Have you ever found yourself half listening to a friend telling you a story while you try to make your shopping list in your head? Or called into work sick only to spend the day worrying about how much work will be waiting for you when you return?
If you have had experiences like these, you are not alone. Many of us may go through most of our day doing one thing while thinking about something else.
In part, this experience is normal and part of being human. Our mind likes to stay busy thinking about one topic after another, planning and strategizing. But our busy minds can be a source of great distress.
If we spend most of our day replaying past events or dreading potential future events, there is little bandwidth to attend to the present. Mindfulness is one approach to help find balance in the midst of all of our doing and thinking.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is the name given to an approach that brings our attention fully in the present. When we are mindful we are able to focus our attention on sensing and feeling what is happening right now. When we are mindful we observe our thoughts, feelings, sensations, etc. without assigning a meaning or judgement to the present circumstance.
What does this mean? Well for example, this morning when I was driving into work I found that I was running a bit late. I was looking at the clock and getting irritated with the drivers around me who I felt were driving too slow.
I was feeling impatient. This impatience showed up in my body as tightness in my neck and shoulders. I also noticed how I was creating a whole story about how my day was going to be “ruined” because I was running a few minutes late.
But, after a few minutes I began to notice my thoughts and sensations and to become more mindful. I brought my attention to the tightness in my neck and shoulders and began to breathe deeply to relax them and slow my breathing down. I could concentrate on driving attentively and safely.
I did these things and ended up making it to my appointment more quickly than I thought I would. I was on time and feeling more relaxed, and my day went well.
Mark Twain is credited with saying, “I have lived through some terrible things in my life, and some of them actually happened.” While it is true that many of us may have had unfortunate events occur in our life, this number often pales in comparison to the sometimes constant thoughts of potential bad outcomes to situations that we can create in our head.
Let me be clear: I am not saying that you should go through your day without ever giving a thought to planning or problem solving how you can address potential negative situations. But it should not be the constant focus.
If we keep our mind awash all day long in contemplating potential negative outcomes, it leaves precious little energy to actually be in the present moment. The present is the only place from which we have the power to make changes that will positively impact our day and, more generally, our life.
What mindfulness is not
While certain religions and faiths of the world incorporate mindfulness often as an aspect of meditation, mindfulness is an approach that is inherently non-religious. One can also be mindful while taking a walk, while washing one’s hands, and while cooking dinner.
Mindfulness is also not the same as relaxation. While practicing mindfulness can sometimes feel relaxing, it is not in itself a relaxation process. It is about being present for what is — what one is feeling, thinking, and sensing in the present moment and being open to all of it (pleasant or unpleasant) without judgement.
Some benefits of mindfulness
Mindfulness has literally been shown to change our brains. Mindfulness practices have been associated with increases in the size of brain areas associated with memory. Mindfulness is associated with many potential benefits for physical and emotional health, including decreased levels of stress, improved ability to focus, and potential benefits for those dealing with chronic pain, depression and anxiety.
The best part is, no equipment is needed. Taking a few slow, deep breaths throughout your day, going for a mindful walk where you pay attention to the sensations of your body in the surrounding environment as you walk, are all ways to practice mindfulness.
It can be helpful to have some guidance in your practice. There is a wealth of free resources available, including free phone apps (“Stop Breathe Think” is one that I like), online videos, and recordings and books available at your local library.
You cannot do it wrong
As you practice mindfulness, the goal is to be aware of the moment. Undoubtedly, your attention will wander. This is OK — when you notice your attention wandering, you just bring it back. The process of noticing and bringing your attention back is actually where the benefit is. It is like doing a bicep curl for your mindfulness muscles, and you can do this workout anytime and anywhere.
If you are interested in learning more about the mental health services at NorthPoint Health and Wellness, call Dr. D.A. Golden at NorthPoint Health & Wellness Clinic, 612-543-2705.