Mindfulness in real life
I'm sitting in my office, door closed to avoid outside distractions, staring at this screen and watching the letters appear on the white background before me as I write a mindfulness article. I'm feeling some tension in my wrists, as if they wish to write a bit more vigorously than the words intend to come out. I can feel my heart beat. It's fast and tight, but the air in my lungs is moving. I can taste the coffee in the back of my throat from butter toffee earlier and the smell of Caesar dressing next to me from my lunch. My back is postured and my legs crossed, which is the general stance I've come to find myself in when I'm meeting a deadline and I mean business. I can hear myself, or rather the two forms of the self – both the "angel and the devil" – on my shoulders. The one voice is speaking as if I'm on the line of duty, telling me, "Hurry, hurry, and while you're at it, don't forget to write all your other notes for today. You need to be out of here on time!" The other voice is slower and softer: "Breathe. Be calm, go slow, this will get done as it needs to get done. There is no perfection. Whatever you do is good enough."
I know this moment well. I imagine you do too. Most of us find ourselves – at some point in the week, day, hour, minute, second – stiff in body movement as we try to cram in all the duties from our work or personal to-do lists at once. We've been taught to multi-task. We've been told this is important, especially with the changes of our time. We're being trained to think and act like computers. We seem to forget that we aren't built the same. Sure, we are creatures of habit, but we have egos, moods and ever-changing stimuli from the environment around us. We are malleable and diverse. Why don't we treat ourselves as such?
The first paragraph is a slowed down version of what happened as I embarked on this writing journey. In the field of mental health, this would be an example of mindfulness or mindfulness meditation. Yes, that detail-by-detail paragraph could be considered a meditation. No, it's not a formal sitting down, legs crossed, chanting or other cliché-filled meditation practice. However, it is a form of meditation, as it is about becoming aware, living in the present moment and becoming a non-judgmental witness to the current happenings around you.
Most of the time, myself and others find ourselves in "automatic mode." We begin doing the things we need to do without any awareness at all of what is happening to us or around us. The danger in this is not too dissimilar to what happens when we drive in automatic mode: our surroundings become blurs, our sensory becomes unfocused and we find ourselves less in tune with potential risk on the road, as we do in life. Just as we can miss the potential obstacles, we also miss the beautiful simple things, the smell of the crisp fall air, the sparkling sun penetrating through the driver side glass, bringing warmth without any need for turning on the heat, et. We begin missing what's happening around us – missing what is ultimately the most important.
Are you missing the important moments in your life? Here's a how-to on beginning a mindfulness practice in real life:
1. Slow down. The work before you will get done. The chores will be taken care of. You've managed to do them before; you can do them again. Racing to get things done does nothing to "perfect" your to-do list and costs you the simple beautiful things around you, whether that be your family, your food or your breath.
2. Find daily quiet time. Whether it's a 15-minute stroll during your lunch break, a morning sit on your favorite couch with your favorite warm beverage, or closing the door from your colleagues or family members to get some peace of mind, allow that. It's much more difficult to take in the present moment if we find ourselves surrounded by external factors when we feel the need to be responsive.
3. Find your breath. Whether on your drive to work, in a meeting or talking with a friend or colleague, challenge yourself to become aware of your breathing. This might feel and seem strange at first. However, mindfulness is about the present moment, and the breath is the one constant with us at every moment. What will begin as a simple reminder to notice your breath throughout the day will become a lifestyle. You will soon find yourself with another person or in a public setting and be able to tune into your inhale, exhale and feelings while staying engaged in the present moment. Your relationships will benefit, and you will be better able to meet your needs as they arise.
4. Non-judgmental awareness. This is probably the hardest and my personal favorite part of a mindfulness practice. As you begin to become present moment, you will likely find that judgmental thoughts pop up. Remember that example of the "devil and angel" on my shoulder from earlier? Both of these, whether good or bad thoughts, are judgments about the present moment. As part of the practice of mindfulness, you begin to notice these and acknowledge them as separate entities of you. By favoring the breath or taking an awareness to what is currently happening in the room (paying attention to the five senses is a great and easy way to do this), you begin to realize that thoughts and emotions are fleeting and unattached to you. They will come, and they will go. There is peace in recognizing this.
As I look back at this screen now, almost 1,000 words later, I find myself devising a clever way to wrap up thoughts. I'm recognizing as I write this that even this moment will come and pass, and as I feel that, I notice some relief in my chest and my shoulders widening and releasing to let my heart relax. I'm being mindful that my day is winding down, and the thought is hitting me: "the work before me will get done." Lastly, I feel a sense of gratitude, for I get to share what you're now reading, in this present moment. By your reading, feeling and experiencing with me, you've just completed a mindfulness exercise.
Elizabeth Ann Rue, LSW, better known by clients as Beth, is a primary therapist and yoga instructor at Summit Behavioral Health .