Do you ever feel as if you’re tending to more than one thing at a time, such as eating a meal while you work on your computer, or (gasp) texting while you’re driving? Do you find yourself feeling scattered or tense as a result? Do you notice that you’ve developed habits, such as relying on excess caffeine, sugar, alcohol, or nicotine, to keep you going? It’s not coincidental.
When we multi-task, which our society actually encourages us to do, we don’t fully attend to any one thing, and we miss out on the nurturing and centering experience of being fully present. As a result, we can lose touch with what we’re really feeling and need and may grab something that ultimately doesn’t satisfy us. For example, have you ever drunk a second cup of coffee to “wake yourself up”, when in retrospect you were actually feeling sad or lonely? As they say, hardware stores are great for a lot of things, but not for a pair of shoes (at least not the hardware stores in my neighborhood!). If you’re too distracted to recognize what’s going on with you internally, it’s hard to determine and take the steps needed to take care of yourself.
Mindfulness, defined as non-judgmental awareness of the present moment, can serve as an antidote to this disconnect with yourself. In mindfulness practice, you adopt an inquisitive and observing attitude toward your thoughts, feelings, and circumstances. You stay emotionally and mentally present, rather than being preoccupied with the future or past. Easier said than done, but with practice you can become more easily able to stay in the moment and simply note what’s going on with you, rather than reacting automatically to “fix” the situation in less than optimal ways.
So, how do you practice mindfulness? One simple method involves focusing on your breath:
- Sit quietly, with a straight spine, to encourage relaxed alertness.
- Close your eyes.
- Make it your intention to be in this moment and to be open to what comes up, without judging your experience.
- Bring your attention to your breath and simply notice as you slowly inhale and exhale. You’re not trying to make anything happen but just to observe what is naturally taking place.
- If your mind begins to wander, as it inevitably will, simply notice this and gently bring your attention back to your breath. No need to judge your thoughts, as it’s the mind’s nature to think. Just remember that you don’t have to believe everything you think. Awareness and acceptance of your thoughts is paradoxically the key to detaching from them rather than identifying with them as reality.
Try five minutes at first, and build up to 20 minutes a day or so, if possible. However, it’s better to practice mindfulness for only a few minutes a day then not at all.
By changing your relationship with your thoughts, feelings, and experiences and learning to accept them as they are, rather than how you might like them to be, you can literally change your brain and create new neural pathways. Studies have shown that even only a few months of mindfulness meditation have been associated with positive brain changes, so it’s never too late to start.
Try for an attitude of kindness toward yourself if uncomfortable emotions arise, and you’ll find it easier to develop and maintain a sense of inner calm, no matter what life throws your way. As a result of accepting yourself, you’ll be more able to experience each moment of your life more fully, without the draining effect of judgment or anxiety-provoking sense that you should be “doing something”. We are, after all, human beings, not human doings.