Mindfulness: The Practice of Living Breath by Breath

Helen MacDonald

Jon Kabat-Zinn, a leader in the field of mindfulness, describes mindfulness as, “paying attention in a particular way… on purpose, nonjudgmentally, and with acceptance.” Living mindfully is simple, but not easy. Practicing mindfulness means being attentive to what is happening in this moment, without judging your experience, and without trying to change anything. Just being aware. When I teach, I often ask my students to approach our class sessions mindfully. It’s hard to attend only to the present moment—to the experience that we’re having right now, without being distracted by worries or thoughts, emails or texts.

My research finds that college students who report greater mindfulness skills are less depressed, stressed, and anxious. Students who are more mindful are also better able to control their emotional responses, instead of reacting impulsively. They demonstrate greater empathy—a better ability to put themselves in someone else’s shoes and imagine what someone is going through from that person’s own perspective. I like the idea that through mindfulness practice—training our attention on the present without judgement—we may work towards being more connected and becoming our best selves.

Here are a few ideas for incorporating a mindfulness practice into your life:

1. Practice gratitude:

Notice moments throughout the day that bring you pleasure. These experiences can be brief—laughing with a friend—or they can be longer—watching a movie, or attending a concert. Practice becoming aware of those moments in which you feel pleasure and what thoughts and feelings these experiences elicit. Most important here is simply noticing these moments and attending to them when they are happening. You might try writing down three moments of gratitude at the end of each day. The experience of attending to what is happening in the present, and bringing awareness to what you are thinking and feeling in these moments, this is mindfulness.

“Practicing mindfulness means being attentive to what is happening in this moment, without judging your experience, and without trying to change anything. Just being aware.”

Helen MacDonald, Associate Professor of Psychology

2. Eat mindfully

Try eating a meal, or even a few bites of a meal, without doing anything else. Eat without talking with others, without checking your phone, and without watching a show. Take breaks between bites, and, if you can, experiment with putting your fork down after each bite. Notice what the food you’re eating tastes like, smells like, looks like. Notice what you feel when you eat.

3. Breathe

Explore breath meditation. This is a simple practice that involves sitting or lying quietly, closing your eyes if that’s comfortable for you, and focusing on your breath. Focus on your breath, really noticing where you feel your breath the most vividly. It may be the gentle flow of air in and out of the nose, or the rise and fall of the chest, or the abdomen, or it may be the whole body breathing. Just notice that area, and notice what it feels like to breathe. No need to try and change anything about the experience of breathing. If you find yourself becoming distracted or find your mind beginning to wander, know that that’s completely normal, and you can notice this, and then return attention to your breath. In this practice, let your breath be your anchor—something that you can always return to in moments of stress, anxiety, or difficulty. Bringing awareness to the breath can help you to feel grounded in the present. This process of noticing, and returning attention to the breath, again and again, this is the practice.

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Helen MacDonald
Helen MacDonald

Helen Z. MacDonald is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Emmanuel College. She received her B.A. in English and Psychology from Wellesley College, and her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Boston University. She worked at the National Center for PTSD at the Boston VA for five years after graduate school, where she was introduced to the power of mindfulness as a therapeutic practice for Veterans with PTSD. She lives in Brookline, Massachusetts with her husband, Paul, and their three young children, who live each moment in the present and are a constant source of inspiration in mindfulness and attention.