Mindfulness tends to be associated with “healthier” practices such as yoga and meditation, but living mindfully isn’t about always choosing Pilates class over happy hour or a grilled chicken salad over nachos. “Mindfulness, as defined by Jon Kabat-Zinn, is paying attention in a particular way: fully present in the moment, on purpose and non-judgmentally,” explains Jessica Matthews, a senior advisor for behavioral health coaching for the American Council on Exercise.
This means you can mindfully decide to do things we sometimes label as “bad,” such as having a second glass of wine or skipping a run to binge-watch Netflix. It’s all about your mindset. As a bonus, making any decision mindfully may help you feel less guilt if you choose to do something that supports your health mentally or emotionally but perhaps doesn’t fit the stereotypical image of “health.”
HOW TO MAKE A DECISION MINDFULLY
To make a decision mindfully, think about the three components of the definition:
IN THE MOMENT
Take note of your thoughts, feelings and any bodily sensations. What truly feels like the right decision for you, right now?
A great way to help reduce stress and come into the moment is to stop and take three deep breaths. “This stimulates the vagus nerve, which sends a direct message to the brain to calm down and turns on the part of the brain that makes decisions mindfully,” explains Jillian Pransky, a mindfulness and yoga teacher and author of “Deep Listening.”
“Rather than passively doing things, be an active participant in your life experience,” Matthews says. Turn off your auto-pilot, ignore what anyone else is telling you to do or not do and intentionally choose what you want.
This is perhaps the most important element. When you face a decision, it’s helpful to think about health and well-being on a spectrum, Matthews says. Rather than the black-and-white, good-or-bad perspective that can often occur with things related to health, take on a broader mindset. “How does that one decision fit into the big picture of what’s important to you?” Matthews asks.
Also keep in mind : One decision does not define you. Sharing dessert with friends because you rarely see them and want to celebrate that moment doesn’t mean you have “undone” all of the other healthy decisions you made earlier that day or week.
Nor does this one choice define you or your health. Having dessert or staying home to watch TV rather than go to a HIIT class is fine when done mindfully. However, that doesn’t mean you should do it every day. “If that becomes your behavior all the time, then it may present some [health] challenges,” Matthews says. “But if you discern that’s what’s best to serve you in the moment,” then it’s a healthy choice.
MINDFUL DECISIONS AND GUILT
Using mindfulness may help you even more if you struggle with feelings of guilt when you do something you label as “unhealthy.” “Mindfulness allows me to make less regrettable decisions,” Pransky says. For example, she’s learned to mindfully choose to eat a burger.
The unconscious mind might have a cheeseburger with all the toppings and a beer and dessert. The dogmatic mind may say you can only have a lentil burger patty on organic greens and no bun or fries. But for Pransky, mindfully deciding to have a burger means having a burger without the bun but sometimes with fries. “I will wake up in the morning feeling well [after eating this]. I know I function best when I don’t have gluten, but fries don’t make me feel so bad,” she explains.
Knowing you made a purposeful choice you decided best served you in that moment may also help quiet the negative self-talk: It was one choice, and you made that decision — it’s not that you lack willpower or that you’re giving in or that you “blew it.”
THE BOTTOM LINE
Health is multifaceted. It includes not only physical health, but also mental, emotional and social health. “One singular choice doesn’t epitomize your health; there are various ways to enrich your well-being,” Matthews says. Sometimes you do that by ordering the nachos and enjoying the cheesy goodness with your kids.