get started on a new research protocol, I agreed to play the role of study participant in a staff training of the protocol’s procedures. My job was simply to stay awake, to breathe and be present while resting on a bed in a dimly lit room.
I imagined that this would be a relaxing break from the hectic workday. Instead, my mind raced and I felt little control over the thoughts swirling in my head. “Why am I so bad at this?,” I thought. But then I realized: when do I ever take the time to simply be? Practically never. Even in my “down” time, I tend to entertain myself with the TV, my smartphone, or my Kindle.
In a world of rushed commutes and shortened lunch breaks, the concept of doing nothing feels overwhelming and wasteful. But the practice of mindfulness meditation, which calls on us to focus on being present in the moment and nothing else, is far from useless. Scientific studies suggest that a routine mindfulness meditation practice helps to promote cardiovascular health, brain connectivity, mental health, stress reduction, and happiness. Plus, the benefits clearly outweigh the costs: research studies typically ask participants to do no more than 30 minutes of mindfulness meditation daily!
If you struggle with poor body image or tend to be overly critical of yourself in general, mindfulness may help to quiet or change your inner monologue. Its goal is to enhance holistic awareness of the body and the mind and to meet the experience with acceptance rather than judgment. Meditation promotes exposure to body image beliefs and sensations. According to the basic principles of mindfulness, all experiences –positive, negative, or neutral—are tolerated, not acted upon. In a group of women with disordered eating behavior, mindfulness practice was associated with a decrease in concern about body shape and weight and an improved ability to think flexibly (rather than in all-or-nothing terms).
There are many forms of mindfulness practice, including breathing exercises, moving meditation (e.g., gentle yoga), guided imagery based scripts, or body scans. These practices can translate into how you go about the business of everyday life in a variety of ways. But mindfulness itself is only a concept until you experience it yourself. To give it a try consider resources including: (1) the UCLA Mindfulness Awareness Research Center, which offers a variety of brief, guided meditations at no cost, (2) the applications available for smartphones and tablets, such as Calm, which allows for personalization of images, sounds, and length of meditation, or (3) the seminal works of Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., developer of an evidence-based approach called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (or, watch him in action).
As you get down to the business of “simply” being, remember: mindfulness meditation practice is called a practice for a reason—it takes practice. Do not be discouraged if you struggle the first few times. Instead, be mindful of your struggle and consider that the beginning of your journey.