“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
To begin A More Conscious Year, I thought I would start with the goal of being more mindful, or present, during the month of January. Many of you reading this may be well aware of the definition of mindfulness, but for any who are not, The Greater Good Science center’s Definition of Mindfulness reads, “Mindfulness means maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment. Mindfulness also involves acceptance, meaning that we pay attention to our thoughts and feelings without judging them—without believing, for instance, that there’s a “right” or “wrong” way to think or feel in a given moment.” Or as Wildmind Buddhist Meditation puts it in the post What is Mindfulness, we don’t judge experiences as good or bad, or if we do make judgements, we simply notice them and let them go. “We don’t get upset because we’re experiencing something we don’t want to be experiencing or because we’re not experiencing what we would rather be experiencing. We simply accept whatever arises. We observe it mindfully. We notice it arising, passing through us, and ceasing to exist. Whether it’s a pleasant experience or a painful experience we treat it the same way.”
Put that way, it doesn’t sound so difficult. But in the midst of a stressful situation, it can be quite difficult to maintain that sort of non-judgemental awareness. And that is where the importance of practice comes in. The more you practice being mindful, the more natural a state it will become, even in times of stress.
The benefits of mindfulness are many:
- greater ability to concentrate;
- lowered stress levels;
- improved immune function;
- growth in the area of the brain involved in learning, memory, emotional regulation, and empathy;
- improved relationships;
- increased ability to parent responsively, and
- a greater sense of joy.
In her Huffington Post article, Thirteen Things Mindful People Do Differently Everyday, Carolyn Gregoire describes how mindful people meditate, pay attention to their breathing, turn daily tasks into mindful moments, take long walks, feel their feelings rather than trying to run from them or drown them in chocolate or alcohol, pay attention to what they put into their bodies and minds, and consequently, are more likely to seek out new experiences, appreciate nature, take themselves less seriously and experience more joy.
I would like to be one of those people!
But practicing mindfulness is not easy, especially in Western, multi-tasking, productivity driven societies. Practicing mindfulness involves a conscious effort to slow down, to pay attention to what is in front of you, to push aside all of the planning, worrying, ruminating that many of us do on a regular basis as we go about our daily lives. Practicing mindfulness involves changing neural pathways in our brains that have served us for years, if not decades, of automatic responses.
But it can be done.
Mindfulness, a practice that arose out of Buddhist tradition, is now being practiced in homes, schools, hospitals and offices around the world. The internet abounds with scientific findings on the proven benefits of being more mindful.
So how can we become more mindful?
In his post The Mindfulness Guide for the Super Busy on Zen Habits, Leo Babauta suggests a 30-Day Mindfulness Challenge and lists eleven tips for practice during the month, including:
- doing one thing at a time, slowly and deliberately;
- doing less, with breaks in-between;
- taking five minutes for a daily meditation;
- practicing conscious listening; and
- turning meals and daily chores into opportunities to practice mindfulness.
For the month of January, I have chosen the following practices to help me have a more mindful month:
1. Week 1: “Single” Tasking – Practicing Mindful Eating and Daily Chores
Because I’ve found it difficult to stay mindful for long periods of time in the past, I want to start this month out with something that will be easy to practice anywhere and that will provide me with regular reminders of my intention. Throughout our days, we are almost always doing something and many of us typically eat three meals a day. Making a conscious effort to eat mindfully and do whatever it is I’m doing at the time, more mindfully, will allow for countless opportunities throughout my days. In the post 13 Ways to Bring More Mindfulness into Your Life, on Daring to Life Fully, Marelisa Febrega suggests starting small by choosing one thing you do every day and practice doing it mindfully. She also recommends pausing before starting a new activity and taking a few breaths before beginning. Eating mindfully would be a good start. For more on mindful eating see Tiny Buddha’s 5 Tips for Mindful Eating and Summer Tomato’s 9 Tricks to Eat More Mindfully.
2. Week 2: Awareness of Mindfulness Cues
Mindfulness cues, or reminders, can be helpful to bring your mind back to the present moment. Mindfulness cues can be internal or external. Internal mindfulness cues include things like rapid breathing, a sense of frustration, or negative thoughts. External mindfulness cues could be entering and exiting through a door (each time pausing to return to the present moment), hearing a phone ring, beginning a conversation, sitting down to eat, starting a car, etc. For the second week of January, I will make a list of mindfulness cues to bring myself back to the present moment and add them to my practice.
2. Week 2: Practice Mindful Body / Sensory Awareness
As many writings on mindfulness state, while our mind can wander, our body is always in the present. By returning to our body through body and sensory awareness, we can connect the two and return to the present moment. Additionally, our body often reacts the same way when we are confronted with a real stressor or are simply thinking about something stressful. Awareness of these stress responses, rapid breathing or tightened muscles allows us to conscious return our bodies to a state of calm. For the third week of January, in addition to continuing my practice of “single tasking” and awareness of mindfulness cues when I notice my mind wandering or my body tensing, I will work to return my attention to the feeling of my feet on the ground or an object against my skin; noticing the sights, sounds, smells and textures around me. to bring myself calmly back to the present.
4. Week 4: Practice Regular Meditation (Twice a Day)
Meditation, it is said, is not essential for mindfulness, but it helps a great deal. And the benefits of meditation both mirror and increase those of a mindfulness practice. So for the third week of January, I am going to add a second 15 minute afternoon meditation practice to my regular evening meditation. For more see GAIAM Life’s Meditation 101 and Goodlife Zen’s How to Meditate: 10 Important Tips.
Throughout the month, I will also use the mantra, “Be Here Now,” to bring my attention back to the present moment whenever I notice it wandering. This mantra has worked for me in the past.
While strategies listed above may work for me, I realize that they may not work for everyone. In her Psychology Today article 10 Best Practices for Being Present, Nancy Colier, LMSW, she acknowledges that all practices for cultivating mindful will not work for everyone because we all respond uniquely to different stimuli. She recommends trying different practices and selecting the ones that resonate most with you (The post 13 Ways to Bring More Mindfulness into Your Life, mentioned above, lists some more varied and creative mindfulness exercises).
Cultivating a mindfulness practice isn’t easy. It takes concentration, dedication and a genuine desire to be more mindful. For every time I have been able to focus mindfully, there are at least 100 times I’ve simply been mindful of the fact that I haven’t been mindful. Additionally, in her post Seven Obstacles to Mindfulness and How to Overcome Them, Tiny Buddha recognizes that “sometimes you want to be anywhere but in the now.” As a parent of two small children, I can recall many instances when I’ve wanted to escape the present moment by any means possible. Yet, again, hopefully, with practice, staying in the moment won’t be so difficult, or unappealing. Tiny Buddha states, that “when you realize that the challenging times are there to help you grow, you will automatically feel more peaceful and relaxed.”
Here’s to automatically feeling more peaceful and relaxed!
Thanks for Reading and Happy New Year! I hope this is a year filled with joy, peace, happiness and countless moments of consciousness!
What about you? Do you have mindfulness practices that work for you that you’d like to share? Are you interested in your own More Mindful Year? If so, I’d love to hear from you!
Sharon, Author, The Conscious Parenting Notebook