Blog Behavioral/Mental Health

The practice of mindfulness

Written by Emily Page, Wellness Manager, Human Resources, Washington University in St. Louis

I recently watched the documentary, Minimalism, a film by Joshua Fields Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus, who also have blogs, books and podcasts on the same topic.

Though the film did touch on the tenets of living with less and doing without, my takeaway was something different. I was reminded of the importance of seeing the value in the things (and people) we have in our lives – of finding the joy in these things.

In many ways, this is also a tenet of the practice of mindfulness. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a founding father of the western mindfulness movement, defines mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way”; to become aware of something or an experience that can help us better connect to our true and present self. I had such an experience recently that made me think both about the film and my mindfulness practice: my air plants.

What is an air plant? Well, it’s a unique little organism that thrives unlike other plants I’ve tended. In fact, it’s the first plant that I’ve been able to sustain for more than a year, probably because it doesn’t require traditional potting in soil or frequent watering. It’s not an especially beautiful plant when you first look at it. It’s small, simple and sometimes looks ashen with the dust that accumulates on its leaves. But I am truly fascinated by them. How can a plant survive without its roots in the soil or a drink of water each day? I find joy in just looking at these plants and wondering how they function. They are valuable to me for that reason.

It is good to think about the value of the things I own and to consider what to do with the stuff that really has no value (and to not buy more stuff like it). But I question whether I could truly adopt a minimalist lifestyle, like Millburn and Nicodemus have. Right now it seems like having all of this stuff in my life gives me more choices – more options for what to wear, what to do or what to look at. I think about how if I didn’t have some of these things, how I would want them, even strive to get them.

Striving is another important aspect of mindfulness. When we are striving to be something or have something, we are not present and we are vulnerable to the pre-conceived notions we have about why we should have what we’re looking for. Mindfulness practice is an exercise of just being, not doing or changing. For me, I see it as a way to calm the perfectionist voice in my head and to develop more gratitude for what I am, not what I have or do.

In this new year, I am focused on developing these qualities in myself and also providing opportunities for my friends, family, and co-workers to experiment too. Every person benefits from slowing down, paying attention to the breath, and listening to the constant chatter going on in our heads. We can minimize the stuff in our lives that doesn’t bring value, as well as minimize the stress caused by always living in the past or the future. I could be like my little air plants – happy to find support from others, but able to find nourishment where ever and whenever it comes.