by ROBERT VALENCIA
If you’ve ever watched a video or read about ways to reduce stress, chances are you’ve come across something called mindfulness. Since childhood, we’ve been told to be mindful of our manners, our actions, and our words. Mindfulness is something that’s engrained in the subconscious, so why is practicing mindfulness such a big deal? Mindfulness practice revolves around the idea that we can improve our awareness of the present through certain practices like meditation or relational mindfulness.
You’re probably asking yourself why someone would want to improve present awareness. Have you ever felt like your life is moving a hundred miles an hour? It becomes increasingly difficult to appreciate what’s going on in the present when your mind is fixated on the future. Stress can slowly creep into everyone’s lives, one way or another. College students are especially susceptible. MCATs, GREs, LSATS, and Internships are looming reminders that students have to be working towards the future. Sometimes, the stress can start to snowball. That’s when we lose touch with the present. A study done by the Journal of General Hospital Psychiatry showed that regular mindfulness meditation was effective in improving mood and reducing stress levels. 
But stress reduction is only one of the many reasons why someone might get into mindfulness practice. For me, anxiety relief was a huge incentive, especially during midterms or finals. I cope with stress-related anxiety in unhealthy ways, so I wanted to make a change, and luckily, UCLA offered a mindfulness meditation class over the summer. Two birds with one stone - upper division credits and stress relief.
Admittedly, I was really skeptical about meditation practice at first. I never practiced meditation before. I knew that it was really prevalent in Buddhism, but mindfulness meditation always gave off a culty vibe. Focusing on your inner self and the present experience? I was skeptical of those ideas.
But, my view on that changed as I delved deep into the world of mindfulness. Meditation is special because it is a uniquely individual experience. It can be practiced in a million different ways. But mindfulness-based meditation generally has a few, rough guidelines that can maximize present awareness.
One defining part about mindfulness meditation is that individuals do not clear their minds. If you’ve ever attempted to “clear your mind,” chances are that you’ve failed miserably. Instead, mindfulness practitioners focus on one thing: their breath, some sounds, or anything that a person can bring their attention back to. Thoughts that come to mind are part of your meditation. It’s a beautifully unique experience. The key part is that a person’s attention becomes like a pendulum, shifting from the focus and their thoughts
A person doesn’t have to be seated in order to meditate. It’s possible to meditate while standing. It’s even possible to meditate with your eyes open. Standing meditation can also be done walking. In this case, external stimuli like the sights and sounds of your surrounding environment become the focus of the meditation.
But improving ourselves through mindfulness can be done through more than just focusing on inner thoughts and the breath. All too often, we have conversations and relationships with other people without giving much thought to the present. We listen to respond, instead of listening to listen. Relational mindfulness practice aims to improve how we interact with one another.
One form of relational mindfulness practice is the Hot Seat. A Hot Seat consists of a circle of people, possibly complete strangers who can ask a volunteering individual any question, with complete confidentiality in mind. The volunteer is in the “hot seat” and can choose to answer these people’s questions. From personal experience, hot seat questions can become intense and immensely revealing about an individual, which really deepens our ability as people to relate to one another.
How and Where do I Start?
The how of it is a little more intimidating than the where of it. A good way to do it, and the way we started in Psychiatry 175, was through guided meditation practice. The Mindful Awareness Research Center has several guided practices on their website (http://marc.ucla.edu/).  These are a great way to help you get started with the basics of how and where to focus your attention.
But that’s not really necessary! All you need is a comfortable place to sit or stand where you will not be distracted and some time. You can meditate anywhere: at home, in the dorms, at the dining hall, outside, during lecture (not recommended) - but the quieter, the better. Set a timer on your phone for five minutes. Starting out, it may be difficult to sit and meditate for thirty minutes, so start small and work your way up.
But, if it still seems intimidating, MARC (Mindful Awareness Research Center) has plenty of resources to help get you started. They even offer free, six-week mindfulness classes that anyone can join.
Studies done on the connection between mindfulness and college students have shown that higher levels of mindfulness, cultivated through mindfulness practices, can provide college students with important health benefits for sleep quality and mood.  As a college student and a person that likes to sleep, I can confirm that I did sleep better while I practiced regular mindfulness meditation.
But, now that the class has ended, it hasn’t been easy to maintain a regular meditation schedule. Instead, I try to meditate whenever I feel stress, or if I just feel a little disconnected, and it really does help ground myself and help my mood.
I can’t help but stress how unique of an experience mindfulness meditation can be. It isn’t necessarily for everyone, but if you get the chance, you should check out the Mindful Awareness Research Center for events or join mindfulness meditation circles on campus.
“Three-Year Follow-up and Clinical Implications of a Mindfulness Meditation-Based Stress Reduction Intervention in the Treatment of Anxiety Disorders.” Gen Hosp Psychiatry. (1995).
“Developing Mindfulness in College Students through Movement Based Courses: Effects on Self-Regulatory Self-Efficacy, Mood, Stress, and Sleep Quality.” J Am Coll Health. (2010).