Have you noticed how often your mind is paying attention to either your past or your future? You tend to focus on regrets from choices or circumstances in your past or worries about your future.
Truth is, most of us spend very little time in the present (which is, by the way, the only time we actually have for ourselves). Which means in practical terms that we are not fully present to enjoy that which matters most to us--our relationships, our work, our experiences, even our spirituality. And it means that what presence we do have is emanating a spirit of stress and worry that is invading from a point of time not even available to us--the past or the future.
Perhaps you know someone who lives like this. They can never actually savor the moment completely because no matter what good might be happening they immediately wish for more or express discontent with some aspect of this moment. Or they bring up some regret from the past--some form of blame about decisions made back when--so that the present moment, even when it's good, is minimized and diminished. Or they often express a worry about the future so that this good moment cannot be fully embraced and enjoyed.
What does this do to our existence? It fills us with unnecessary stress, worry, anxiety, fear, despair, depression, discontent, joylessness. And the unhappy result is that this stress negatively impacts our relationships and experience of life wherever we go and whomever we're with. It drains the possibilities from the present moment.
The Practice of Mindfulness
This is why the practice of mindfulness is so significant. Mindfulness is all about learning how to live in the present moment. It's about becoming more conscious of your thoughts, observing them as they come into your mind, refusing to place value or judgment on them, and simply letting them go in order to focus again on the present moment. It's paying attention without judgment. Here's the way one expert describes it:
When we practice mindfulness, our thoughts tune into what we’re sensing in the present moment rather than rehashing the past or imagining the future.
The Amazing Benefits of Mindfulness
Studies have shown that practicing mindfulness, even for just a few weeks, can bring an amazing transformation, a whole variety of physical, psychological, and social benefits. Here are some of these benefits, which extend across many different settings (from Great Good Science Center):
- Mindfulness is good for our bodies: A seminal study found that, after just eight weeks of training, practicing mindfulness meditation boosts our immune system’s ability to fight off illness.
- Mindfulness is good for our minds: Several studies have found that mindfulness increases positive emotions while reducing negative emotions and stress. Indeed, at least one study suggests it may be as good as antidepressants in fighting depression and preventing relapse.
- Mindfulness changes our brains: Research has found that it increases density of gray matter in brain regions linked to learning, memory, emotion regulation, and empathy.
- Mindfulness helps us focus: Studies suggest that mindfulness helps us tune out distractions and improves our memory and attention skills.
- Mindfulness fosters compassion and altruism: Research suggests mindfulness training makes us more likely to help someone in need and increases activity in neural networks involved in understanding the suffering of others and regulating emotions. Evidence suggests it might boost self-compassion as well.
- Mindfulness enhances relationships: Research suggests mindfulness training makes couples more satisfied with their relationship, makes each partner feel more optimistic and relaxed, and makes them feel more accepting of and closer to one another.
The truth is, mindfulness is essential to our overall wellbeing! The science is unequivocal. We neglect this practice at the peril of the quality of life in every aspect of our lives. And the cost to the people around us is huge, too.
How To Practice Mindfulness
There are many simple ways to practice mindfulness. Here are several suggestions I like from Alfred James' blog Pocket Mindfulness. I like these two for their simplicity and for their specificity, which I've discovered helps me practice mindfulness more easily.
1. One Minute Breathing
This exercise can be done anywhere at any time, standing up or sitting down. All you have to do is focus on your breath for just one minute. Start by breathing in and out slowly, holding your breath for a count of six once you’ve inhaled. Then breathe out slowly, letting the breath flow effortlessly out back into the atmosphere.
Naturally your mind will try and wander amidst the valleys of its thoughts, but simply notice these thoughts, let them be for what they are and return to watching your breath.
Literally watch your breath with your senses as it enters your body and fills you with life, and then watch it work its way up and out of your body as the energy dissipates into the universe.
If you’re someone who thought they’d never be able to meditate, guess what? You’re half way there already! If you enjoyed one minute of this mind-calming exercise, why not try two?
2. Mindful Observation
This exercise is simple but incredibly powerful. It is designed to connect us with the beauty of the natural environment, which is easily missed when we’re rushing around…
Pick a natural organism within your immediate environment and focus on watching it for a minute or two. This could be a flower or an insect, the clouds or the moon.
Don’t do anything except notice the thing you are looking at. But really notice it. Look at it as if you are seeing it for the first time.
Visually explore every aspect of this glorious organism of the natural world. Allow yourself to be consumed by its presence and possibilities. Allow your spirit to connect with its role and purpose in the world. Allow yourself just to notice and ‘be’.
And if you're looking for an even more complete work on mindfulness, John Parrott in one of his blogs, writes very helpfully about this theme and experience: "The Art of Mindfulness: Why Mindfulness Matters." You will really appreciate his thoroughness and the simplicity with which he writes about this hugely significant personal growth and development practice.
There's an ancient scripture that says, "As a person thinks in their heart, so are they."
Neuroscience is confirming this reality again and again. You and I shape our brains, and reshape our brains, based upon what we choose to pay attention to. And the ensuing energy and atmosphere that emanate from us radically impact the people all around us, positively or negatively.
We are thermostats that influence the temperature in us and around us. So be strategic and intentional in setting your temperature. You choose. And you impact.
Why not give mindfulness a try? Even a small amount improves our brains and subsequently our lives. You owe it to yourself. And to your people.
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