What is Mindfulness?
The practice of mindfulness has become a popular trend in the last few years. Everyone from psychotherapists, pain management specialists to nutritionists are talking about the benefits of becoming consciously aware of the present moment. In a nutshell mindfulness is the effort to remain in the present moment on a continuous basis and to do so without judgement or criticism. Jon Kabat-Zinn describes being mindful as a state in which we are paying attention in a particular way. Mindfulness is not a religion and while it can certainly add to one’s spiritual experience, it is in fact a method to still the incessant chatter of the mind.
How to be Mindful
The practice of mindfulness is not necessarily meditation–though there is such a thing as mindfulness meditation. When we are mindful we are observing and aware of the present moment. Being mindful is about being fully immersed in the present.
Pay attention to your surroundings instead of thinking about what happened earlier today or last week. Look at the color of things around you, think of their texture, look at the people around you, study them without judging them instead of thinking about all the housework you have tomorrow or a visitor you are dreading. Bring your attention to the details of everything around you.If you are going for a walk, then get out of your head and actually show up for the walk. Look at the trees, the houses, the sky. Breathe in the fresh scent of spring or the crispness of winter. Bring your attention to the breeze against your face. Is it cold? Warm? Soft? Strong? How does the earth feel beneath you? What is the pace of your stride? Be aware of how your feet feel hitting the ground. What is their rhythm?
Anxiety and Presence are like Fire and Water
It is impossible for your brain to think about two things at once which is why mindfulness is so effective in calming the central nervous system. Since it is impossible for your mind to be in the present and think about that stressful meeting at the same time, mindfulness helps to tranquilize anxiety. Mindfulness needs to be treated with the utmost compassion. Of course your mind will wander back to that upcoming meeting or reflect on the argument you had earlier, but the more you make the effort to remain in the present, the easier it will become and the calmer you will feel.
Now is all that Exists – Join the Land of the Living
Whether you are constantly thinking of the past (upsetting or not) or if you are worrying about the future, you are in your head instead of being part of your surroundings—the present! When you are in your head instead of your body and the present moment, you unfortunately miss out on life. Last year I went to a workshop on mindfulness and the speaker said that most of us are living in the present only 10% of the time. Most of the time we are preoccupied with the past or future which do not really exist which means many of us are missing out on 90% of our lives!
Not being mindful, not only causes you to miss out on savouring the moment such as your child’s soccer game or cooking dinner with your partner, it also causes your brain to release stress hormones and makes you feel a whole wave of negative emotions. The hormone cortisol is released which is associated with muscle tension, butterflies, shallow breathing, increased heart rate, poor digestion, the inability to focus as well as the inability to see options or have perspective on a situation. When one considers this, it is easy to see how living in our heads feeds the stress cycle and negatively impacts our mental and physical health. Fortunately, we don’t have to go to a monastery to live more mindfully. Studies have shown that just ten minutes of mindfulness a day has the same effect as taking a medium dose anti-depressant.
So the morning that you have that stressful meeting focus on the NOW when you hop in the shower or make breakfast. Be in the present. Focus on the experience of what you are doing NOW. Why get to that meeting two hours ahead of time? Thinking about it won’t help. Worrying about the past won’t allow you to time travel and change things either. If you need to solve a problem then certainly set aside some time to solve that problem and the rest of the time, join the world of the living. Be present.