In an increasingly connected and on-call world, it's easy to get caught up in what we imagine might happen. What will your boss say about your presentation? What if your son doesn't get into that university? Meanwhile, you're missing a lot of moments: how funny your toddler was when she put her pants on backward, how nice the sunshine feels after a long winter, and what the speed limit actually is on this stretch of road.
Being mindful of life as it happens provides more benefits than simply smelling the roses. Mindfulness has been shown to boost our immune system, improve concentration and memory, improve relationships, reduce the length of time we dwell on a past event, and even help us live longer. The American Psychological Association adds that it helps regulate emotion and decrease reactivity. Taking a moment of mindfulness to see a situation more clearly can lead to better decision-making and fewer hurt feelings.
Often the concept of mindfulness is presented hand-in-hand with meditation. For many people that may be off-putting, but it needn't be. Although a regular meditation practice can be helpful, it is not required in order to practice mindfulness. Consider this definition of mindfulness:
"Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention to our present moment experience, whether it be a sight, a sound, a taste, a smell, a sensation in the body, or mental activity (the latter includes emotions and thoughts)."
There are many ways to practice mindfulness:
Very few adults make good use of the full capacity of their breath. Notice yours: Is it full and deep; expanding your belly? Or is it short and shallow; stuck in your chest?
Pausing to take a few deep breaths is a simple act of mindfulness. You can do it now:
When you notice yourself getting angry, sad, or frustrated, take a moment to tune into your breath. What's happening to it when you're in the middle of these emotions? You don't even have to try to change it in the moment: just become aware of what's happening.
Immerse Yourself in an Everyday Task
Taking a shower, walking the dog, and doing the dishes offer opportunities to practice mindfulness. As you wash the plates, notice the texture of the sponge, the temperature of the water, and the pressure you have to apply as you scrub. Note the satisfaction you feel as the dish goes from grimy to sparkling. See if you can refrain from labeling the chore as good or bad, fun or boring, and simply accept it as neutral, acknowledging that we are the ones who assign such values to activities, and we have the choice of which value to assign.
Observe an Object
Take a couple of minutes to examine something you see every day. Notice the texture, the color, the weight, and maybe even the smell. What happens to it when the light changes? Are there any imperfections in it? How does it feel against your forehead or your leg? How does seeing it make you feel?
Appreciation is life-changing, and we can practice it toward the people in our lives as well as toward the "things" we have and use. The next time you brush your teeth, think about where that toothbrush came from. Appreciate the people who worked to get it assembled and delivered to the store. Appreciate the job that allowed you to earn the money to buy it. Appreciate the role it plays in protecting your teeth and keeping you healthy. Feel the deepest gratitude for this simple little object that makes your life so much better.
Another fun way to practice mindfulness and gratitude is to look around the room and say "thank you" to all the objects you normally take for granted: the table, the roof, the granola, the water bottle, the computer, the chair, and on and on.
Take a 10 Second Vacation
When you are feeling stressed, scattered or overwhelmed, try this technique to give yourself a 10 second vacation. Close your eyes, breathe deeply and see something beautiful in your mind. Allow yourself a mental break for the guessing and worrying. Just be in that beautiful place for 10 seconds, then gently bring yourself back to the present. It is that simple... and surprisingly effective.
No matter how busy you get, no matter what is going on in your life, you can spare 10 seconds.
Sitting in lotus position for half an hour is not in most people's wheelhouse - certainly not in mine - but meditation doesn't have to be done any one particular way. In fact, putting any kind of pressure or expectations on yourself defeats the purpose. Keep it simple; that is the key.
Start with six minutes:
Mindfulness gives you the opportunity to enjoy each day and manage the difficult moments with grace. It's a simple but powerful tool to improve your health and enhance your quality of life.