Mindfulness has been a hot topic lately from corporations talking about using mindfulness to improve workplace performance and individuals using mindfulness as a way to counter the ever present mindlessness of technology in our society. The truth is, the majority of our waking hours are not spent in the present moment. We spend it thinking about the past, worrying about the future, planning what we’ll have for dinner or trying to remember our grocery list. And in fact it’s pretty adaptive not to be present all the time. Evolutionarily speaking, when there isn’t a direct threat in front of us it actually makes more sense for our minds to use that time and energy to focus on other problems or ways to ensure survival. Maybe you’re someone who spends a lot of time in the past: picking apart every detail of every memory trying to understand where you went wrong, how you can do things differently, or thinking through what would have happened if you had made a different decision at any point in your life. Maybe you’re someone who thinks to the future whether that future is next year, next month, next day, next moment; always trying to plan out and think through possible scenarios so you’re prepared. Regardless of which category you fall into – and most tend to have some overlap – it’s adaptive in most circumstances.
The problem of course comes when our minds begin to make mountains out of molehills, lions out of kittens, monsters out of shadows, and we spend so much mental energy either intentionally time-traveling in our minds or mindlessly escaping into a television, a good book, a computer or phone screen, a daydream to avoid the realities of right here and right now. When all of our time is spent avoiding this moment, whether because we are anxiously trying to plan for every possible outcome or we are avoiding whatever pain exists in the present, we are inevitably missing out on a lot. It may seem corny, but this moment is all we have, there is no guarantee for any specific future and there is no way to change what has already come to pass. And if we spend all of our time elsewhere the world will fly by before we even know it.
Often as people age they describe this phenomenon where time seems to speed up. I’ve been noticing it myself more and more each year. If we look at time and attention through the lens of adaptive mindlessness, then as responsibilities and pressures grow with age it makes sense that we would spend less and less time in the present thereby making time fly, yet also missing out on so many little moments of everyday life. The moments we all eventually look back on and wish we could return to, sink into, or experience just one more time because we didn’t fully appreciate it when it was happening. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Not always.
Mindfulness is not a magic cure to anxiety, it won’t clear your mind of racing thoughts, or resolve the pain in your life. Mindfulness is a practice. A practice of noticing, paying attention to your experience. Many years ago, Jon Kabot-Zinn, the founder of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), defined mindfulness as paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally. It’s my belief that this definition creates more expectations than are possible when it comes to mindfulness, and I think Jon Kabot-Zinn would agree. The biggest issue with the definition is the idea of doing anything non-judgmentally. Even the labeling that something is done without judgment is itself a judgment. Rather I believe that when Jon Kabot-Zinn spoke of paying attention in a non-judgmental way, he was speaking to a willingness to hold judgments lightly, to notice them without getting sucked into them. Judgments have a tendency to narrow our perspective and thus through taking a step back and simply observing our experience we gain some distance through which to see even our own judgments. We can’t not judge things, but we can pay attention to our judgments, notice them, and be in control of what we do next rather than allow our judgments to control our actions.
But the core of mindfulness is simply the process of paying attention, of noticing, our experience. This can include things that happen inside us, such as thoughts, feelings, memories, and physical sensations, as well as what we experience outside of us, like things we see, smell, taste, touch, hear. Mindfulness can be practiced in a formal way through a guided breathing meditation or a yoga class that encourages you to tune into your body and positioning and breath. It can also be practiced informally. Whenever you pause under a hot shower and savor the warmth and steam, that is mindfulness. Whenever you notice the pounding of your heart in your chest as you lean in for a kiss, that is mindfulness. Whenever you jolt out of daydreaming while driving because someone just cut you off and you notice every detail of the road and the feel of the brake under your foot as you press down, that too is mindfulness.
Every time you notice your mind has gone elsewhere and you bring it back to something in the here-now if only for one split second, that is mindfulness. And the goal? To do that over and over and over again. Remember, mindfulness is a practice and one we’re all a little rusty at so it’s not supposed to come naturally at first. In fact it is really difficult. But I promise if you take even ten minutes a day, maybe set an alarm every hour on your phone to ask yourself, “what are five things I see right now?” “what do I notice in my body?” “what do my clothes feel like?” “what is my mind saying?” or anything that draws your attention to the present you will reap the benefits of being the observer of your own experience and overtime you will be the one who gets to choose what you do next rather than the mountains, lions, and monsters.
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Dr. Jessica is a psychologist (supervised practice), author, and trainer who is dedicated to bringing science-driven advice and information to everyone.