Writer: Erin Lee
As someone whose work involves encouraging people to devote time and attention to practicing mindfulness every day, I get the following question a lot:
"How will I know if mindfulness is working for me?"
And I get it. Keeping up with our mindfulness practice takes time and effort, and we want to know if it's worth what we are investing. If we are not reaping the benefits of mindfulness, why should we practice it?
Although we advocate an attitude of non-striving with mindfulness, so that the attachment towards a desired outcome doesn't get in the way of our practice of taking each moment as it unfolds, it is still important that we witness the positive change it brings to our life. Positive change is how we know with certainty and confidence that we are practicing mindfulness in a way that works for us.
Since mindfulness is primarily a practice of self-observation, we should be able to observe the corresponding effects of our practice in everyday life. If you're not experiencing any positive change, you're probably not practicing mindfulness effectively enough.
It might be helpful to know that positive change does not necessarily mean that you feel more positive or happier all the time. Besides noticing shifts in your emotional landscape, you might also pay attention to behavioural changes that indicate your way of life is healthier and wiser.
Here are some signs that suggest your practice is working well for you:
1. You find yourself slowing down.
It's actually hard not to slow down when we are being mindful. When we intentionally attend to ourselves and our surroundings, the mind intuitively relaxes and slows down to observe what is happening in our experience, and the body tends to follow. You may find yourself slowing down in your pace of walking, eating, and speaking, and in the way you approach certain tasks (such as household chores or self-care routines) that don't necessarily require speed.
2. You find yourself pausing more often.
While nothing externally has changed and you are still bound to the same hectic schedule of back-to-back meetings and endless list of things to do, you may find yourself remembering to take a pause in between activities or catching your breath before the next task begins, as a way to slow down and recalibrate before moving forward again. You might also catch yourself pausing more often before responding to situations, making decisions, or engaging in behaviours - this is generally an indicator of reduced reactivity or impulsivity.
3. You stay mindful even while you are going fast.
Mindful living doesn't mean that your life is slow all the time. In moments where things are happening fast or have to go fast, you find that you are able to employ the skills of mindfulness and stay present with your experience. While someone without mindfulness tends to operate on autopilot especially when things are moving quickly, you are able to remain alert and in the know of what is going on inside and outside of you, and respond constructively and make wise decisions.
4. You are less likely to swing to extremes.
Being mindful of how we interact with our experiences allows us to clearly see the root cause of our unhappiness, which is when we stubbornly chase after what feels good and futilely resist what feels bad. As you progress with your mindfulness practice, you may notice a desire for more balance and less tendencies of swinging to extreme moods, perspectives, or ways of living. You frequently check in with yourself to ensure you are not easily overwhelmed by the highs and lows of life.
5. You recover more quickly from setbacks and emotional reactivity.
All those moments of practice and learning to rest with uncomfortable experiences were not all for nothing. Even though you still meet with stress and difficulty, you may find yourself recovering more quickly than before from an upsetting episode. While something used to bother you for weeks, you perhaps notice yourself returning to a more balanced state of mind in just a few days or even hours. You become more mentally resilient and you are less likely to dwell in or get taken over by your thoughts and emotions.
6. You are aware of others as much as yourself.
Even though the practice of mindfulness starts with self-awareness, your scope of attention naturally extends to your external environment and the people you interact with. Besides becoming more in tuned with how others are feeling, you are also more conscious of how they impact you and how you might impact them in return. Such awareness usually changes the way you choose to engage with people, and fosters healthier, more meaningful relationships.
7. You become more thoughtful and considerate.
Mindful living reminds us that we do not exist independently in this world, and to consider ourselves as a part of the larger ecosystem in which we function. When we truly understand this, we become more thoughtful about the effects of our behaviours, and work towards minimizing any adverse effects we have on the environment we inhabit. You may notice a shift in how you function from day to day, and more deliberately consider the impact of your decisions on your surroundings as well as on other people. You may also see your actions reaching beyond your immediate environment to impact the wider community. One example might be holding yourself accountable for the information and comments you put out on social media, with the consideration of how people you don't know might be affected.
8. You don't stop practicing.
Anyone who is truly invested in mindful living will know that mindfulness doesn't serve well as a treatment or a quick pill for our unhappiness, but works better as a preventative approach in maintaining good health and wellbeing. As you observe the above positive changes to your life, you will find yourself ever more committed to sustaining your daily practice of mindfulness, because the last thing you want is to neglect and lose the skills that have supported you in navigating life more successfully. You constantly remind yourself to keep practicing and you may also find ways to deepen your practice through lifelong learning.
At this point, it may be helpful to know that for most mindfulness practitioners, our path towards better living may not progress in a linear way. There will be days when you feel like you are regressing in your practice and relapsing into old patterns, even though you know they no longer serve you.
Remember that old habits die hard, and you don't have to beat yourself up over making an impulsive decision, or reacting towards someone's behaviour, or even missing a session of mindfulness practice. Know that you are not the same person as before. Make an intention to recall the positive changes you have observed about your life, remind yourself of your potential for the next stage of transformation, and then simply return to your practice.
What else have you observed about yourself and your life that tells you mindfulness is working? Feel free to share in the comments of this article, or in the niàn forum.