Mindfulness for Skeptics

You don’t need to locate your third eye or learn Sanskrit to practice mindfulness; you just need to pay very close attention. Sounds crazy, right? I used to think so, too.
By Elizabeth Yuko
October 01, 2020

It was one of those rare occasions in school where we were allowed to sit on the floor, making it feel like a special day. Sitting with my legs crossed on the itchy industrial carpeting, I pressed my back up against the painted cinder block wall, which offered a cool reprieve from the stuffy classroom. I wanted to have perfect posture to show I was putting in the effort. It was 1993, and I was in the fourth grade at St. Helen Elementary School outside of Cleveland. Our guest was a Catholic monk named Father Justin who came to introduce us to meditation. 

But after closing my eyes as instructed, I couldn’t follow along with Father Justin’s words. No matter how hard I tried, my mind kept wandering to all of the things I was worried about: my upcoming report card, my grandmother’s health, whether my friends secretly hated me, my family’s financial situation, and whether my legs were folded tightly enough to hide my day-of-the-week underwear. It seemed like another form of Catholic penance—like it was supposed to be difficult and, in exchange, a few souls would be released from Purgatory. But when the lights came back on, I noticed everyone else seemed relaxed and refreshed—only I was nauseated and had ripped off my cuticles. 

As an adult, my therapist recommended mindfulness exercises to calm my out-of-control anxiety. Nothing clicked. How was paying attention to all the unpleasantness around me—and swirling inside my head—supposed to help get rid of it? It wasn’t until later, when I found myself on assignment in the woods in upstate New York, on a day when the windchill was negative 30 degrees, that it finally clicked.

What in the world is mindfulness?

A large part of my initial problem with meditation and mindfulness was that I didn’t understand anything about them: where they came from and how they can benefit both mind and body. The terms “mindfulness” and “meditation” are often used interchangeably, but that’s not quite accurate. As Chloe Carmichael, PhD, a clinical psychologist with expertise in mindfulness, tells me, mindfulness is one of several ways to practice meditation. “It’s like how waltz is a form of dance, but not all dance is about the waltz,” she explains.

Carmichael defines mindfulness as “the process of observing your thoughts in a neutral, nonreactive way.” This aspect of mindfulness took me the longest to grasp. The idea of noticing my thoughts in a nonjudgmental, neutral way seemed counterintuitive. She compares it to pointillism: Up close, a painting looks like a series of unrelated dots, but from a distance, those dots form a clear image.

Another way to look at it? “If mindfulness focuses on something, meditation generally focuses on nothing—trying to quiet the mind down to no thoughts,” says Scott Guerin, PhD, a psychologist and professor at Kean University.

Yeji Kim

When Guerin framed it this way, my negative experiences with traditional meditation suddenly made sense. My mind may be many different things, but it’s definitely not quiet. Trying to silence and empty my brain—and then being unable to do so—made me feel like a failure. 

It’s probably why I’m still not a fan of most types of meditation—and I’m fine with that. The important thing is that I’ve found a few forms of mindfulness that have proven to be useful tools over the last few, unusually challenging years. If, like me, you’re a mindfulness skeptic, but want to learn more, you’ve come to the right place.

Our attraction to the practice may actually be primal. “Some researchers say that it's like our brain was built for this, which is why every spiritual tradition in the world has some form of mindfulness at its core,” says Britt Andreatta, PhD, who uses her background in neuroscience, psychology, education, and leadership to create brain science-based solutions to today’s challenges, which frequently include mindfulness. “We're meant to be engaging in a mindful practice, but for some people—because they've gotten so disconnected from a spiritual tradition and/or are so busy and overwhelmed—it's needed now more than ever.”

Though mindfulness has surged in popularity in recent years, it has an incredibly long history, dating back thousands of years. Many religions—including Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—practice some form of mindfulness, but most evidence suggests that its oldest roots lie in Buddhist and Hindu traditions.

Julia Bohan-Upadhyay

In 2020, the practice has truly gone mainstream, cropping up everywhere from boardrooms to bedrooms to our kitchen tables. Perhaps most indicative of its status in the contemporary wellness space is the sheer number of available meditation apps. More than 2,500 meditation mobile apps have launched since 2015: My.Life, Calm, Headspace, Simple Habit, Shine, Insight Timer, Synctuition, Aura, Buddhify, The Mindfulness App, Mindfulness Daily, Ten Percent Happier, Omvana, Mindfulness Coach, and Welzen are some of the most popular today.

How a nature walk changed everything

On that frigid day in upstate New York, I had an interview scheduled with Nina Smiley, PhD, a psychologist and director of mindfulness programming at Mohonk Mountain House. More specifically, I was going to give forest bathing a try. Sounds like taking a luxurious soak in a heavily wooded area, but it’s actually an exercise in mindfulness. Of course, I arrived with all of my usual skepticism—how could simply taking a walk outside and observing what I saw possibly reduce my stress and anxiety?

The idea, Smiley explained, was to spend time in nature in a “gentle, nonjudgmental way"; I should only notice my thoughts and accept them as a neutral observer. Instead of focusing on how cold it was, for instance, I should acknowledge the temperature without immediately making a negative judgment about it. It was winter, and winter is cold. Rather than letting it be a source of stress, the fact that it was so cold that my phone turned itself off was simply what was happening at that moment.

Yeji Kim

Reluctantly meandering down a wooded trail, I started paying attention to everything I saw: the way a small but mighty waterfall was flowing from a rock formation; how some tree bark changed colors as I looked higher up at the trunk; how, when I sat on a bench and closed my eyes for a few seconds and then opened them again, the colors of the lake, sky, and evergreen trees appeared more vivid. 

Then it hit me: At some point during my stroll, the usual thoughts whizzing through my head (including mentally preparing myself for the worst possible outcome of any given scenario) had quieted down significantly. Not only did I feel calmer, but I had one of those sudden bursts of mental energy that typically only comes after drinking a giant cup coffee. I went back inside, opened my laptop, and enjoyed a few hours of highly focused writing. 

About a year after my successful forest bathing experience, I traveled on assignment to Hilton Head Health, a wellness retreat center in South Carolina. I enthusiastically attended lectures on public health and nutrition, but when it came time for the “mindful eating” seminar, I nearly pulled a muscle from rolling my eyes. Lisette Cifaldi, LMSW, the director of behavioral health, describes mindful eating as “eating with intention while paying attention” by tuning in to the sensory experience. To be honest, the only aspect of mindful eating that appealed to me was the food.

But when I actually gave it a shot, mindful eating felt similar to forest bathing. I became so engrossed in every flavor, color, aroma, and tactile aspect of the meal that it offered a respite from my usual negative thought patterns. When I practice mindful eating, it allows me to take a step back and discern how I feel without judgment, then home in on the experience of dining as a way to calm my mind. 

At this point, it was clear that mindfulness is most effective for me when it involves some kind of distracting activity.

The incredible neuroscience of mindfulness

What was going on in my brain during my mindful forest walk and eating experience that made my anxiety and stress evaporate for a time? According to Caroline Carney, MD, a board-certified psychiatrist and internist, mindfulness affects the actual structure of the brain, especially the parts associated with emotions, memory, and motivation.

“Our brains are highly plastic, which means that neurons can restructure with different experiences,” she explains, noting that mindfulness is one of those experiences. For example, the amygdala—the structure sometimes considered the brain’s “emotional response center”—has been shown to be less active with mindfulness. While at the same time, the hippocampus—which helps regulate the amygdala’s emotional responses—gets larger and more active.

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In addition to its effects on the amygdala and hippocampus, Dr. Carney says that mindfulness can improve the function of the anterior cingulate cortex, a part of the brain that plays a role in motivation and attention. Mindfulness practice also assists the brain’s insula, which controls interoception (i.e., the ability to have an internal sense of one's own body). “This is important because through interoception, we interpret our body’s internal signals and the body’s interpretation of those signals,” she explains. “Misinterpretation has been suggested to underlie mental disorders like anxiety and PTSD.” Lastly, mindfulness causes the prefrontal cortex to become larger and more active, supporting better impulse control, planning, and problem-solving, Dr. Carney says. 

There is evidence that mindfulness impacts physical as well as cognitive health, and this is largely due to its ability to quell the brain’s stress response. We know stress can take a toll on physical health, so practicing mindfulness to reduce stress can, by extension, help reduce the risk of corporeal, stress-induced conditions, such as high blood pressure, heart irregularities, insomnia, persistent fatigue, digestive disorders, mental health issues, and diabetes, explains Zlatin Ivanov, MD, a New York–based psychiatrist. What’s more, mindfulness techniques can promote the body’s relaxation response. “This response engages the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for restoring the body to base levels after a stress response, calming it down by lowering the heart and respiratory rate, blood pressure, and muscle tension,” he says.

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All of that said, experts, including Dr. Carney, acknowledge the challenges of studying mindfulness and its effects. It is such a subjective and conditional experience, and there’s so much more research to be done to uncover the extent of its impact on the brain and body. Dr. Carney explains that any number of variables—the “dose” of mindfulness (or the length of each session), the number of sessions, and whether the participants are engaged in other types of meditation—can impact a study’s findings. 

“This is still a relatively new area of research and there’s still a lot we do not understand,” Dr. Ivanov says. “Future research needs to explore the relationship between case backgrounds and meditation experience outcomes; how the type of practice relates to challenging experiences [it’s attempting to improve]; and the influence of social and other factors.”

What we get wrong about mindfulness

These inherent stipulations and ambiguities have given mindfulness its bad rep as a tricky, albeit fascinating, egg to crack—not only for researchers and experts, but for laypeople (both curious and cynical). And as the study and application of mindfulness continues to grow, so do our misconceptions surrounding the practice. In a world obsessed with instant gratification, it makes sense that practitioners, products, and the media tend to oversimplify or misinterpret the discipline to reach a wider audience. While mindfulness is far more accessible than people realize, this quiet practice does require energy and effort and is by no means a magical quick-fix. 

Guerin finds that many people assume mindfulness is an effortless and passive experience. But while the concept may be simple enough to define—and the practice involves no equipment—mindfulness takes time, intention, and active participation. “Because we’re embedded in so much stimulation in our lives, it goes against our grain to calm down and be present in the moment,” Guerin explains. “But if we work at it, we can sense a change in our lives.”

He also notes that many people often spend 15 to 30 seconds on a breathing or meditation app and expect instantaneous results. “It can work in the moment for some people, but to really embrace the idea of mindfulness, it's a lifestyle,” he says. Similarly, Smiley likens mindfulness practice to lifting weights. You can’t expect to lift weights for half an hour and leave with bulging muscles—because you won’t. Instead, you’ll leave with a better grasp of how weightlifting works and the proper techniques to use on your own. “It’s the same with mindfulness: You can’t expect to leave after half an hour with a mental muscle that’s fully fit, functional, and ready to go—it’s a practice,” she says.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, mindfulness is often erroneously regarded as unattainable and impossibly time-consuming. Sticking with the weight-lifting analogy: While you need to make lifting a consistent part of your routine to reap the rewards, you don't need to spend 12 hours a day pumping iron. You might train for 20 minutes, three times a week, and gradually alter your routine as you get stronger. The same principle applies to mindfulness, whether you practice for five minutes a day or 20 minutes once a week. At Mohonk Mountain House, Smiley caps her formal mindfulness sessions at 30 minutes to make them as practical, powerful, and accessible as possible to visitors of all experience levels. But as the author of The Three Minute Meditator, she insists that you can get something out of far shorter sessions. “Everyone has three minutes,” Smiley says. “And if they don't have three minutes, they have two minutes. If they don't have two minutes, they have 30 seconds.”

Another common misconception, Carmichael notes, is that mindfulness and relaxation are synonymous. “I can understand why; when someone first practices mindfulness, they might feel a sense of relaxation,” she says. “[But] mindfulness has become such a buzzword that it's experiencing a concept creep—people are applying it to simple relaxation techniques that aren't necessarily about mindfulness.”  

Relaxation is a desired outcome for some (and that’s great for them), but not all mindfulness techniques are meant to lull you to sleep or soften your focus. In fact, Carmichael asserts the opposite. “A person could use mindfulness when they need to be super on-point,” she explains. “They can do a quick scan—an inventory—to understand exactly how they're feeling and what's running in the background of their mind, because they need to be at their sharpest, most heightened sense of awareness.” 

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It’s also important to remember that there’s no singular or “correct” way to practice mindfulness—it’s more of a choose-your-own-adventure situation. “If you want to buy the poufs and burn the incense, go for it,” says Britt Andreatta, PhD, an expert in neuroscience, psychology, education, and leadership, and the CEO of 7th Mind, Inc. “But you can do anything mindfully. It’s really just about being completely present in the moment.” This could involve following a formal, guided mindfulness meditation; but it can also mean employing mindfulness techniques during everyday tasks like washing the dishes. “If you're truly present with the temperature of the water, the feel of the soap, and the sensation of scrubbing, that can be an amazing mindful experience,” Andreatta says. 

Of course, not all mindfulness skeptics will have an “aha” moment right away—or possibly at all. If you’ve cycled through several different apps, techniques, and teachers without any luck, Carmichael says you shouldn’t force yourself into it. But keep in mind that there are so many different mindfulness options out there, so don’t give up if it’s something you think could improve your life. “It's almost like saying ‘well, I tried reading and I didn't like it,’” she says. “Maybe you need to read a different book.”

If you’re new to mindfulness and not sure where to start, Guerin recommends taking a look at these mindfulness exercises, techniques, and activities for adults to see what appeals to you. Otherwise, begin with basic  techniques like body scanning, visualization, and mindful breathing

And what about situations like mine, where practicing different types of meditation, including mindfulness, made my anxiety and depression worse? It’s known that mindfulness is routinely used as part of treatment plans for managing anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions; and yet, some research suggests that employing mindfulness and meditation can, in certain cases, worsen anxiety and depression.

According to Carmichael, it’s complicated. In many cases, she assures that mindfulness can help people recognize harmful or inaccurate thoughts in order to process them more effectively (especially those already working with a therapist). But for someone with depression, practicing mindfulness could potentially focus attention on exaggerated or inaccurate thoughts of oneself, others, or the world. Similarly, Dr. Ivanov adds that mindfulness may be difficult for those with past experiences of trauma, causing them to recall and fixate on painful experiences. Essentially, “if you're using it to dwell on negativity, then it wouldn’t be advisable,” Carmichael says. (Which is precisely what I’d been doing in my first several attempts.)

Now, I keep mindfulness in my back pocket

The fact that mindfulness can take so many forms is ultimately what made me reconsider the practice. Maybe sitting quietly in a room with my thoughts isn’t my cup of tea, but forest bathing, mindful eating, and even everyday activities like chopping vegetables or giving myself a (very non-professional) manicure can provide me with a mental vacation to reduce my levels of stress and anxiety, even for a few minutes. 

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Mental health professionals I’ve worked with personally have also recommended the “five senses” exercise, which involves being mindful of what you can see, hear, feel, smell, and taste at a given moment. The technique is meant to stop anxious loops by bringing you back to your immediate reality. It had never seemed to work for me, until it became an unexpected lifeline while caring for my mother in hospice.

Everything about it was infinitely disturbing; I was in full fight-or-flight mode, my body responding as though in imminent danger. Feeling the onset of a panic attack, I tried the five senses exercise. Within minutes, I was mentally present in the room again. I was able to acknowledge that I was living out one of my worst nightmares; and at the same time, I recognized that I wasn’t physically in harm’s way. This subtle, but profound shift in perspective gave me the mental space to turn all of my attention toward being with my mom in her final hours.

Most of my mindfulness experiences aren’t that grim, though, promise. Nor do they trigger an anxiety spiral like the one I had sitting on the floor in the fourth grade, listening to Father Justin. Mindfulness hasn’t cured any of my mental or physical health issues, but it’s now in my toolkit for times when I need to anchor myself in the present. It might not appeal to or work for everyone, and that's OK. But it is the real deal and readily available—backed by both centuries of application and a rapidly growing body of scientific research—for anyone curious enough to test the waters. And to my fellow skeptics: Keep asking questions. Not only does this make you an effective advocate for yourself, it will help you avoid any actually harmful “wellness” fads that come our way next (but don't worry, mindfulness isn't one of them).