girl with arms open in nature

I Don’t Know What Mindfulness Is: A Novel

Mindfulness is one of those mental health buzzwords that I’ve never fully understood. I’ve heard it plenty of times — perhaps too many times that it rarely has significant meaning to me anymore. I’ve definitely suggested mindfulness to others without having a clue as to what it actually means in practice, as I’m sure many self-care Instagram accounts have done as well. 


When I was seeing a counselor on Columbia’s campus, they routinely handed me a chart of coping mechanisms with suggestions such as practicing yoga, going for a walk, or phoning a friend. The phrase “practicing mindfulness” floated ominously in the middle of the chart. At the time, I was almost too embarrassed to ask what mindfulness even looked like in practice. Even though I didn’t fully understand it, I also didn’t buy it. The concept just seemed too simple. The word itself appears very straightforward. Mind. Ful(l). Ness. Even still, this was the one coping mechanism that always appeared least helpful to me because I just couldn’t figure it out. So I just have to think about things? In my mind? The place where my anxiety has set up camp indefinitely? Where do you go when your mind is the very place that is the problem?


Kristen Bryant-Girl Lounging Relax Logo 2 Kristen Bryant / Her Campus

According to the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, “mindfulness means maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment, through a gentle, nurturing lens.” This sounds … exhausting, to say the least. The average human may have 50,000 thoughts a day, perhaps even upwards of 80,000. Now imagine maintaining full control of them all. Is that even possible? This is where I think I have often missed the point. 


Mindfulness isn’t the stressful micromanagement that I may have initially imagined it to be. It could be as simple as catching myself in the middle of a spiraling train of thought. Like many people, I’ve experienced jarring moments of rejection. Suddenly, my mind is nose-diving into the pessimist train: I will never have the opportunity to try something like this ever again, this is the end for life, I will never go to graduate school or be published in a magazine or travel to Thailand or be successful or have a home or live comfortably or get married or not get married by my own happy decision or have children or adopt children or love children from afar or get a pet or care for other people’s pets or live period — all because I missed one opportunity that I happened to encounter by chance. Sounds a bit funky, doesn’t it? This is where mindfulness comes in. 


If you get a cramp in your leg, I doubt you would sit there in agony as it continued to tighten and suffocate a center of high stress and tension in your muscles. You would probably massage the area and relieve the discomfort. I’d say mindfulness is kind of like massaging your brain before your mind-cramp compromises your ability to function properly on a day-to-day basis. 


silhouette of woman doing yoga pose Kike Vega


One of the biggest practical applications of mindfulness is meditation, which seeks to achieve an active mental state that is also emotionally calm. Meditation is something I still find incredibly challenging, so I’ve found that short five-minute bursts of guided meditation on phone apps such as Waking Up and Headspace are most useful. In addition, taking a couple of minutes at the start of your day to inhale for four beats and exhale for eight beats can help activate your parasympathetic nervous system so your body feels more relaxed.


If you’re not a fan of meditation, there are plenty of practical applications to keep yourself mindful:

  1. Eat things that make you feel good! This suggestion is vague not to be annoying, but rather because everyone’s body is different! Foods that make me feel good might make you feel funky. Instead, eat intuitively! You know the foods that give you the shits, the shakes, or the shivers — eat things with intention and rationality.

  2. Cut down the multi-tasking. If you’re surfing the open tabs on your browser and working on multiple things, it might feel more grounding to harness your attention on one thing. Put your phone away when you’re talking to someone in person. Listen! Like really listen — don’t just anticipate what you will say next. If you’re eating a meal, don’t work through your lunch break! Let yourself digest. 

  3. Be present. This is something I’m still working on myself. How does one be present? Sometimes it can sound just as vague as mindfulness. But I’ve landed on some things when it comes to being present: when I’m getting bogged down by decisions I’ve made in the past or anxieties about the future, I try to remind myself of the people I have around me now and the things I can look forward to in real time. You miss out on people trying to love you when you’re constantly worrying about never being loved.

  4. Move with intention. Look up when you walk! Take your headphones out more often. Listen to your surroundings. Engage. Journal about something you encountered in your day. Check in with yourself at night and think about something you learned or loved about that day. 

  5. Scrutinize your decisions. Like Marie Kondo says: “Believe what your heart tells you when you ask, ‘Does this spark joy?’” Are you doing too many things out of obligation? Fear? Hesitation? Guilt? I always say that you are the only one who has to live in your mind at the end of the day. It is always most important that you are advocating for yourself and being faithful to your individual truth. 


a pink neon Max van den Oetelaar | Unsplash

I think mindfulness can look different in everyone and ultimately can mean a lot of different things. What I think it truly comes down to is living and feeling with conviction, as well as being honest with yourself. And you don’t ever have to call any one thing mindfulness — I think the word is a bit overused now anyway.