If boosting your health is among your New Year’s resolutions, consider this: There’s a free, universally accessible tool available now that’s been shown to enhance immune function, reduce inflammation, speed healing, lift mood, ease stress and improve focus.
What is this miracle tool, you may ask, and where can you get it?
It’s the innate capacity of mindfulness, defined as “paying attention to our present-moment experiences with openness and curiosity and a willingness to be with what is,” according to Diana Winston, PhD, director of mindfulness education at UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC). “It’s an intervention anyone can do. It doesn’t matter your background, your religion or your health condition.”
It just takes practice to cultivate.
Perhaps you already know mindfulness confers myriad health benefits, but who has the time or the discipline to meditate for hours a day? And even if you do manage to find some time, you discover that when you sit and close your eyes, instead of blissful escape, you find yourself mentally scanning your to-do list.
Neither long stretches of time nor banishing all thought are required to successfully practice mindfulness, says Marvin Belzer, PhD, associate director of MARC and a professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences.
“It’s not uncommon for people to have the idea that they’re supposed to be able to stop thinking and clear their mind of thoughts, just by deciding to – and talk about unnecessary failure,” Dr. Belzer says. “That’s a misconception. Even in the midst of thoughts, we can do things with our mind that are helpful.”
Spending hours quietly folded in a lotus pose also isn’t necessary. Dr. Belzer often encourages beginners to start with just a minute or two of practice, which can be done seated, standing or lying down.
Basics of mindfulness practice
Guided meditations can be useful for beginners. MARC offers free guided meditations on its website and app, UCLA Mindful, available in 14 languages besides English. Listening to a teacher provide instructions can help focus attention, and with practices available as short as three minutes, there’s no need to set a timer.
But you don’t need a guide or an app or a timer to start a mindfulness meditation practice. All you need are your breath, your senses and a willingness to try, Dr. Belzer says.
“Just focus on what you can hear, the ambient sounds, focus on sensations in your body, like the feel of the breath — and you can do that without magically stopping thoughts or stopping anything,” he says. “So the thoughts may be going on, and indeed thoughts will pull our attention away at times, too. And then one thought leads to another really fast and time goes by. And at some point, we realize it.”
That’s when you gently and non-judgmentally redirect your attention back to the sensation of sound or the feel of the breath moving in and out.
“We can practice not just being lost in one thought leading to another to another,” Dr. Belzer says. “So we notice we’re thinking. Often there will be emotion, stimulating some degree of anxiety, excitement, joy, fear. We include the feel of the emotion, recognize the feel of it in our body, and then simply come back to where we were trying to focus.”
It takes commitment
Like starting an exercise program or learning any new skill, beginning a mindfulness practice requires commitment.
You have to do the exercise to gain the benefits. You have to learn chords to play guitar. And you have to commit to taking time each day to practice mindfulness.
“It’s even easier than playing the guitar,” Dr. Belzer says. “It is something that, if we’re convinced it would be useful to try, then it takes some effort and determination to do it. In that sense, it’s quite similar to getting enough exercise or eating right.”
But mindfulness may be even more natural, because it comes with being human, he says: “Mindfulness is a capacity that we already have. We don’t have to create it.”
What mindfulness meditation practice does is connect us with that capacity, allowing us to deepen and refine it. It’s a practice of developing awareness of what is actually happening in the present moment — whether that’s thinking about your to-do list, feeling the discomfort of your foot falling asleep or noticing your belly expand and contract with each inhale and exhale — and being OK with it.
“You definitely can do this,” Dr. Belzer says. “And, lo and behold, there are really great effects from doing this for a while.”
Find out more about programs available through the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center.