The practice of mindfulness has become popular in the last several years, yet there is still much confusion around what it actually means. I was first introduced to mindfulness through my education and training. I wanted to use mindfulness, so I read and practiced, and read some more about what it meant to be mindful. Honestly, I have to admit I did not fully buy-in at first. I found it difficult, if not impossible, when I was instructed to clear my mind or focus on my breath. My mind is busy, as is my life, so my thoughts wandered to the litany of chores waiting at home or the ever-growing list of tasks at work. I became frustrated and thought this just isn’t for me. I figured I must be doing it wrong or missing something that everyone else seemed to get. However, over the next several years of practicing and eventually teaching mindfulness to others, I learned this reaction is very common.
Mindfulness can be unfamiliar and uncomfortable at first. Our minds have an itch to wander. In fact, we spend the majority of our mental energy either dwelling in the past or anticipating the future. The first step of mindfulness is simply to notice this – without judgement. Instead of criticizing myself when my mind wandered, I started to observe it. Then I would gently bring myself back to the present. Mindfulness is often described as being in the present moment. Since this is impossible to do all the time, I prefer the definition of bringing attention to the present moment. Mindfulness is the intentional shift back to the moment. In essence it is paying attention on purpose.
In my years of teaching mindfulness through my work at Howard Center, I have found creative ways to take an abstract principle and base it on something concrete. The key is to have a focus point, something that is tangible and observable, like watching a candle flame flicker or squeezing a ball of putty. When your mind inevitability wanders to what you’ll eat for dinner, you have a concrete object to bring it back. Drawing on a variety of senses can be grounding on many levels.
I often ask people to notice three things, ‘What do you see? What do you hear? What do you feel?’ If you can ask yourself at least one of those questions as you go about your day, you will have practiced being mindful. It is really that simple. Mindfulness can last one minute, five minutes or longer. There are no rules on how long you practice.
The beauty of understanding mindfulness in this way is that you can do it at any time. We are all busy people in a busy world and finding the time to practice mindfulness can be daunting. So, start small – start with just noticing. Pick one activity each day that you would do anyway and try to do it mindfully. Try to pay attention to that one thing. This could be brushing your teeth, walking your dog or hugging your kid. While you are engaged in that activity, focus your mind on that activity. Think of your senses and the three questions. What do you see as you walk your dog around your neighborhood? What does it sound like when you brush your teeth? What do your child’s arms feel like as they wrap around your neck?
We experience thousands of moments a day, yet we miss so much by getting lost in the busyness of our minds. Allowing yourself the gift of being present can lead to a much deeper appreciation for what is right in front of you.