Mindfulness is front page news. A recent TIME Magazine cover announced “The Mindful Revolution: the Science of Finding Focus in a Stressed-out, Multitasking Culture.”
As the article points out, “Mindfulness training offers real health benefits and a strategy for coping with the stresses of an increasingly wired world.”
One of the most insidious results of stress is that it can lead to a pattern of declining overall health and performance not only at work, but in all areas of life.
Mindfulness replaces the vicious cycle of stress and illness with self-sustaining growth in both physical wellness and mental resilience.
What is Mindfulness?
We’ve all seen the little raffle ticket printed with this profound message: “You must be present to win!”
Well, it’s true. If we’re not present, we miss out. What does it mean to be truly present – to our own experience and to others with whom we communicate and interact?
Usually our minds are bouncing around between the past and the future, rarely in the here and now. Haven’t we wasted enough time ruminating over what was, and speculating about what will be?
Mindfulness is a contemplative practice for enhancing our capacity for focus and awareness. It directs us to pay attention in a particular way: with purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally. Mindfulness cultivates the ability to do three things:
- clearly observe and deeply experience physical sensations, thoughts and emotions;
- express genuine self-awareness and authentic empathy;
- enjoy life experiences fully, beyond the labels or judgments usually applied to them.
Mindfulness practice instills peace and perspective, reducing the anxiety that amplifies stress and pain. It enables us to replace emotional reactivity to stressful events with clarity and composure.
Learning to be attentive to one’s own experience fosters personal growth and the ability to better listen to others. That means improved relationships at work and at home with friends and loved ones.
Studies in The Journal of the American Medical Association demonstrated that courses in mindfulness practice result in greater wellbeing and enhanced empathy.
In addition, mindfulness practice may improve the ability to see a situation from multiple perspectives before reacting. When we can see things from the other person’s point of view, it’s easier to find ways to resolve differences.
How to Practice
When I teach mindfulness practice, it is introduced through directed experiential exercises in three stages:
Centering and Grounding
To be centered and grounded involves systematic relaxation, calming of mental agitation and deeper awareness of bodily sensations.
Sitting in Stillness
When sitting in stillness, your mindfulness of breathing, posture and environment bring heightened awareness of thoughts, feelings and perceptions.
Mindfulness in Action
With mindfulness in action we explore the sensations and feelings that accompany your movements, speech and thinking as you go about your day.
The common thread through all of these is being more fully in the “here and now.” Sequentially, they facilitate the ability to be mindful throughout the day, allowing you to respond to every challenge with more skill and less stress.
Three Aspects of Practice
Find a quiet place to sit comfortably upright (not so soft and comfortable that you fall asleep!). Gently close your eyes. Let any excess tension, beyond what you need to hold your posture, flow out of your body by mentally scanning from head to toe.
With the intention to soften areas of tension, just touching them with your awareness will start to dissolve them, like sunlight melting snowflakes in the morning.
Notice any tightness in your face and neck, shoulders and arms, chest and upper back, belly and lower back, hips and thighs, calves and feet. Let the tension you encounter dissolve as much as it will, and imagine that it flows down and out of you, into the earth.
Mindfulness of Breathing
Good posture makes it easier to stay attentive, and easier to breathe. You’ll want your spine to be upright but not strained. Imagine that your spine is like a tent pole and the rest of your body is the canvas hanging loosely from the top of the pole.
Tune in to the internal sensation of your breathing, the feeling that your torso is filling with air as you breathe in and then emptying as you breathe out.
The practice of mindfulness includes training yourself in returning to your object of attention in the present moment. At some point, your mind will wander into a series of thoughts, away from attention on your posture and the sensation of your breathing.
When you realize your mind was someplace else, simply make a mental note “back to here and now,” and return your focus on your posture and breathing, without judging or criticizing yourself for becoming distracted.
Here is a helpful hint. To sharpen your focus, you can try to notice the points in your in-breath, namely, when you start to fill, filling and full; then start to empty, emptying and empty on the out-breath.
Try to count each cycle of in- and out-breaths, up to a target number like 7 or 21. When you get distracted, pick up the count on the last number you remember.
Mindfulness in Action
To be mindful in action means being fully present and attentive to the details of whatever you are doing while you are doing it, with minimal commentary. It’s sometimes called “just noticing.”
The practice includes bringing your attention back to the task when you get distracted. Simply recognize that you were someplace else and refocus on the task, mentally noting “back to here and now.”
You can practice mindfulness in action during many simple daily activities. Brushing your teeth, making your bed, getting dressed, setting the table, doing the dishes or sweeping the floor – any of these is a great opportunity to practice being fully present.
My latest book, The Best Diet Book Ever: The Zen of Losing Weight, offers more detailed instructions in mindfulness practice. It is available in print, digital and audio editions. Many people use the instruction in the audio version as a guided meditation.
Mindful eating and exercise play a big part in my approach to weight-loss and weight-maintenance.
Although these techniques take a little time to become familiar, with practice they can be available to you in every circumstance and setting. You gain the most from mindfulness practice when you make it a part of your regular routine, like physical workouts to help you stay in shape.
As it becomes second nature to you, you’ll become more authentically present and genuinely responsive. Then the quality of your life will become that much richer and more meaningful.
Have you ever tried meditating or another form of mindfulness training? When have you been so caught up in thoughts that you missed experiencing something important? How much time do you waste re-playing past experiences from which you already learned all you could? What ways have you found to let yourself be able to simply enjoy the present moment, without needing to make it (or yourself) better or different in any way? Please join the discussion below!