Put simply, mindfulness means paying attention to the present moment, as it is unfolding, without agenda or judgement.
Simple as this sounds, it presents a challenge for most of us. Our minds are frequently focused on some past or future event; lost in reverie or regret, or else, planning some highly anticipated, or dreaded future activity. How many times do you simply pay attention to the present moment, with all of your senses? In this fast-paced world, we feel compelled to produce, to perform, to accomplish, while our minds run on ‘automatic pilot.’ Our ability to simple BE, has become devalued, to the point that, particularly in U.S. culture, our worth is evaluated based on what we DO. What a pity!
By developing a keen attention to what is happening here and now, to external AND internal realms, we become newly aware of our own habits of mind (e.g., judgements, avoidance, compulsions, etc). When this occurs, we have greater freedom to change our thinking, by releasing thought patterns that increase our suffering. We come to realize that, by precious right of human birth, we are enough, right now, just as we are.
Many emotional and mental challenges, such as depression and anxiety, are reinforced by negative habits of mind. Thought patterns such as: “I’m such a loser,” “I can’t believe I still feel this way,” “I’m just not strong enough to get over this,” are faulty thoughts that only serve to increase suffering. Frequently, these thought patterns occur ‘under the radar’ of conscious awareness, and develop a life of their own. Mindfulness can draw our attention to our habitual thought patterns, and notice how they influence our lives.
On the simplest level, mindful awareness of our physical bodies can draw our attention to the ways in which we carry stress in the body.
Try this: notice your breathing. Is it deep, or shallow? Slow, or rapid? Notice what happens in your body, when you slow, and deepen your breath.
Try this: Do a mental scan of your body, paying particular attention to areas likely to carry tension or tightness, such as your head, neck, and shoulders. Do you notice areas of particular tension? What happens to those areas when you attend to them? These simple exercises demonstrate that by raising our awareness, our felt experience can change. Imagine what could change, by cultivating mindfulness in everyday life!
Multiple controlled studies have demonstrated the benefits of mindfulness in the treatment of depression, anxiety, eating disorders, ADD/ADHD, chronic pain, and many, many other ailments. Benefits available to ALL of us include greater focus and attention, improved stress response, and lower blood pressure.
Mindfulness can be cultivated by meditating, but also by simply paying attention to this moment in time. As you may notice, it is simple, but not always easy! It’s O.K. to start small. An example of this might be to take a three minute breathing space. Sit or lie for three minutes, and simply notice your breath. It may be the longest three minutes you have spent for some time. If so, this small investment in time will already have paid dividends: that is one 3-minute time span that didn’t fly by!
When we spend our days with one foot in the past, and the other foot in the future, we become blind to the present. Mindfulness reminds us that the present moment is all we have, and perhaps we should really experience it. As Chade Meng wrote:
A lifetime is one moment between my two little breaths.
The present, the here, the now, that’s all the life I get,
I live each moment in kindness, in peace, without regret."