The term mindfulness has become a bit of a buzzword lately. There is a lot of confusion around the concept and the practice. While mindfulness essentially means paying attention, or being aware, the concept is quite expansive and can be applied in a number of ways.
For starters, being aware or paying attention is far more difficult than it sounds. Our minds are constantly darting all over the place and bombarding us with everything from obsessive negative thoughts, or focus on future satisfaction of some desire, to Christmas carols that won’t go away. Thoughts that pull us back to (or keep us trapped in) the past are referred to as the thief of the past. Thoughts that focus on some event or acquisition of some object of desire or anticipated state of mind yet to come are referred to as the thief of the future.
With regards to being mindfully aware in the current moment these two habits of our overactive minds rob us of much of our life experience in every moment. When you catch your mind dragging you back into the past, remind yourself that this is like trying to feed yourself with yesterdays lunch, regardless of whether you felt it was a good one or a bad one. The thief of the future has us constantly forfeiting our connection with each current moment for the promise or fear of some imagined future. This is not to suggest that our minds should never visit the past or visualize the future. Simply trying to pay attention to what is happening in your own mind for even a little while will make it clear that these two thieves are incessantly at work.
The primary objective of mindfulness practice is to become increasingly aware of these distractions, especially paying attention to emotional reactions to thoughts, as well as physical responses to them as they arise. By training the mind to witness thoughts as they arise we are in a much better position to prevent them from “mindlessly” spiraling out of control and generating damaging mental distress.
Though extended meditations are of course beneficial, I have found that for most people following a simple formula for short (two to three minutes) mindfulness meditations a couple of times a day is both reasonable and greatly beneficial. Simply remember to stop what you are doing and practice randomly during your day.
The simple practice is as follows:
- Stop what you are doing and take a couple of long and slow breaths. Then let your body take over the breathing process while you focus your attention entirely on your breath. You can either focus on air moving in and out of your nostrils, or the rise and fall of your belly. As thoughts arise gently nudge your mind back to focus on your breath.
- Next, do a brief scan of your body and become aware of any sensations; a discomfort or pain, a light breeze on your skin, the feeling of the clothes you are wearing. The key here is to suspend any judgment or interpretation. Simply be aware.
- Finally, allow your awareness to slowly expand beyond yourself, taking in all that you see, hear, and smell, again with no interpretation or judgment. Finish with a couple of slow and deliberate breaths and carry on with your day.
It is important to note that there is a vast difference between simple and easy. Especially in the beginning it can be far more difficult than you might imagine to manage the habitual chatter of an untrained mind. Challenge yourself to do the practice at least twice a day for a week. You have nothing to lose but a few mindless moments.