POV: The benefits of mindful living
The importance of maintaining mental health seems to be a universal endeavor that we often ignore or set aside until the metaphorical battery of our lives starts to run low, at which point we run for the nearest outlet looking for a recharge. The capacity to improve and maintain good health is fundamental to our overall quality of life. However, being “mentally healthy” can be difficult to define, even amongst behavioral scientists—and that’s their job. Even when we define mental health in our personal lives, it can be difficult for us to personify or embody that within everyday life.
You may ask yourself, How exactly do I go about promoting mental health? How does that even look or feel? How on earth do I find the time? I mean, who wouldn’t want to feel less stressed and more relaxed? Certainly, we would all welcome the lessening of burdens that, without a doubt, life will place squarely on our shoulders. But where do we begin? One of the essential lessons I have learned, both personally and professionally as a clinical psychologist, is that living a healthy life does not spontaneously combust into existence. It requires deliberate and continuous effort. This means making a habit of living healthy is a choice, and we must actively choose to promote it.
One simple and practical way to help improve the quality of my mental life is through cultivating a healthy and resilient mindset simply by the practice of paying attention, or being mindful. Mindfulness involves placing our attention on self-awareness in the present moment, or the “here-and-now.” Not only does mindfulness provide a useful tool for promoting a happier, healthier lifestyle, it is also simple, accessible and—best of all—costs nada.
That’s it, folks. It is that simple. There is no joining of a monastery, years of meditation or chanting of mantras required. These are all adequate ways of practicing mindfulness, but the simple act of self-awareness seems to be a natural state of the mind and requires no one particular or specific technique in order to engage in present-moment awareness.
The quality of our thoughts determines the quality of our mental experiences. Naturally we can see that our mental states create the subjective experience we refer to as “self.” Through self-awareness, mindfulness strengthens not only our mental capacity to be resilient but also our capacity to attend optimally when dealing with whatever life throws our way. So, whether you’re peacefully meditating or in the middle of a chaotic day, mindfulness can help re-center one’s awareness and help you be your best. Additionally, the immediate and long-term effects of mindfulness promote a mind that functions better, is more emotionally stable and overall mentally healthy.
A common misconception of mindfulness is that the goal is to promote a relaxed state of mind, or that picturesque images of nature should be passing through the mind’s eye like some mindfulness screen saver. However, the actual practice of mindfulness more accurately deals with the deliberate cultivation of present moment self-awareness. The goal is simply being self-observant in the always present, always-changing, here-and-now. So, whatever that is for you, if it’s happening now, you’re doing it right!
One simple and easy way to start practicing mindfulness is to start off small. For starters, practicing mindfulness for just one minute sounds doable and can help build familiarity and still have benefit. So, if you’re interested in starting your own mindfulness routine, the next time you have one minute, I encourage you to try this mindful listening exercise. If you like, it’s fine to set a timer, but the idea is just to start of small and gradually increase one’s capacity to be mindfully present.
Start off simply by closing your eyes and allowing yourself to hear all the sounds around you. Take a moment to really just immerse yourself in all the sounds going on around you. There is no need to label what you hear, don’t try and identify anything, just listen. Let the sounds just play on your ears and just listen. That’s it. After your minute of mindful listening check-in with yourself on the quality of your experience. What did you notice? What sounds did you hear? Were there any sounds you attended to that maybe you were previously unaware of? One minute of mindful listening can be a great illustration of how being in the present moment enriches our experiences. This simple practice is a great way to start practicing mindfulness.
The only other requirement of mindfulness is the manner in which self-awareness is cultivated: that is non-judgmentally and with a great sense of self compassion. In essence, we learn to cut ourselves some slack and allow ourselves to just be. I believe this, above all else, to be the most fundamental to living mindfully, because through cultivating a life of non-judgment and self-compassion, we cultivate a capacity to show ourselves kindness.
Isaac Saldivar, PhD, is a psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry at the Texas A&M University College of Medicine and Texas A&M Health Telebehavioral Care. He has a wide range of experience in clinical psychology, having worked with both adolescents and adults. He holds professional memberships in the National Latino Psychological Association (NLPA), the American Psychological Association (APA), the Hispanic Graduate Student Association (HGSA) and the Education Psychology Student Organization (EPSO).