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I’m an introspective introvert which means I spend a lot of time inside my own head, analyzing my thoughts, and the world around me.
My mind is busy.
Because of that, I’m usually thinking about something from the past or worrying about the future; I spend very little time focused on the present moment. That is the default way my brain works.
I started noticing this tendency of mine over the past few years, and noticed how truly detrimental it is to me. I always feel like I’m rushing through things, trying to get to the next thing. I feel like I’m always waiting for the next milestone, and I have a perpetual “grass is greener” mentality.
At the beginning of 2014, I decided that I wanted to start making an effort to be more intentional with my time and to be more present in my life.
About 6 months ago, I was watching Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday show on the OWN network, and her guest for the day was Jon Kabat-Zinn. I had never heard of him before. But after listening to him speak for 5 minutes, I realized that what he was speaking about was exactly what I had been looking for; exactly what was missing from my life.
He was talking about mindfulness.
Mindfulness allows you to pay attention to the present moment, helping you be fully invested in what’s happening around you.
That is exactly what I was looking for, summed up in one simple word.
What is Mindfulness?
The concept of mindfulness is not a new one; it’s been around for thousands of years. Mindfulness has always been one of the fundamental principle of Buddhism.
Only recently though, has it become part of mainstream culture. This is largely thanks to the efforts of Jon Kabat-Zinn, who I watched on Oprah’s show. In the 1970’s, he started the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction clinics in America and has brought the concept of mindfulness to people from all walks of life.
According to Jon Kabat-Zinn: “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”
This includes two parts:
- Observe what is occurring in the present moment (through your thoughts, feelings and sensations from any of your five senses.)
- Maintain a balanced, non-reactive relationship to whatever is occurring (having an attitude that is non-judgmental, patient and kind.)
For beginners of mindfulness, having a non-judgmental attitude to what you are noticing is HARD. I would even venture to say nearly impossible at first. Our default is to react to everything around us. To simply observe and notice without attaching judgments does not come naturally at all.
So, when I talk about mindfulness, especially in the context of just starting to learn about it and incorporate it into your life, I’m mostly talking about the first part: observing what is occurring around you in the present moment, based on your thoughts, feelings and sensations from any of your senses.
That is what “being mindful” means.
*This article offers a fantastic summary of mindfulness and is a great resource. It’s where the above definitions came from.
Why is Mindfulness Important?
In the world we live in today, our default way of living is usually the polar opposite of being present and mindful.
We live in a fast paced, busy world where we are always on the go, always plugged in, and constantly bombarded with stimulation from social media, and constant comparison to the lives of people around us.
This combination of factors only serves to exacerbate the fact that often, our human way of living is to dwell on the past or worry about/look forward to the future, instead of focusing on what’s right in front of us.
That’s why we’re plagued so deeply with a sense of time passing too quickly.
That’s why we’re often so drained and tired.
We’re stretched thin, we’re missing the good old days and we’re worrying about what the future holds, all while really only going through the motions of what’s in front of us.
The only way to stop the cycle and change the way we are living is to do something different.
How to Start Being Mindful:
Mindfulness meditations are often a huge part of the practice of being mindful.
But for people who are brand new to the concept of mindfulness, the idea of having to sit down and meditate makes them not even want to try it.
So, for starters, all mindfulness requires of you is that for a moment, you ditch the past and future focused thoughts, and pay attention to NOW.
I often think that sounds like an overly simplified explanation. “Ok, yeah. I’m paying attention. I’m being present.”
And yet, I feel I don’t know if I’m really being present or not. Like, HOW can I tell?
The easiest explanation I’ve read is to simply notice your breath.
Then, simplify it even further.
As you breath in, mentally say “I am breathing in.” When you say this, you are noticing that you are breathing in. You’re being physically present in this moment, when you say that statement.
“I am breathing in.”
“I am breathing out.”
That becomes “In… Out… In…. Out…”
As you pay attention to your breath coming in and out, that’s it – you are being fully present and mindful of what’s happening right here, right now.
That might not seem all that earth-shattering at first. It’s just breathing, after all.
But think about it. Your mind, for these few seconds, isn’t lost in the past or worrying about the future. You’re here, fully invested in what is happening RIGHT NOW. That is what being present and mindful is all about.
2. Engage Your Senses:
The second simple way that I practice mindfulness is to put my senses to use.
You can do this without even changing what you’re currently doing at all.
Simply start paying attention.
What do you see?
What do you hear?
What do you feel?
Right now, I see my computer screen. I hear the instrumental music coming from my speakers. I feel the chair I’m sitting on, and the keys under my fingers. I feel the scarf hanging around my neck.
As you notice what’s happening right here, right now, you are practicing being mindful and fully present.
It helps even more to give yourself a little room. Slow down, stop multitasking, turn the music off, stop what you’re doing, and just be. Take a few deep breaths and notice what you see, hear and feel, without being pulled in a dozen different directions. This brings your simple practice of breathing and engaging your senses together.
The key with all of this is to do it slowly, in little baby steps.
Try it for a minute today.
Tomorrow, try it for a few minutes.
Any time I start to feel particularly frazzled and stressed, that’s usually a sign that I’m about as far from being mindful as possible. Sometimes I realize I’m not engaged in the present at all; that my mind is elsewhere and I’m totally missing what happening in front of me.
When that happens, I take a deep breath: “In… Out… In… Out…” And I start to pay attention to what I am noticing around me.
This is the first step toward being mindful and present. The first step toward being grounded.
Benefits of Mindfulness:
There have been extensive studies about the benefits of mindfulness. The results are powerful.
Among the most important benefits, in my opinion, are:
- Experiencing more of your life. When you’re not lost in the past or thinking about the future, you can be right here, noticing and enjoying what’s happening right in front of you. Life is lived in the present, so we need to be fully here more often. Even if it starts with a minute here and a minute there, that little bit makes a difference.
- Feeling more content. You will feel less like you’re constantly missing out. Less tired, less rushed and less in a hurry.
- Less stress. You can’t go back to the past and you can’t affect the future, so dwelling in those places automatically increases our stress levels. Staying present brings us face to face with the only things we can control: what’s happening right now. If we stay right here, our worry and our stress drop dramatically.
- Increased appreciation and gratitude. When we are more fully invested in what’s happening around us, we don’t miss things we otherwise would. Nature comes alive a little more. Sounds, smells and tastes are a little more rich. We connect with people a little more deeply. If you focus your attention on what’s in front of you, you will feel your level of gratitude increase.
- Less multitasking. People think multitasking is a good thing; a badge of honor. But there have been studies that prove there’s no such thing as true multitasking. All we’re doing is switching our focus back and forth between things. It’s not possible to truly do two things at once. One thing always suffers. So, by bringing our attention to the present and observing what’s happening around us, we automatically decrease our multi-tasking. This makes us more focused, as well as more invested in whatever has our attention at a given time.
– – – – –
Mindfulness can seem like some impossible and mystical thing that has amazing powers if we can only figure out how to access it.
It’s true that there’s incredible power in mindfulness, but it’s really quite simple.
By paying attention to what is happening around us, through observing our thoughts, feelings and what we notice with our senses, we are being mindful and fully present in the moment.
It’s as simple as that.
And with practice, it only gets easier.
**If you want to learn more about Jon Kabat-Zinn and mindfulness, the best book I’ve ever read on the topic is his book Wherever You Go, There You Are.
It held such profound insight and clarity for me on a topic that I wanted so desperately to learn more about but really felt mystified by.**