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What is Mindfulness?

By John DeMarco M.Ed., LPC

You live in the present moment, but your mind is not focused on it. Your mind is distracted by many thoughts that are outside of the present moment. Thoughts such as what you need to do next, what happened yesterday, and something about tomorrow that you are distressed about. Basically, your mind is thinking about the future or reflecting on the past, and some of your thoughts are anxious or distressing thoughts. Consequently, the present moment is not a completely peaceful moment and you let it pass without enjoying it and the benefits it has to help you.

When I first heard the word mindfulness I thought it was some kooky new age trend, and that it would eventually pass into the recycling bin of history along with so many other fads. But doing the work of reading some books and attending professional seminars I learned that this is serious stuff and definitely not a fad.

Mindfulness is a way of thinking that enables you to experience life with a greater degree of satisfaction and happiness. It also helps you to overcome stress, anxiety, and depression. You will even sleep better. It is easy to do and the more you practice this way of thinking the better you get at doing it. You will gain a totally different, and a better, outlook on life; one in which you will feel and be your best. Mindfulness does not interfere with or contradict your values, whether religious or otherwise.

To be mindful means you intentionally focus your attention on the present moment. Most of the time your brain is on auto pilot, meaning you give attention to thoughts that pop into your head. On auto pilot you have only a partial awareness of the present moment. A great deal of your attention is taken up with other thoughts. Consequently, what you experience is that your nervous system and your body never fully self-regulate into a state of complete peace. Mindfulness is like taking a time out from thoughts that are extraneous to the present moment. Simply said, it is a way of visiting the present moment with clarity and fullness.

If you think mindfulness is a type of meditation you are only half correct. I think first of all it is an attitude that recognizes and respects the “now” moment in your experience, and how beneficially and empowering it can be. Are we not all working and rushing to get to a future moment when we can just do nothing and relax, and not have any cares? And even when we manage to get there, we are still not at complete peace because the mind is still on auto pilot. Your mind will still distract you from being fully present in the moment.

To learn mindfulness and tap into its power to bring you more peace and happiness, you will need to learn the mindfulness way of meditation. The good news is that the meditation is easy. There are three components of mindful meditation: (1) be intentional. Decide that you will focus your attention on something in the present moment and be intentional to stay focused on it. (2) Have a focus. You can focus your attention on anything, but when beginning it is suggested to focus on your breathing. (3) Refocus. When a thought enters your mind and distracts you from your focus, acknowledge the thought and gently bring your attention back to the thing you are intentional to focus on.

This is an example of me practicing a mindfulness meditation. I start by finding a quiet place and I sit upright in my seat. I first take two deep relaxing breaths, inhaling through my nose so that my belly rises, and then slowly exhaling through my mouth with my lips slightly pursed. Following that I begin breathing naturally, and focus my attention on my breath in, the pause before I breathe out, and then my breath out. Again and again, I focus on my breath in, the pause, and my breath out—breath in, pause, breath out. I next become aware that I am thinking about a conflict with an appointment that I made for tomorrow. This thought is distracting me from focusing on my breathing. I tell myself that it is normal to have thoughts intrude on my attention, and not to be judgmental or alarmed about it. Then I tell myself to gently move my attention back to my breathing. Each time a thought pops into my head, I do the same thing. I tell myself “there’s a thought,” and then I simply move my attention back to my breathing. I continue with my focusing for as long or as short a time as I choose. When I first started doing mindful meditations I did them for three minutes only. Now they are longer.

I even practice when walking from my car to my office. I set my mind to be intentional to focus on every aspect of that short walk. I think about how I close and lock the door of my car. I pay attention to lifting my feet when I walk and how they touch the ground and how that feels. I let my body fully sense and enjoy the weather. I center my attention on the cool breeze of the autumn day and the crisp fresh smell of the air. Placing my hand on the door of the office building I let my mind fully focus on what it feels like to touch the door handle. Walking down the hall and up the stairs, I take in each step and savor them as an experience in the moment. When a thought invades my mind I simply and gently refocus my attention.

For anyone having difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep the mindfulness meditation is a godsend. A racing mind, worrying, and continually thinking about “what if…?” make sleeping difficult and for some people seem almost impossible. Anxiety is a major cause of insomnia. Anxious or worrisome thoughts stimulate the release of adrenaline into your bloodstream. Adrenaline is a hormone that prepares you for taking action and makes you alert and awake. You will not sleep as long as your body is under the influence of adrenaline. Stop the adrenaline and you will sleep. The mindfulness meditation focused on the breath stops anxiety ruminations. Once your mind stops its focus on anxious thoughts the adrenaline will recede and you will fall asleep. So, if you have trouble falling asleep, use meditation to fall asleep; and if you wake up in the middle of the night, use meditation to go back to sleep.  

Information about mindfulness abounds. Do an internet search and you will be overwhelmed with the search results. Hundreds of books, articles, and videos are available that discuss mindfulness. There is research that finds that the practice of mindfulness changes the physical structure of the brain in a positive way, and has been referred to as self-induced neuroplasticity. The regular practice of mindfulness brings about self-enhancing changes in the way a person experiences life in general. He or she experiences less distraction by intrusive thoughts, especially ones that bring distress. Life is easier, has greater clarity and a sense of personal peace increases.

The origin of mindfulness is in Buddhism. The technique of meditation and the outlook on life with a focus on experiencing the present moment are both cognitive behaviors, both of which have been observed in psychotherapy to have therapeutic value. People can reap the psychological benefits of mindfulness without having any connection to Buddhism or any value system outside of their own personal beliefs.

More and more people today are health conscious. They pay attention to their nutrition, getting adequate rest and sleep, and exercise. The explosion in gym memberships and people walking and jogging is evidence that people today have an interest in taking care of their bodies. But it is not just the body that needs attention. A true state of personal wellbeing requires attention to emotional health as well. Just as exercise makes the body stronger and healthier, mindfulness makes the mind healthier and stronger. I think of mindfulness as a daily mental hygiene routine. It is easy to do. Anyone can do it. And it is free.

My tip for getting the most out of mindfulness is to make refocusing your friend. Do not think if you need to refocus a lot that it is a bad thing. You are being mindful every time you refocus. Some days you will have more distracting thoughts popping into your head then other days. Refocusing, no matter how many times you need to do it, is the normal process of practicing a mindfulness meditation. Refocusing is what allows you to be mindful, therefore embrace it.

You will notice that when you do a mindfulness meditation that you will experience relaxation and a sense of tranquility and peace. It is a very good feeling. But much more is happening. You are gaining insight into both your mind and your body. You will experience life with greater clarity and meaning. Think of mindfulness as pushing the pause button on the rush of life. See how it centers you and increases your sense of personal wellbeing.

If you want to learn more about mindfulness I recommend reading “The Mindfulness Code: Keys for Overcoming Stress, Anxiety, Fear, and Unhappiness,” by Donald Altman.