Elementary school students practice it. Doctors practice it — and their patients. Prisoners practice it. There’s mindful eating that promises a healthier way of eating. And scans show mindfulness may change the way our brains function and help us improve attention, reduce stress hormones and even bounce back faster from negative information.
I dig Janice Marturano’s definition, mindfulness is “intentionally paying attention to the present nonjudgmentally”. If I could learn to intentionally pay attention to the present nonjudgmentally, my personal relationships would markedly improve.
According to Marturano, mindfulness isn’t only about reducing stress. Or about emptying our minds of all thoughts. Or about religion.
A few years ago I team taught a course with a friend who was taking classes in a mindfulness credential program. She’d occasionally fly from Seattle to Oakland for weekend courses. She suggested we integrate mindfulness training into our graduate course for teacher credential candidates. I liked her teaching instincts and philosophy so I agreed to give it a try even though apart of me worried that it might be New Age hocus pocus. In the end, it went beautifully and I became an advocate for mindfulness.
Martuarno explains the basics:
Find a quiet place to focus your attention — on your breath or perhaps on an object. It’s not deep breathing, but rather experiencing when the breath enters and leaves. Feel the stretch in the rib cage, without me doing anything. Can I notice when the mind takes a hike and redirect it? That redirection is the exercise.
There’s also what Marturano calls ‘purposeful pauses.’ Deciding that instead of thinking of a coming meeting while brushing your teeth you really focus on the taste of the toothpaste and the bristles and the water.
My attention is so scattered sometimes I think there’s only two times when I’m truly “in the present”. The first is when I’m exerting myself when cycling at high speeds in a group and the second I don’t dare describe since this is a family friendly blog.
Marturano again, “Take yourself out of autopilot and eventually expand that ‘being in the moment’ to other parts of your life.”
Tugend says, “the idea is that over time you’ll feel more focused and more connected to yourself and others.”
Ever been at a large, raucous social gathering with someone whose unusually focused eye contact and attention made you feel heard and understood above the din? That’s mindfulness in practice.
It sounds simple, but it’s not, because it so goes against the grain of how most of us think and operate. We want to get things done, to identify and fix problems. And that’s the opposite of what mindfulness is all about.
Christy Matta, author of the book “The Stress Response”, notes:
The way it’s presented in the media, people begin to believe it’s a magic pill. I’ll clear my mind and I’ll be peaceful and stress-free. If that’s what people think, they’ll be disappointed.
If you go into it with the idea of reducing stress, you’re working against the very thing you’re trying to attain, because you’re aiming toward a goal. Mindfulness is about being present. You have to do it just to do it. You can’t strive for things.
Matta also cautions:
While being aware of your feelings may be nice when drinking a lovely cup of tea or relaxing in a garden, part of mindfulness is also uncomfortable feelings — not trying to change or judge them, but being aware of them. And that may not feel so pleasant.
Dr. Baime notes another common misconception about mindfulness, that it’s about learning to be happy. It’s not. Nor is it about eliminating stress.
Stress doesn’t go away, ever. That’s why we call it stress management rather than stress elimination. Rather, mindfulness can create a world where you experience depth, meaning and connectedness. You see joy and sadness more fully and settle more deeply into an authentic way of being.
That all important insight reminds me of a related book I previously recommended, “The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking“.
Marturano says mindfulness is supposed to:
Help us spend less time worrying about the future or fretting about the past. We’ll gain perspective, listen better and step back to consider more choices and make decisions more clearly and intentionally, rather than reactively.
But Tugend cautions people not to assume that mindfulness is some sort of miracle cure. For example:
While It has been used to good effect in classrooms, it shouldn’t be used in isolation. . . . Mindfulness can increase attention and focus, and help children respond to stress in a calmer manner, but it also needs to be part of learning concrete emotional and social skills.
Tugend also contends it’s difficult to learn to be mindful on one’s own. She says:
There are some good books that offer guidance like “Full Catastrophe Living,” (Delacorte Press, 1990) by Jon Kabat-Zinn. Professor Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, is considered one of the foremost experts on the subject.
“Everyone I spoke to,” she explains, “said that you need to take a course and perhaps go on a retreat to fully experience and gain value from mindfulness.”
Like Tugend, I can see why other people are drawn to it, given, as she says, “that we’re living in a such a fractured, information-overloaded world. We’re looking so far ahead to the next thing, we miss what’s going on in the present.”
Guilty as charged.