30 September 2012

Where is your mind now? And now...and now?

I believe that everyone should strive to be mindful, in everything we do--throughout our moments, hours, days, weeks, months, years, and lives. This post focuses on the what, how, when, and why of mindfulness practice.

A moment's insight is sometimes worth a life's experience.
- Oliver Wendell Holmes 

What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is:
  • Being fully aware of each moment as it's occurring
  • Accepting that moment just as it is, without judgment
  • Not being attached to continuing this moment, or wanting to push it away
Although mindfulness technically is a form of meditation, I tend to think of mindfulness as meditation "off the cushion". Like me, some of you may have a regular meditation practice and find it easier than you used to to focus your mind when sitting in a designated space, with minimal distractions. But when the world is moving quickly around us and we're moving around in the world, it's easier for our minds to run around unchecked.

How to Be More Mindful
Whatever you're doing in this moment, bring your full attention, your "heart and soul" as it were, to it. Keep your mind out of the past, out of the future, and completely in the here and now. No mental time travel! You will quickly observe that this is difficult. Try repeating, "I'm doing X" over and over as you're doing X, anytime you notice your mind wandering. You may not notice your mind wandering at first, but with practice, you will come back to a mindful state more quickly. I don't think it's coincidental that it's called "mindfulness practice"--it's not something that comes easily. We all have to work at it.

Where to Practice Mindfulness
Here are some ordinary yet challenging situations where you might practice being mindful:
  • Driving your car to and from work
  • Exercising (e.g. running on a treadmill, using an elliptical machine or a bike)
  • Washing a sink full of dishes
  • Eating meals
  • Cooking a meal or preparing a snack
  • Walking from place to place
  • Taking a shower and other tasks related to personal hygiene
  • Performing a task at work
  • Talking with another person
Why is mindfulness difficult, especially in these situations? You might characterize some of these activities as mundane tasks or chores. Many of them are repetitive, and/or there's nothing new about them. It is exactly in these types of situations where our mind wants to be entertained with something more interesting. This makes them great "training opportunities" for mindfulness practice. For others, these activities might be ones where the desire to multitask to "get more done" is high. (Thinking about your response in a conversation when someone is still talking is an example.)

Why Practice Mindfulness
But what's in it for us really? To start, how about:
  • Improved memory: since you're fully present in what you're doing (i.e. "I'm putting my keys on this counter top"), you'll forget less. While this is a simple example that might drive us nuts occasionally, there are obviously much more important things to remember. For more information about memory and mindfulness, check out the video Improving Attention and Working Memory with Mindfulness Training.
  • Better relationships: if you're not thinking about your responses but are actively listening to other people, they'll feel more heard and connected to you. Read about 11 Ways That Active Listening Can Help Your Relationships.
  • Heightened ability to make connections, and therefore better decisions: when you're really paying attention, you will more easily be able to take in more information, and possibly identify themes that will help you make more informed decisions. Learn more about how mindfulness meditation changes decision-making process.
  • Increased productivity and efficiency: yes, single (rather than multi-) tasking will help you get more done in less time, and feel more accomplished to boot. See How (and Why) to Stop Multitasking for more information and some advice.
  • Generate less stress, and be a more loving person: if we're not as attached or adverse to what happens in our lives, when we can accept "what is", we not only become more accepting of others, but also of ourselves. Overall we generate less anxiety and stress, and cultivate loving-kindness.
What Has Your Experience with Mindfulness Been?
Have a story about how being mindful has helped or changed you, or a specific challenge you've come across in trying to practice mindfulness? Let's chat about it -- comments are welcome!

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