“The best way to capture moments is to pay attention. This is how we cultivate mindfulness. Mindfulness means being awake. It means knowing what you are doing.” ~ Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life
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This past week, I delivered two presentations related to stress management, one for residents and one for physicians. For both of them, one of the main strategies we discussed was mindfulness. This concept is not new, in fact to some people may seem to be over-used, and therefore, perhaps under-appreciated. However, when you consciously apply mindfulness to your life, it levels out your emotions by generating feelings of both calm and clarity. As someone who has always tended to overthink both the past and the future, I am consciously trying to live more mindfully, in the present. The here and now is a gift, that is why it is called ‘the present’.
What is mindfulness?
A few names are synonymous with mindfulness teaching such as Thích Nhất Hạnh and Jon Kabat-Zinn. I have included a few of the concepts of mindfulness in their words below:
Thích Nhất Hạnh
- “When we are mindful, deeply in touch with the present moment, our understanding of what is going on deepens, and we begin to be filled with acceptance, joy, peace and love.”
- “What you are looking for is already in you…You already are everything you are seeking.”
- “Mindfulness practice means that we commit fully in each moment to be present; inviting ourselves to interface with this moment in full awareness, with the intention to embody as best we can an orientation of calmness, mindfulness, and equanimity right here and right now.”
In this fun video from Happify, Why Mindfulness Is A Superpower: An Animation, ABC news anchor Dan Harris the narrator, says that mindfulness and meditation are likely going to become the next big public health revolution just like exercise and eating well. He likens it to a ‘superpower’ that we all have, where we train ourselves to respond wisely to stressors in life.
What are the benefits of mindfulness?
The benefits are well-documented and extensive. I have included just a few from the Greater Good Science Center, University of California, Berkeley below:
- boosts our immune system
- improves mental health – increases positive emotions while reducing negative emotions such as anxiety and stress
- it literally changes our brains – research indicates it increases density of gray matter in brain regions linked to learning, memory, emotion regulation, and empathy
- improves relationships by making couples more satisfied and accepting of one another
- helps health care professionals cope with stress and connect with their patients
How do we incorporate mindfulness into our life?
Meditation is one way to cultivate a more mindful way of living. We often hear the terms mindfulness and meditation used together, but my simplistic way of looking at it based on my reading and research, is that meditation is a way to practice living mindfully.
As outlined in the app 10% Happier: Meditation for Skeptics, three basic steps to starting and practicing mediation include:
1) sit comfortably – can be on a chair, on the floor or on a meditation pillow
2) focus on your breath – counting may be helpful
3) when you get lost, start over – your mind will wander, just gently bring it back to the moment and breathing
* I myself like to play soothing, instrumental music or use a guided meditation.
Through meditation, we can essentially train our minds to live more in the present during everyday activities such as eating, walking and driving. How often are we not even aware of basic activities out of habit? The term ‘practice’, when referring to mindfulness and meditation, refers to the fact that we have to practice them, as living in the present moment does not come naturally to us. Instead, we are programmed to always be planning and thinking ahead.
I think Williams and Penman explain this quite well in their book Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World:
“We re-live past events and re-feel their pain, and we pre-live future disasters and so pre-feel their impact. Meditation trains the mind so that you consciously “see” your own thoughts as they occur, so that you can live your life as it unfolds in the present moment. This does not mean you are imprisoned in the present. You can still remember the past and plan for the future, but Being (mindful) mode allows you to see them for what they are. Consciously knowing you are remembering, and knowing that you are planning, helps free you from slave to mental time travel. You are able to avoid the extra pain that comes through re-living the past and pre-living the future.”
How do you try to live more mindfully?
Mindfulness Skills Workbook For Clinicians & Clients by Debra Burdick
You Are Here – Discovering the Magic of the Present Moment by Thích Nhất Hạnh
Mindfulness – An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World by Mark Williams & Danny Penman