What is mindfulness?
Being present: a healthy approach
A simple definition of mindfulness is focusing one's awareness on the present moment, or living in the now.
How do we do this? One way is to put the mind's attention into the body and observe rather than think, or notice without judgment. Try this while sitting in the sun with your eyes closed: feel the sensation of breathing in and breathing out. Focus on your breath. Accept the way your body does this without wondering why. That is mindfulness.
Mindfulness doesn't have to be meditation. For over 40 years, Ellen Langer, America's "Mother of Mindfulness" and founder of the The Langer Mindfulness Institute at Harvard University, has conducted data-driven studies of mindfulness without meditation. She advocates paying attention to the task at hand through novelty and engagement.
Here's an example: the next time you're driving, at every light pay attention to what's outside your window. Notice your surroundings - the contrast between sky and forest, sun glinting on water or buildings, the playfulness of kids or canines. Inevitably, you'll revert to contemplation about past or future events, as we all do. But notice that, too. And then look out the window and seek novelty.
When you stopped to look, were you feeling positive, perhaps even smiling?
Mindful awareness not only makes you feel better, it's good for you!
Some people do prefer a more meditative approach to mindfulness.
Here's a simple way to begin:
- Focus on your breathing
- Feel each inhale and exhale
- If a thought comes, return to the breath (slow it down or envision colors)
- Notice how this makes you feel
Honing your awareness with the breath calms all systems of the body. From the perspective of neuroscience, it engages the parasympathetic nervous system, the innate "rest and digest" function that controls the body's relaxation response. Aware of your breathing, you can let go of expectations. Past and the future concerns fall away as you inhabit the current moment. This is mindfulness.
Mindfulness is often spoken of as the heart of Buddhist meditation. It's not about Buddhism, but about paying attention. That's what all meditation is, no matter what tradition or particular technique is used.
Mindfulness is awareness: of our world and our place in it. There's plenty of documented scientific evidence (from the work of Ellen Langer and Jon Kabat-Zinn, creator Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, among others) that reveals how mindfulness benefits our health. Challenges will arise, but turning to mindfulness in times of stress brings a sense of clarity and calm. The tendency to churn with what has been or might be diminishes. By paying attention mindfully, we can let go and be present.
We begin to LIVE LIFE!
In discovering the nature of our mind/body connection through mindfulness, we accept ourselves with empathy and gladness. Our hearts open without the need for artifice. We settle into the present moment, aware of the gift that is life, grounded in gratitude. Here we find our true self.
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