Photo of Dr Leanna Manuel

Mindfulness

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Lea standing at Grand Canyon

I am sure you have heard the word mindfulness. In my lifetime it has evolved from a “hippie” word to a mainstream buzzword. I think that is for good reason. It can be helpful to think about mindfulness as both a group of techniques and a lifestyle. For me, mindfulness as a lifestyle is more aspirational, but I do believe that frequent practice of the techniques can lead in that direction. I define mindfulness as the practice of actively engaging the full mind in the present moment without simultaneously carving out space for reviewing the past or planning the future.

Mindfulness is often associated with meditation. They can can go together, but I prefer to see them as separate. I consider meditation as one technique or one method to engage in mindfuless. It can also be practiced in other ways that don’t seem particularly meditative or spiritual.

Two examples that come to mind include mindful toothbrushing and mindful eating. Toothbrushing and eating are often done without any mental focus or effort. If you switch your toothbrush or fork to your nondominant hand, you have to come into the present moment and focus on the mechanics. There is no mental space for reflection on the past or projecting into the future unless you want to make a mess.

Mindfulness meditation is also beneficial, but can be strenuous. Most people think they are terrible at it and have unrealistic expectations. My first real experience of this was at a 2-day meditation retreat. That’s right! I started with 2 days! This is something I do NOT recommend. I had the expectation that my mind should be clear of all thoughts and I would avoid all distractions if I was doing it right.

What I experienced was almost instant and continuous monkey mind. Sitting in silence felt painful, and I didn’t do much better with walking meditation. I noticed everything around me and started mentally describing everything I saw. It took real effort to return my thoughts to the present moment over and over again.

I thought I was getting the hang of things on the second day…until the bird flew into the window. At that point I started worrying about whether or not it was dead. That storyline continued all the way to wondering whether cats eat dead birds. If that wasn’t enough, my brain engaged in comparing myself to the others at the retreat. They all looked like they were doing it right.

Yes, it is hard. It makes one wonder, “why try?” There are so many reasons.

  1. Mind mastery. If you can repeatedly return to the present moment in meditation practice (or while brushing your teeth), you will be more likely to be able to do it in real life situations.
  2. Greater joy in the moment. Being fully present while eating that fragrant, visually beautiful, and incredibly tasty pizza will bring so much more pleasure than worrying about whether they will find something awful when you have your colonoscopy 20 years from now and how you will handle that.
  3. Decreased anxiety. If you consider anxiety as unproductive thinking about a future possibility that has not yet happened, mindfulness or being in the present moment does not allow space or energy for anxious thinking.

There are many books and references about mindfulness. I recommend Good Morning I Love You, by Shauna Shapiro as a good introduction. Easy to read, well-written, and gentle, it includes practical exercises for readers at all levels of mindfulness and meditation practice.

Accept that it will not come naturally at first. That’s ok. Mindfulness is not a destination. It is simply a practice.


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