Your mindfulness practice can be formal or informal

Research shows the practice of mindfulness has many positive health benefits.

While mindfulness is not a new idea, more than ever healthcare providers, social workers and educators are talking about the promising benefits of this ancient practice. According to the University of Massachusetts Medical School - Center for Mindfulness, more than 35 years of research shows positive benefits of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) approaches on people’s physical and mental health—including helping people navigate anxiety, depression and chronic pain. For children, youth and adults, research suggests that the practice of mindfulness improves the immune system—as well as increases gray matter in the brain involved with memory processes, emotional regulation, empathy and perspective taking. 

Mindfulness is a process of active, open, nonjudgmental awareness. It is paying attention in the present moment with openness, curiosity, kindness and flexibility. When some of us think about mindfulness, it conjures up images of sitting for hours in silent meditation. While formal sitting meditation is one way of practicing mindfulness, there are many formal and informal ways people can use to integrate mindfulness into their lives in order to reap the health benefits. 

The formal practice of mindfulness includes an intentional commitment of time (anywhere from one minute to 45 minutes or more almost every day). These practices invite us to dwell with awareness on one thing—kind of like gently coming home to one moment—which might include our breath, an aspect of sensation or stillness or a focus on our whole body. Practicing formal mindfulness changes our brains in ways that help us to bring mindfulness to our daily life.  Examples of formal mindfulness practice that are part of approaches like MBSR include:

Sitting meditation: Sitting (or standing) upright with your heart open in a strong but relaxed way for several minutes just “being” and experiencing stillness. Practice noticing your thoughts, emotions and sensations with curious, open, compassionate, nonjudgmental awareness.

Awareness of breath: Gently guiding your focus solely to your breath as you naturally breathe in and out—allowing your breath and your awareness to be expansive. You may find it helpful to bring your attention to receiving and releasing. For example, breathing in and receiving hope, peace and joy…….breathing out and releasing anger, pain and suffering.  

Walking meditation: Experiencing your feet making contact with the earth with each step that you take and noticing the sensations in your body. For those who don’t use their feet for mobility, this is can be a moving meditation with a focus on what you’re experiencing and noticing as you move in your chair or other adaptive device.

Eating meditation: Focusing mindfully on a raisin or other piece of food as you fully experience the smell, texture, taste and other sensations of the food as you eat it very slowly.

Pleasant/Unpleasant: Noticing with interest, openness and curiosity the physical and emotional sensations around you. Noticing what you experience as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral and gently nodding or acknowledging in your mind to your awareness of that.

Sensory-guided meditations: Paying attention very intentionally to what you’re hearing, touching, smelling, tasting and/or seeing in an open, nonjudgmental and expansive way.

Body scans: Slowly and intentionally scanning your body with your mind focusing from the top of your head to the tips of your toes and radiating out from your heart space. The focus is on being relaxed and aware as you reclaim a connection (rather than resistance) to your body and the sensations that you feel. If you’re experiencing pain, for example, the practice is to notice the sensation and not try to block it—practicing noticing rather than judging—practicing being comfortable with the uncomfortable.

Yoga: The integration of mind, body and spirit through breath, poses, flow, movement and mindfulness. Yoga often includes a strong focus on letting go of resistance and grasping while accepting where our minds, hearts and bodies are with patience, acceptance and love.

All of these formal practices can also be adapted into informal practice or “everyday mindfulness.” When we practice mindfulness in a more informal way we are noticing our experience from moment to moment and bringing our attention to one thing as many times as we can throughout the day. Informal practices of mindfulness can include:

Washing dishes: Notice the water and feel the sensation of the warmth, the bubbles and your hands on the dishes. Slow your movements down and pause for a moment and pay attention to each piece you’re washing.

Noticing nature: Listen to the sounds of the birds, the frogs or the leaves rustling in the trees as you walk by. If you live in the city, listen to the sounds of cars going by or the voices of people as they walk by your window.

Listening: Listen deeply to people in your life with an open heart and mind. Practice not giving advice and just listen and allow people to be where they are. Listen with gentle, open focus on the laughter of people you care about.

Showering: Feel the sensations and warmth of the water. Listen to the sound of the spray of the water around you. Notice your thoughts and feelings as you take in the entire experience of the shower. 

Driving: Pay attention with focused attention on what you see, the feel of the steering wheel in your hands and what you’re hearing around you. Relax your shoulders and notice what you’re feeling and experiencing as you mindfully drive.

Parenting: Pause as much as possible and bring your full intention and attention to your parenting. Research shows that mindfulness can strengthen our parenting skills and impact our children in positive ways. 

Movement: While walking out of your home, going into your workplace, walking up the stairs or during any other movement throughout your day, bring your focus to the sensations in your body.

Self-Compassion: Notice when you’re being harsh and judgmental with yourself and guide your thoughts toward self-compassion

Breathing: Your breath is always with you and you don’t need a formal practice to benefit from breath awareness. Pausing at any time throughout our day to connect to our breath and noticing ourselves inhaling and exhaling is an important part of informal as well as formal mindfulness practice.

Mindfulness is not a “technique” or about learning “stress management.” It’s a way of living that is in every one of us. We all have the capacity to practice mindfulness in our daily lives. Practicing formal and/or informal mindfulness as often as we can helps us to learn the skills we need for our overall health and wellbeing when the stakes are low. That way when the stakes are high—during difficult times of change, pain, reactivity, stress, grief or trauma we can draw on these tools, skills and practices to help us respond in ways that are lined up with our deepest values and wisdom.

Michigan State University Extension provides resources, workshops and programs to help adults and youth develop social and emotional skills and practice mindfulness through programs like Stress Less with Mindfulness and Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments.  

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