Try this exercise. Start by getting into a comfortable position: sit upright, feet flat on the floor, with your arms resting at each side. Begin with several slow deep breaths, and then allow your breathing to fall into a natural ebb and flow. Bring your awareness to the sensation of breathing. Notice your breath as it comes in through your nose, floods into your lungs, and flows out your mouth. Invite your full attention to follow your breath as you repeat.
If you didn’t already know, you just participated in a mindfulness practice.
In the present day, mindfulness has become a buzz-word in the self-care community. Data from Google Trends shows a sharp increase in searches over the last 10 years, but mindfulness has ancient roots in cultures around the world.
The buzz began in the West when Jon Kabat-Zinn pioneered mindfulness-based stress reduction in 1979. His work is the basis for what we know today: practicing mindfulness can help you manage difficult emotions, cope with stressors and feel more present in your day to day life.
Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.”
Math department chair John Mitchell has been practicing mindfulness for about 10 years, and after five years he now leads workshops and evening classes around campus. Mitchell has been trained through the Koru training program out of Duke University, an evidence-based program for teaching mindfulness to college students and young adults.
“We only have a finite amount of time in our lives, and what we attend to in that time is really the sum total of our life,” Mitchell said. “If we are checked out, in some sense we miss that time. The things we remember are the meaningful experiences that we were truly attentive to.”
Mitchell said that practicing mindfulness can take many forms. It can be a formal practice, like a guided meditation, or it can be integrated into something as simple as doing chores.
“Can you see what it’s like to wash dishes, and actually notice the sensations of washing dishes, as opposed to just seeing it as a task that you edit out because it’s not very interesting?” Mitchell challenged.
Beth Van Buecken, licensed marriage and family therapist in the counseling and health center, echoed that practicing mindfulness doesn’t need to be a formal thing. She said it’s all about how students can weave it into their busy lives.
“A lot of times, I’m working with students on how to incorporate small aspects,” Van Buecken said. “Like deep breathing, resettling into your body before a test, or tuning into yourself when you’re having a difficult conversation with your partner.”
Van Buecken said she likes to start by talking to students about the basic concepts of mindfulness, of understanding your thoughts and feelings, and the ability to manage those from moment to moment.
“I think most people understand that when they feel calm and more in control of their choices, they’re able to be more successful in life and relationships, and I think that resonates with most people,” Van Buecken said.
Clark career adviser Trisha Haakonstad, is someone who’s had firsthand experience with mindfulness. In 2009, after practicing yoga for years, Haakonstad decided she wanted to further her yoga practice and become a certified instructor.
“It was through that process that I became a little bit more familiar with mindfulness, but I couldn’t say that I was a daily mindfulness practice user,” Haakonstad said.
Years later, Haakonstad found herself at a particularly stressful point in life. So, a friend recommended she take an eight week course on mindfulness-based stress reduction through OHSU.
“I was a little bit hesitant at the time because I was working a full-time job, and I wasn’t sure if I was really ready for that type of commitment,” Haakonstad said. “But I was willing to do anything to have a better sense of well-being.”
After just the first class, Haaksonstad said she felt a slight sense of relief. From that day on, she was hooked.
“I noticed that transformation and that shift and I was like ‘if I can have that small shift from that one experience, I wonder how much more might be able to change,’ ” Haakonstad said.
At the end of the eight-week program, Haakonstad felt her anxiety decrease and a greater sense of well-being. Haakonstad said mindfulness has helped her be more effective in her work, her relationships, and in her personal life. This is what led her to develop a student success workshop on mindfulness-based stress reduction.
“I just felt like it was needed here, and I wanted to spread the word to students in our community about this tool that could potentially help them navigate their school experience,” Haakonstad said.
For students interested in learning more, Van Buecken shared some of the resources available. There are mindfulness centered student success workshops every quarter, mindfulness courses through the Clark Economic and Community Development program, and Clark students are eligible for free therapy sessions through the Counseling and Health center.
“There’s lots of resources out there,” Van Buecken said. “There’s lots of apps that give people something structured like a teacher leading you.”
“I think for other people, maybe that are experiencing a lot of anxiety or trouble sitting still with their thoughts, moving mindfulness works better,” Van Buecken said. “You just have to find what works for you.”
Van Buecken explained that just like any skill, mindfulness is cultivated through practice. She encouraged students to be non-judgmental and kind to themselves as they attempt it.
“Often when people start mindfulness practices, they can experience a lot of self-critical thoughts that they’re not doing it right,” Van Buecken said. “Just learning to be present and to tolerate your thoughts and feelings is really complicated, and it’s really normal.”