In a week that life has felt messier, I have found my thoughts traveling back to the feeling of my feet buried in smooth warm rocks as I hunted for agates on a rock beach along the North Shore. It was a moment that my mind and body were “completely there,” and “fully present” with no thoughts travelling back to the past or floating ahead to the future. I felt a strong sense of awareness as I smelled the crispness of the fall air, felt the sun on my face, and listened to the sounds of mighty Superior.
Noticing simple moments like this in life are the heart of what mindfulness is, and something you have likely experienced without even knowing you are practicing it. Maybe it was during a run in a favorite spot, a great conversation with an old friend, or the feeling warm laundry has when it is fresh out of the drier, moments where time stands still and you feel focused and calm.
"Paying attention on pursose, in the present moment, and nonjudgementally, to the unfolding of experience moment to moment" is how Jon Kabat-Zinn, a well known researcher and creator of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center defines mindfulness. He discusses in one of his books, Mindfulness for Beginners, that mindfulness does not mean we strive for perfection and no longer let our thoughts drift away to other things, or be critical of ourselves when this happens, but rather that we “notice” when they do, become “aware” we are doing it, and work to shift our thoughts back to the present.
When we drift away from the present, it is easy for our minds to travel towards thoughts of self-criticism and distraction, and stop listening to what our bodies are telling us and needing. We miss the positive things occurring right around us “now.” Moments we can work to stay in the present, lessen the amount of information we need to think about, which doesn’t change our struggles, but changes how we manage and experience them.
By gradually increasing mindful awareness of what our minds and bodies are doing in each moment, we can focus and shape our thoughts in more kind ways and start enjoying life more. This can decrease worry, reduce stress, increase gratitude and build a sense of calm within ourselves and others around us. Zinn suggests that mindfulness is about “responding to situations rather than reacting to them... which allows us to have a more direct experience of our lives as we are living them,” and helps us feel more connected in our relationships.
I think mindfulness is one of the easiest coping tools around. It is costs nothing, anyone can do it, the more you practice it the easier it gets and it has been shown to produce quick positive results that lead to longer term and lasting healthy perspective.
Of course it can be easier to discover mindful moments on vacation or the weekend, but I continue to find that when I succeed in being more present in the day-to-day rollercoaster of life, that the ups and downs are easier to manage, and I feel more positive. Zinn says that by “making the experience (of mindfulness) a challenge rather than a chore and thus turning the observing of one's life mindfully into an adventure in living rather than one more thing one "has" to do for oneself to be healthy,” is to give yourself and your relationships an ongoing gift.