We often hear others say “be in the present”, “stay in the now”, “ be in the moment.” What does that mean? What they are suggesting is to be aware of what is happening to you, around you and within you in the present time. That is mindfulness. It is the ability to be aware of your physical sensations, feelings, thoughts and actions-in the present moment-without trying to change, analyze or criticize anything.
Mindfulness has its roots in Buddhism, however, it’s been practiced and taught throughout the years in many world religions. Mindfulness is used to help individuals with various health conditions. It is used in yoga. Mindfulness is used in different types of psychotherapy. Practicing mindfulness can decrease stress, improve sleep, decrease anxiety and depression. Mindfulness is used to help individuals struggling with trauma, substance abuse, eating disorders, etc. However, everyone can benefit from becoming more mindful.
How to know when you are NOT being Mindful?
Are you thinking about the past? Analyzing past situations, wishing things were different? Are you worried about the future? Are you imagining scenarios in your mind of what could go wrong? Getting lost in your fears? Do you find yourself walking somewhere and you don’t even realize how you got there? You walk into your room to get something but forget why you went there in the first place? You are at a social gathering but find yourself thinking about something else? You walk while looking at your phone and don’t notice the weather and people around you? Most people are not truly in the present most of the time. Their minds are occupied with solving problems, thinking about their fears, analyzing situations and worrying about the future. They are present physically, but not mentally. Instead, they are stuck in the past or in the future.
Tips on how to become more Mindful.
1) Increase awareness. During the day we do many activities on autopilot, without paying any attention. For example, walking somewhere and not even realizing how you got there. One way to become more mindful is by trying to notice more of what’s going on around you while doing your regular activities. Next time, make it a point to notice several things you hadn’t noticed before while walking to your destination.
2) Focus on your senses. Pay attention to your senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. Example: slow down and actually enjoy your lunch, pay attention to how it smells and tastes. Pay attention to what sounds you can hear in the morning as you open your eyes. Focus on how the water feels on your skin as you wash your hands, etc. As you focus on these activities, try to notice as many details as possible.
3) Observe your breath. If you are having difficulties doing so, tell yourself “now I am going to breathe in and breathe out.” This will help you focus your mind on the actual breathing.
4) Let the thoughts come and go. Take 5 minutes to write down any thoughts that you may have. Write them down as they pop into your mind. Don’t worry if it makes sense, if it’s irrelevant or silly. Instead of trying to solve any problems that may come up in your thoughts, let them just come, and as you write them, let them go. Don’t get stuck on them. Your mind will wander, that’s ok. Gently bring your attention back to the task. Realizing that your mind has wandered and bringing it back to the present is already being in the now. We can have thousands of thoughts throughout the day, however, you don’t have to get stuck on every single one of them. You actually have a say in what you allow your mind to focus on. You dismiss the unwanted thoughts not by trying to control them (if I tell you not to think about a huge pink elephant right now, I bet that’s the first thing you will think about. So don’t force yourself not to think about something). Instead, accept your thoughts and allow yourself to deal with them later (unless, perhaps there is an immediate solution to your problem at this very moment? Can you do something to make the situation better right now? If so, do it. But if not, then why worry? Know the difference between what you can and cannot control. Take a deep breath and let it go.)
5) Pick a time to practice mindfulness daily. It takes time to learn these skills, to “retrain” your mind not to get carried away with every thought that pops into your mind. Perhaps you can use the time you drink coffee or tea as the time to practice mindfulness? Perhaps you can start practicing yoga several times a week? Go for a walk every morning?
6) Avoid multitasking and start single-tasking. Most people multitask hoping to get more done. However, due to your attention being divided, it takes longer to complete tasks and you are more likely to make mistakes. Additionally, it can make you more tired. Instead, focus on one activity at a time. Write a list of things you need to accomplish, then cross them out as you complete them, one thing at a time. If you are eating, just eat. If you are out with your partner, use that time to spend quality time by giving him/her your undivided attention. If you are showering, use that time to shower and relax. There’s a Zen proverb that says “When walking, walk. When eating, eat.” Whatever activity you may do next time, try to focus only on that; slow down and become aware of every action.
7) Don’t avoid negativity. Accept it. The goal of mindfulness isn’t to constantly be happy. Instead, it’s about learning to accept any given moment without any resistance. Remember that to see the light you need to first know what darkness is. By accepting both negative and positive emotions, you are creating a balance, an inner feeling of peace.
8) Spend time in nature. Being outdoors can refresh you and give you some quality alone time. It can reduce stress, increase energy and attention. It’s a great coping skill for self care. Practice yoga, go for a hike, go to the beach, go to the park and get closer to “nature.” When outdoors, try to notice everything around you using your senses (what do you see? what do you hear? etc).
9) Decrease the “noise” around you. Turn the TV off, put your phone away. Make a point never to start or end the day checking email, keep your phone away from you when you sleep or when you are spending time with your loved ones. Too much screen time keeps people from truly connecting with others.
10) Name your emotions. Know the difference between emotions and thoughts. When you start feeling a certain way, try to name your emotion with one word (ask yourself what are you feeling?) Emotions (joy, anger, frustration, sadness, etc.) can be described with one word. If you find yourself explaining what you feel in a sentence, you are most likely stating what you are “thinking”. Once you name your emotion, allow yourself to feel it in the present without any judgement. Practice naming your emotions as they come up. Allow yourself to accept them and let them go without trying to “fix” anything.
“Many people are alive but don’t touch the miracle of being alive.” -Thích Nhất Hạnh, The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation.
“The beginning of freedom is the realization that you are not “the thinker.” The moment you start watching the thinker, a higher level of consciousness becomes activated.” – Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now.