By Christina Rock
Mindfulness. We hear this word thrown around with astonishing frequency—so much so that it seems like becoming more mindful can be a panacea for anything that ails us. What does it mean though, and how exactly do you practice mindfulness?
Being mindful simply means being fully tuned in and present to the moment at hand. It is being attentive to where you are and what you are up to, right here, right now.
Our minds are built to be wonderful imaginers. This is actually a highly adaptive and useful trait. In our caveman days, we needed to consider the future and the notion that something big could be lurking around the next corner, about to devour us.
But this capacity to live in the past and imagine the future can also be detrimental. Although we need our memory of the past to avoid pitfalls, like the last time the big animal almost got us, this capacity can rob us of joy, serenity and creativity. For when we are not tuned in to the present moment, the experience we are having right now slips past us. We miss it. Not so painful if it is just the drive to work, but the stakes are higher when we consider that life is made up of these tiny moments. It seems a tremendous, heartbreaking waste to be worrying about tomorrow’s bills when your little kid is taking his first steps. Or when a friend is confiding in you. Or during a really beautiful musical performance.
Mindfulness can give us our lives back. When we put the present moment on a holy altar, we find a way to transcend fear, anxiousness, doubt and boredom. The more we pay attention, the more interesting things get. And for recovering alcoholics and addicts, this is magic. Our brains have been so hijacked by the addictive process that in early sobriety it can be hard to find anything fun or interesting. This has to do with our messed up dopamine receptors, gone haywire from so much abnormal stimuli for so long. Mindfulness is a magic trick for re-wiring the brain. It can calm the nervous system, and most importantly, when we practice it, we begin to feel actually part of life again, after being on the sidelines for so long. Here are some easy ways to get started:
Sit down and do nothing.
Surprisingly, this is harder than it sounds. It may take a little while for this practice to be rewarding, but stick with it. Our inner lives can be as rich and complex as anything we can find out in the world. We suggest setting a timer and starting small. Three minutes, five minutes, maybe even ten minutes. Find something to focus on, and when your mind wanders from it, just guide it back. Some people use their breath, a candle, or a simple phrase—whatever it is, just keep returning to that anchor point. This is more rewarding than it may sound.
Try breathing exercises
There are scores of different breathing exercises, and a quick search online can offer guidance on various techniques. But breath is as old as life itself and nothing fancy is required to use this always-available tool. Deep belly breaths are known to calm the nervous system and get us out of “fight or flight” reactions, and are a great remedy for anxiety. Simply imagine your belly filling up with breath at each inhale, as if it were a balloon, and at each exhale, notice it emptying. Placing the hands gently on the stomach can help you stay focused on each breath. Another breathing exercise we like involves inhaling through the nose, noticing the tiny moment when the inhale breath becomes the exhale, and exhaling through the nose. This requires a bit of focus and can be wonderful for bringing you into the present and leaving you feeling peaceful and energized.
Try an app or read a book
There are scores of apps out there built specifically to support people as they explore mindfulness and meditation. We like Insight Timer, which aside from being just a straight up timer, also offers loads of guided meditations for everything from sleeplessness to releasing fear. If that isn’t your bag, there are many inspiring books that can help you develop your practice. A classic that has gotten many people on the road is Wherever You Go, There You Are, by Jon Kabat Zinn.
No matter where you get started, mindfulness is a powerful and healing practice. For those of us who have spent most of our lives dodging and numbing how we feel, this can be a perfect tool for learning to get comfortable in the world. It can teach us serenity and help us access some joy. After all, mindfulness is all about paying attention, and paying attention is one of the most transformative things we can do.
Christina Rock is a Seattle based writer who loves late sixties music, strong coffee, and days that go better than planned.