Mindfulness is a much talked about practice these days, but it has been around for thousands of years. Mindfulness can be a formal or informal practice, which is weaved into our day. It does not need to involve a quiet sitting meditation, but that can be a good way to get some practice. Mindfulness certainly does not require us to push away thoughts or negative feelings, in fact, it is about being aware of what is happening in the moment and bringing awareness to our feelings, thoughts, sensations and environments.
For me, mindfulness has been the most powerful tool that I have as an occupational therapist.
Over the last 18 years, it has helped me manage my own work stress, be more present with my clients and been a tool I now teach to my clients and other occupational therapists.
The simplest way for me to understand it, is that mindfulness has three parts:
Intention: Set an intention for what you want to put your attention on (for example, your breathing, the sounds of nature as you walk, or the feeling of warm water on your hands as you wash them).
Attention: Notice where your attention is. If it is not on your intention, can you gently bring it back to your intention?
Attitude: How are you handling it when your attention wonders? How do you speak to yourself? Can you let go of judgements?
The practice of mindfulness can be a formal or informal practice. If we are doing our daily occupations with a mindfulness attitude, that would be an informal practice. When we plan time in our day to do a mindfulness meditation, that would be a formal practice.
What does formal mindfulness look like?
To do a mindfulness meditation, we can be in any position. Typically, we are either sitting, standing, lying or walking. We then chose a focus (intention) such as the breath, sounds in the room or sensations in the body. We notice where our attention is and bring it back to our intention as often as needed. In fact, the bringing of our attention back is the practice, and sometimes we have hundreds of opportunities in a short meditation. This is best done for a fixed amount of time.
Mindfulness is about increasing our awareness of what is present now. That means that it is not necessarily relaxing. However, over time, the practice can help us manage stressful or painful situations with more skill.
What does informal mindfulness look like?
'Mindful doing' is the practice of paying attention to the present moment, while doing daily activities. This means connecting to an activity and curiously noticing what is happening around and within you with your senses while doing it, without judgement. It can be a way to practice slowing yourself down, to experience the world around you in more detail. Some examples:
How does an orange feel under your thumb as you start to peel it?
What is the smell of the food that you are eating – what is the texture like in your mouth?
What do the bubbles look like as you start to wiggle your fingers together when washing your hands?
What are the sounds like as you pull a tap on to start a shower?
What is something you notice about your experience in the present moment while sitting at a red light or in a waiting room – what is there to notice?
What are the benefits of practicing?
There is significant research evidence available which has shown benefits to mindfulness practice for people dealing with stress, pain, sleep difficulties, mood disorders and focus issues. For us as OTs, it can help us manage stress, avoid burnout, develop compassion and be more present with our clients.
How do I start?
For most people, it is helpful to establish a formal mindfulness practice. This can help us build our “mindfulness muscles” and make it easier to bring a mindful attitude to other parts of our day. Perhaps you could set aside a few minutes each day to start investigating your breathing. Can you notice when the inhale changes to an exhale? Where do you feel your breathing?
As a starting informal practice, you may want to try choosing one short activity in your day and bringing your full attention to it. The opportunities for mindfulness practice are truly endless!
It is important to realize that, while mindfulness is simple, it is not easy. Putting it into practice can make us realize that we have more fatigue, pain or difficult emotions than we realized. It can be hard to find the time and space and know what practices to try. The research which outlines the positive benefits is based on people who have participated in an 8-week course with a trained teacher (2 hours a week, plus home practice). While you can begin the practice right now, you may benefit from a more in-depth course which allows you to ask questions and bring up challenges.
If you are interested in learning more about mindfulness, I have developed an interactive course especially for occupational therapists (and student OTs and OTAs). The 8-week course involves a mix of pre-recorded teachings and weekly group meetings. This course focuses first of supporting you to develop a personal connection to mindfulness and then use it as a tool to support your work. You can learn more at www.sarahgoodOT.ca.
Sarah Good is an occupational therapist and mindfulness teacher, offering services throughout Ontario, Canada. She also supports occupational therapists who want to weave mindfulness into their practices.