Mind Over Matter: The Skill of Mindfulness

By Kate Bennett, PsyD

Last week, I spent time at a team camp in Tucson. And, for the very first time in the history of my trips to Tucson, I drove up Mt. Lemmon. Over the past several years, I pedaled up the mountain countless times focusing on power output or coaching athletes. This time, I sat in a car and took in Mt. Lemmon as an observer. It was my first mindful experience of the road.

As I navigated the mountain, I reveled in the natural beauty glowing during the sunset as well as braced myself for moments of squinting into the sun’s glare as I rounded a bend not knowing what would come next. The drive was a grind, just like life. It was filled with moments of peace and pleasure that were frequently offset by the setting sun and unfamiliar road. As I prepared myself for the next blinding glare, I took a deep breath and practiced mindfulness. Likewise, as I entered into the shade, I took a deep breath and reminded myself to enjoy the natural beauty of the mountain landscape.

During the drive I realized one thing: I frequently reference mindfulness but I have yet to actually discuss the skill on my blog. Today is the day. Let’s take a moment to conceptualize mindfulness as a skill.

What is mindfulness? Mindfulness is a common term with a simple definition: Awareness of the present moment or deliberate attention in the present moment. It is the opposite of autopilot (completing routine tasks without conscious recollection). When people refer to “grounding,” they refer to the idea of mindfully connecting with that very moment instead of worrying about the past or future. Mindfulness is attending to the stimuli right in front of you rather then analyzing, criticizing, planning, or daydreaming.

Skill. While mindfulness is a seemingly simple concept, it is often a difficult skill to practice: It requires developing a part of your brain that has yet to be “exercised” (unless you were influenced by mindfulness earlier in life). Like strengthening a muscle or acquiring a new technique, mindfulness requires conscious attention. Similar to the hard work you put in to excel as an athlete physically, you need to intentionally practice the skill to develop a mindful brain and derive benefit.

Acceptance. One of the key components of mindfulness is a non-judgmental stance. When you are mindfully engaged, there is no good or bad, right or wrong, should or should not. Acceptance does not equate to approval (you can accept an outcome without approving of it) but it does mean letting go of judgment.

Present awareness + acceptance. Rather than get stuck on a mistake or outcome, you move onto the next moment in time. The past provides feedback on how to modify or change, it is not meant to linger on. Identify the important data from an experience and then ground yourself. Let go of judgment, allow uncertainty about the future to flow through, and settle into the present moment.

Practice. The development of mindfulness as a skill requires intentional practice of deliberate attention. Start with a realistic expectation of a few minutes and identify a stimulus to observe:

Breath: Observe your breath as you inhale and exhale, notice your chest rise and fall

Bodily Sensation: Observe your body, notice areas of tightness or relaxation, areas of warmth, and sensations of tingling

Sensory: Observe the environment by connecting with your five sensations (sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell)

Emotion: Observe your emotions in the moment

As you practice mindfulness, you will most likely notice your mind wander off. That is okay. Simply take note of your wandering mind and ground yourself by observing one of the stimuli described above. In the early stages of mindfulness, it is common to notice your mind wandering more than observing. Accept your wandering mind non-judgmentally and ground yourself back in the moment.

Over time, as you develop skill and discipline, you will notice your improved ability to remain mindful for longer periods of time as well as a new ability to practice mindfulness during stressful periods. The result: Improved health, performances, life satisfaction, relationships, and sleep to name a few benefits.

When was the last time you sat in a car and observed your surroundings instead of reviewing mental checklists, texting at stoplights, checking your email, or having a conversation with [insert name] in your head?