I recently moved to a new town and with that has come a whole slew of new things — new stores, new roads, new weather, new couch, new people, etc. I was reflecting on all of this newness and one thing I noticed is how the novelty of new things really makes you slow down. In my old town, I could get to and from places without much thought or effort. But nowadays it takes a lot of conscious focus and concentration to figure out which way is west and which aisle at the store has that item I need.
While living in the new isn’t necessarily easier, per se, I’ve noticed that you take in a whole lot more when you’re alert and concentrating vs. just going through the motions of life. This has led me to think about this idea of mindfulness, which is all about living and participating in life with full awareness.
People say that when we are mindful, we experience more of a full spectrum of life vs. a condensed version that we have become accustomed to.
And then, the other day, while this topic was on my mind, I was in a new yoga studio and overheard two woman talking before class about mindfulness. (I’m not one to eavesdrop, but I just couldn’t help myself given the topic.)
The one was describing to the other that she had successfully gotten to her mindfulness/meditation cushion 3 times that week and she was feeling accomplished. She followed this up by saying “I like doing mindfulness in the morning because I don’t have time for that the rest of the day. Nothing would get done!” and both woman giggled in agreement. My first thought following this dialogue was, “Wow that is an accomplishment,” and the second thought was, “Wait, what? If you’re mindful, nothing would get done??” My mind began to reel on this. I tabled these thoughts for class but afterward, they came right on back (just like they do).
I’ve noticed that there seems to be a lot of confusion out there on what mindfulness is and how one “should” practice it. My guess is, if I asked four strangers today, “When I say mindfulness, what comes to mind?” I would hear four completely different answers.
To some it’s meditation. To others, it’s a way of living. To many, it sounds like hell.
Because there are so many different ways to think about mindfulness — preconceived misconceptions, perhaps memories of “failed” attempts at practicing mindfulness — a lot of people turn away from it, which is unfortunate. In my opinion, we’ve over-complicated the matter.
So here’s one stab at trying to eradicate the confusion:
Mindfulness is simply focusing on the present moment. That’s it!
Okay — more formally it includes the follow up “without attachment to the present moment and without judgment” but we’ll get to that in another post.
For now, let’s review: Mindfulness is choosing to focus, or as I like to call it “tuning in”, to the present moment. The practice of mindfulness then, is the conscious act of bringing your awareness back to the present when you notice it has gone somewhere else. For example, when you’re reading an article and you start thinking about that email you need to send, or go to check your phone and you bring yourself back to the article…that’s mindfulness!
It’s seemingly so simple and yet can be one of the most difficult skills I teach. Here’s why.
When things are new, we are wonderful at being mindful beings. Think about when you first learned how to drive a car. You (hopefully) paid attention to every little detail. How your foot felt on the pedal, where your hands were placed, how your seat was positioned, where your blind spots were… You heard the sounds of the engine accelerating, you felt the brakes activate. Now when you drive, what do you notice? Are you even in the car? (No, seriously.)
Or are you still in your meeting that happened before you left work? Or are you already at your next destination, thinking about what you’ll do, say or have to eat?
Once something becomes familiar, we often shift into this “auto-pilot” mode. This is a way of being and doing things without really giving it our full attention because we don’t have to and thank goodness! Wouldn’t it be a pain to have to relearn and really think about every automatic behavior we’ve trained ourselves to do over time? Life would be exhausting.
“Okay, so, how do I do this whole brushing my teeth thing again?”
While it is helpful that after we learn something, we can rely on autopilot, it can also become problematic. Accidents are more likely to occur when we’re not fully present. It’s highly unlikely that you sent that text to the wrong person when you were being 100% mindful. We also, often, lose out on noticing the nuances or pleasures in little, everyday things. Using the driving metaphor, I remember feeling so proud in the beginning after going for a drive without making an error, or parallel parking without the attempt looking like a scene from the Austin Powers movie. Now, it’s just driving, or it’s just parking.
Remember that excitement that came from the new challenge at work? Or that feeling you had when you first started dating your partner and you would see each other after being apart? It was so rewarding and exciting at first, and now, it’s well, just work, or just my partner … again.
Learning to use mindfulness as a practice is one way to “tune back in” to the present and reap the benefits from the here and now. To feel “those feels” again, like every moment is fresh and new.
I emphasize the importance of this mindfulness business to all my clients because (spoiler alert) the here and now is really the only moment we have. Yesterday is behind us and tomorrow hasn’t come yet. Spending too much time in either the past or the future can lead to depression and anxiety. The present is, also, where all of life happens and if, when life happens, we’re busy being somewhere else, we would miss out on it. Wouldn’t that be the pits?
So, tune in to the now. It’s the only place to be.