Many people think of mindfulness and relaxation as the same thing. While there are similarities between the two and the use of one can lead to the other, there are some important differences. Relaxation exercises imply a goal of relaxing a tense body-mind. Deep belly breathing and progressive muscle relaxation are two examples of specific relaxation skills that can be employed to reduce stress, tension, and anxiety. Relaxation can lead to mindfulness, because you need to be aware that you are tense, then engage in an activity to reduce that tension. Through that practice, you begin to understand the difference between a stressed state of mind and relaxed one.
Mindfulness can also bring about relaxation, but it is a skill of a different sort. With mindfulness, we simply want to bring attention to what the body-mind is experiencing. Is it thinking? Remembering? Ruminating? Planning? Dreaming? Organizing? Feeling? Mindfulness asks us to simply notice what we are experiencing and accept that experience without judgment. It’s that last part that is so challenging. We learn from an early age to judge, discern, categorize… Good/bad. Up/down. This/that. Should/shouldn’t. What is so interesting is that, in seeking to observe ourselves without judgment, we can find a sense of peace and relaxation that expands into all areas of life.
In the spirit of non-judgment, try this strategy:
1) Bring your awareness to your body-mind throughout your day, maybe at several points during the day.
2) Using your internal thought process, identify what you are doing with objective, descriptive terms: Thinking, walking, sitting, worrying, eating, listening, talking, etc.
3) Notice when and how often you judge yourself during this activity. And when you do judge yourself (as we all do!), again simply identify that and accept it without further judgment. Sometimes a long, slow exhale helps increase acceptance of the present moment.
Regardless of the level of challenge this activity presents for you, have courage and keep coming back. Like any skill, with practice, you will gain proficiency over time. Be well!