Everywhere you look these days, people seem to be professing the benefits of mindfulness. Yogis have been talking about it for thousands of years, and now Western science is finally starting to catch up with what some sages have known for ages. But what is mindfulness anyway? And why should you care?
To put it succinctly, Ronald Siegel, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Harvard Medical School, states that mindfulness is: "awareness of present experience with acceptance."
Sounds simple enough, but it can be trickier than you think.
How often are you really present and aware?
In this age of social media, cell phones, computers, tablets and smart watches, how often do you pause, disconnect from the media-saturated digital world and connect with the world around you? How often do you wait in line or for the train or bus, for example, and really just wait? Can you do it without listening to music on your iPhone or checking the latest snapchats or emails?
The iPhone was released when I was in college, and I remember vividly the day when I looked around campus as I was walking to class and thought - Does anyone just walk anymore? I looked around and saw that nearly everyone had headphones on or was talking on the phone. Not many people were simply walking and interacting with the environment around them. With time, I started to get uncomfortable walking across campus without talking on the phone or listening to something on my phone. I noticed that it took a lot of energy and discipline to go against the sudden social tendency to never be fully present and aware.
After I graduated I got a job, and before I knew it I was attached at the hip to my iPhone and all my work emails and texts. I was never alone - someone could always reach me. I started to resent my phone. I yearned for a simpler time when people had to pick up the phone to reach people, or had to type things on a typewriter rather than answer hundreds of emails and update several spreadsheets a day.
Did that idyllic time ever exist?
Regardless of the current technology, humans will always find ways to not be present. We are so often lost in our own thoughts about the future or past, and rarely are we fully aware and present. So I can blame technology if I want, but ultimately, as I realized, the choice to be present is mine and mine alone.
If any of what you've read so far resonates with you, you might be wondering, "okay, so why should I care? What can a mindfulness practice offer me?"
While it won't make all your troubles away - it will help change how you respond to daily life and ultimately live in a way that reduces anxiety and worry.
In simple terms, here are 5 basic principles of mindfulness that, when understood and put into practice, can take you a long way:
- Recognize that you are not your thoughts.
- Observe your thoughts, but do not judge them. Don't try and suppress them or get rid of them. Just notice your thoughts and allow them to float by without engaging with them.
- Practice becoming immersed in the environment around you. Take off your headphones. Turn off your smartphone. Look at the world around you.
- Take note of patterns of thoughts that occur often and label them so that when they come up again, you can say, "Oh, there's that thought pattern again..." Acknowledge it, and move on.
- Return to your breath - be in your body, and take in the world as it presently is around you.
What's even more important than all of these tips is actually making time for them! We often get wrapped up in the runaway train of our thoughts because we think we don't have enough time. Don't get on that train. Pause. Breathe. Take time for yourself, even if it's just a minute, and see what happens.
Written by Rajmani Sinclair, 05/17/2016