Well, January is already whizzing by – a week gone, and with what to show for it? As a busy physician with a husband, two kids, volunteer activities, a
house money-pit, and many other things pulling my attention here and there, I can go through a whole day and have only a fuzzy recollection of what I actually did, the full content of conversations, or even what my surroundings looked like. Is this your experience of life, too? If so, there is something very simple we can do about it so our lives feel fuller and richer.
The answer lies in becoming more mindful.
Mindfulness is simply bringing an awareness to each thing we do. A simple concept yet seemingly so difficult, given our propensity to be anywhere except where we are. It’s uncomfortable to feel my impatience as I wait in a line, so I pull out my phone and check email or play a game. Driving in the car, I automatically turn on the radio and listen to the news. No “dead time” for me! As I walk down the driveway at night to get the mail, my mind is thinking of all the things I didn’t get done today. But when we do manage to become present to what is really happening, amazing things are waiting for us.
During a mindfulness based stress reduction program I took last year, we were asked to eat one meal mindfully – to place our attention only on the meal so we experienced the taste, smell and the texture of whatever we were eating. One person in our group described her surprise when she truly tasted the Diet Dr. Pepper she was drinking. For years she had held Diet Dr. Pepper as her “favorite drink” but when she actually paid attention, she realized that she didn’t really like the taste of it! (It made me wonder how many things I do or eat that I also don’t like…)
Mindfulness does measurable and important things to our brains. Participants of an 8 week long mindfulness based stress reduction program had MRIs performed before and after the program. After the program the participants had developed increases in gray matter concentration within the left hippocampus, posterior cingulate cortex, the temporo-parietal junction, and the cerebellum (“brain regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking”) compared with the controls. http://www.psyn-journal.com/article/S0925-4927(10)00288-X/abstract
A recent NY Times Magazine article reported on the unusual people of the Greek island of Ikaria. The life on this island is absolutely mindful, as people pay attention to what they feel and need and structure their lives appropriately. They eat healthy diets made from fresh local foods, work hard at what they love to do, sleep when they are tired, and spend lots of time enjoying the company of friends. The result? Ikarians routinely live vibrant lives in excellent health – past 100 years of age. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/28/magazine/the-island-where-people-forget-to-die.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
So what can we, who live in our North American culture of achievement and success, do in order to become more mindful?
Well, it turns out that mindfulness only takes a moment.
Take a moment right now to check in with yourself. Are your shoulders tight? Take 30 seconds to move them around a bit and loosen those tight muscles. You’ll probably find yourself more relaxed when you return your attention to your work. Are you feeling tired? Close your eyes for five minutes and allow your mind to become quiet. Drink a glass of water. Or go outside for a few minutes and breathe the fresh air. It usually doesn’t take much time to feel more awake and invigorated. Feeling worried about what might occur later today? Bring yourself back to where you are now. It is, after all, the only place where you have any ability to make a difference. If there’s something you can do now to affect your future situation, do it. And if not, remain focused on where you are and what you are doing right now. There is certainly nothing to be gained from worrying about something you have no ability to influence and that might not even happen!
So as I walked down the driveway last night to get the mail, I turned my focus to the sky. Wow! The moon was a bright white crescent, with the other part of the disc filled in with a more translucent white. It was breathtakingly beautiful. The constant changes of the moon reminded me of the constancy of change in all of our lives, and renewed my commitment to be mindful in every situation possible so I don’t miss any of the beauty, love or mystery that is there for all of us to behold.