Mindfulness – what is it?
Have you noticed the words “mindful” and “mindfulness” showing up a lot of places? We hear these words more and more lately – on TV, social media, and print media like newspapers and books. We may even hear our healthcare providers use these words from time to time. There can be religious and spiritual overtones to the concept of mindfulness, as well. For example, an online search will quickly come up with both western and eastern religious and spiritual traditions that speak of mindfulness. I have spoken to Spiritual Directors who use the words “notice” and “mindfulness” almost interchangeably in their conversations with those they work with.
So what does being mindful really mean?
First and foremost, much of what I read is that mindfulness is a practice. It’s not something that any of us will ever be able to do 100% of the time 24/7. We’re human beings and any mindfulness expert would likely put an end to any notion of “perfect” mindfulness. The word practice is actually very important here. Practicing the piano, a speech, driving or any number of things gives us the opportunity to do our best and improve along the way.
So how do we practice mindfulness?
We practice mindfulness by paying attention, as best we can, to what is going on mentally and physically in our day-to-day encounters with life. And – here’s where we take it one step further – we pay attention without judgment. A meeting at work, a dentist appointment, hugging our child, folding towels – we can practice mindfulness by putting our attention on what we are doing right now and recognizing how we feel physically and emotionally in the process and not judge it as good or bad. It just is. Borrowing from Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist Monk and prolific writer, most of us are either worried about the future or thinking about the past, completely missing out on the present moment.
Living in the present moment by paying attention to the here and now (living mindfully) may benefit all of us. We live in a very stress-filled world. There is a great emphasis from multiple sources regarding what has gone wrong in the world or what may go wrong soon. This is very anxiety producing for most of us, and using mindfulness as a tool to manage stress could prove quite beneficial for many of us.
Here are a few ways to place yourself in the moment, giving yourself an opportunity to practice mindfulness:
- While taking your morning walk, notice how your body feels as your shoes hit the pavement; the smells in the air, the breeze, the temperature; notice your breath.
- While sitting in a meeting, recognize your comfort or discomfort; is there agreement or frustration in your mind about what is being asked of you or others at the table?
- While eating your lunch, practice savoring the bite, really tasting it.
And as you practice these mindfulness ideas, can you also practice not judging yourself, for example, for not being able to walk faster, or wishing you were not at the meeting, or being angry with yourself for eating chips instead of veggies at lunch?
In full discloser, I am not a mindfulness expert. A lot of this is really new to me too. Clearly, this is not an exhaustive understanding of mindfulness, but truly an introduction to a new-old idea. I invite you to consider practicing paying attention more to the here and now. It does not require you to forget about the past or to forego planning for a happy future. But there is value in recognizing that this moment is all that we really have, and it is up to each of us to decide how we want to use it.