By Nancy Ebbert, LCPC
Mindfulness, once the concern of Buddhist monks and Christian desert hermits, is a term in common use today. Daily tips crowd Huffington Posts’s “GPS for the Soul.” Meditation apps multiply on smartphones. Many of us have some expectation that we should be able to quiet our minds and detach from the cares of the world, or at least from our families and our jobs.
Attention to the Present
Mindfulness rarely works like that for me and, yet, it’s an idea I work with daily, both personally and with my clients. Mindfulness, as taken from Buddhist philosophy, roughly translates to “attentiveness to the present.” In that tradition, it is considered one of the tools for reaching enlightenment, because it allows practitioners to see accurately what is happening in our lives.
Mindfulness writer Dr. Ron Siegel gives us a modern definition of mindfulness: “awareness of present experience with acceptance.” He further says, “[The practice of mindfulness] means we can come to peace with the inevitability of change and the impossibility of always winning. . . . It does this by attuning us to our moment-to-moment experience and giving us direct insight into how our minds create unnecessary anguish.”
(The Mindfulness Solution; Siegel, Ron; 2010)
Meditation is one of many ways to practice mindfulness. Over time, a practice of mindfulness can allow us to cultivate a greater appreciation of our lives as they actually are.
Lost in Thought
Most of us have a running commentary in our minds that may run something like this:
I’ll never get this done—the boss doesn’t know how hard this is—remember that report in 6th grade I never finished—dad never forgave me for that—I’m hungry—what if I lose my job—I’ll be late to pick up the kids from soccer—there’s nothing in the house for dinner.
What is striking about these common thoughts is that, first, very few of them reflect exactly what’s happening to us in the present moment and, second, their painful negativity.
Often our thoughts are focused on what happened in the past (and its present impact) and what we hope or fear will happen in the future. While there’s nothing wrong with thinking about the past and future, it can contribute to a sense of discontent about your life right now. You may also find, when going a little deeper, that your thoughts aren’t very accurate. Maybe you almost always get things done on time, but in your thoughts you worry frequently that you won’t. Perhaps those thoughts also cause you to miss something important happening right now. How often have you found yourself thinking about a work project when your child wants to tell you about his or her day?
Be Present to the Present
Mindfulness can become a personal practice of returning our focus to the present moment. In the space of a single breath you can mentally step back from the busyness. You can reconnect with your body, your thoughts and emotions, and with the sights, sounds and smells around you. You could let go of some of the stress you are holding while you take stock of what’s important. With a clearer mind you can make healthy choices.
One of my personal mindfulness practices is Tai Chi, a gentle, meditative martial art in which strikes and blocks look more like a 20-minute ballet. When I first began to learn the series of movements, I felt awkward, clumsy and frustrated. I frequently wanted to quit. With practice I gained not only skills with the movements, but as important I gained in my ability to be present and focused on what I am doing. This brings me feelings of peace, enjoyment and gratitude. As with many mindfulness practices, there is always something new to learn.
Mindfulness is the focus of many research projects and the findings are positive. Engaging in regular practice can:
- reduce stress,
- improve ability to manage pain,
- improve working memory and focus,
- increase ability to regulate emotions,
- improve sleep
- increase compassion
- improve interpersonal relationships
- may help fight off the common cold!1
I incorporate mindfulness practices in my work with my psychotherapy clients. We can work together to find a practice that meets your goals. Your choices are almost endless. Here are a few examples: relaxation breathing, mindful walking, focusing your attention on different parts of your body or on an object, practicing not attaching to your thoughts as they arise, yoga or other physical practices, and listening to music.
I hope you’ll contact me to learn more about how mindfulness can be helpful to you.