Mental health has become a greater focus for many people in recent years. The demands of modern life can be stressful and overwhelming. As people seek for new ways to manage and reduce their stress, many are discovering the amazing practice of mindfulness.
What Is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is the energy of being awake and aware. It involves paying attention to our experience in the present moment, and experiencing it without judgment.
Whether we are aware of it or not, most of us spend a significant amount of time consumed by our thinking. We get caught up in planning, day dreaming, reminiscing, judging, analyzing, narrating, labeling, and thinking, and all of this mental activity tends to distract us from what we are actually doing in the present moment.
A good example of this is an experience that many people are familiar with—driving our car on autopilot. When we first learned to drive a car, we paid close attention to our hands on the steering wheel, how the car moved and swayed its way along the road as we clumsily jerked the wheel back and forth, correcting and overcorrecting our steering. We were fully attentive, completely focused on the mechanics of driving—we had to, as the experience was so new to us, that we could not afford not to pay attention.
After a while, we got used to driving. Our hands and feet became familiar with the movements of operating a vehicle, and we became skilled at driving smoothly ahead without paying much attention to our hands and feet. We could even drive, talk, eat, and listen to the radio all at the same time if we wanted to.
Over time, we get so familiar with the routine of driving, that it can become somewhat mechanical. We may even have experiences of being seemingly absent minded the whole time we are driving. We get in the car, pull out of the drive way, get on the road… and all the sudden we arrive at our destination, having completely ignored the whole distance we just drove. Our mind went on a vacation and our body continued functioning on autopilot, maneuvering through traffic and stoplights while we were preoccupied with our thoughts.
Thankfully, our body was able to take the wheel! However, being on autopilot like this happens far too often—and not just while driving. We often miss out on our direct experience because we are consumed and distracted by thoughts, and consequently, are unaware of what we are actually doing. Our body is doing one thing while our mind is on vacation somewhere else, and unfortunately, we aren’t really present for much of our life.
Not only do many of us miss out on our present moment experience by living our days constantly dwelling in our thoughts, but many of us are also completely unaware that we are doing this.
Furthermore, we often don’t realize just how much unhappiness some of these thoughts cause us. Negative thoughts, judgments, limiting beliefs, critical self-talk—all of these can take a toll on our mental and emotional health.
Mindfulness helps us be present and in touch with our experience of life in the present moment and in doing so, it helps us find freedom from our thoughts and more happiness overall.
Mindfulness is the practice of deliberately paying attention to our present moment experience. With mindfulness, we can wake up from our daydream and reconnect with our lives in the present moment in a deep and meaningful way.
As we practice mindfulness of the present moment, we begin to feel more connected and in touch with the present moment, and as a result, we begin to feel more satisfied with life. We stop seeking to be somewhere else, we stop dwelling on the past, we stop chasing after the future—just to be alive here and now is enough.
As mindfulness teacher & Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh says, “the present moment is full of joy, if only you have the eyes to see it.” So many of us don’t recognize the many things that we have to appreciate in the present moment. We get caught in our desire for something else, always chasing after the next moment, thinking that we will find happiness there.
But happiness only exists now, in the present moment. The more in touch we get with the present moment, the more alive we feel, and the more connected and happy we become.
Healing with Mindfulness
Mindfulness helps us touch the beauty and joy of life in the present moment, but the present moment isn't always joyful. This is why many of us often try to escape the present moment. We are often resisting some unacknowledged pain or difficult emotion, and so we are unable to be relaxed and at ease.
Instead, we seek for something to stimulate and distract us. We reach for our phones, we turn on the television, we eat something for comfort. All of these are only temporary solutions, and often the vices we use as escapes do us more harm than good.
Mindfulness can also help us heal on a deep emotional level. By paying attention to our emotions and getting more in touch with our feelings, we can release emotional pains and heal from past trauma. This can have direct physical benefits as well as the nervous system relaxes and as tension is relieved in the muscles.
With mindfulness, we can stop running away from ourselves and our pain, and learn to simply be with ourselves just as we are—along with all of our anxious thoughts, emotional turmoil, pain, shortcomings and imperfections.
To experience the present moment mindfully requires that we have a deep acceptance of whatever is happening in the present moment. Accepting reality as it is can help us to have more acceptance of ourselves as we are. Things are just as they are—it is only our judgments and opinions that create negative views. Seeing this clearly can help us let go of our judgments—including our self-judgments—and open up more fully to life as it is outside of our limiting ideas and views about it.
As simple as mindfulness might sound, it carries a tremendous amount of energy and an incredible potential for healing. Mindfulness practice has been used clinically to treat numerous psychological ailments and mood disorders, including anxiety, depression, anger, addiction, and much more. It has also been used successfully for reducing physical pain and ailments.
The best place to start with mindfulness is to start by practicing mindfulness of our breathing. To be mindful is always to be mindful of something. Since our breath is something that is always with us, and always functioning in the present moment, it provides a very stable foundation for mindfulness practice.
As you breathe in, simply become aware that you are breathing in, and as you breathe out, simply become aware that you are breathing out.
There is no need to control or manipulate the breath. To be aware of it is enough. As you practice awareness of breath, you will find that it can be very refreshing, relaxing and pleasant.
You can be happy and peaceful with something as simple as your own breathing. Keeping your awareness on your breath, you can also continue to perform other daily tasks, allowing your breath to be the anchor that helps you stay present and peaceful.
The state of our mind is intimately linked with our breathing. The next time you are stressed or anxious, intentionally alter your breath pattern to be slow, long, and deep. Breathe in full, complete and gentle breaths, and notice how after just a few breaths your mind will be more calm and relaxed.
In fact, why wait until you are stressed to breathe deeply? Take a few moments now to close your eyes, observe your breath, and to breathe in a deep and relaxed way. Give yourself permission to experience peace in this very moment.
Observe Your Senses
Another great way to practice mindfulness is to pay attention to your sensory experience. Our senses are always functioning in the present moment. Try to pay closer attention to your senses and just experience them openly, without forming any judgments or opinions about what you experience.
Feel what it is like just to hear a sound without naming it, or to observe something without analyzing it. Touch something with your fingers and pay attention its texture. All of these can help bring you into deeper contact with life in the present moment.
Another foundational practice for developing mindfulness is to adopt a regular seated meditation practice. With seated meditation, we silently pay attention to the present moment, and try to remain present and aware. When we get distracted by thoughts, as we inevitably will, we try to notice it as soon as we can and come back to paying attention to the present moment.
It can help to pick an object to focus on, such as your breath. Focus on your natural breathing, observing it in an attentive and relaxed manner, and whenever your mind wanders, kindly bring it back to the breath.
This is a great way to train your mind to be more mindful and less easily distracted by thinking. Like mindfulness, meditation offers many great benefits.
Mindfulness in Daily Life
Mindfulness is the practice of deliberately paying attention to the present moment and experiencing it openly without judgment. Doing so helps us touch life in a more deep and meaningful way, and can help us increase happiness, reduce stress, and improve our mental and emotional well-being.
We can bring this quality of attentiveness to every single experience. We can practice mindfulness while washing the dishes, driving our car, brushing our teeth, or anything else.
Instead of letting your mind wander and get caught up in thinking, practice paying attention to whatever you are doing in the present moment.
In no time, you will begin to experience the incredible benefits of mindfulness yourself. Rather than a practice, mindfulness can become a way of living your life and connecting to the peace and happiness that is always available to us in the present moment.