When you hear the word 'mindfulness,' your brain may be flooded with images of Buddhist monks in orange robes, skinny people doing impossible yoga poses, or the hippie movement of the 1960's. However, mindfulness has infiltrated modern American psychology and pop-culture, and it brings with it a new way (for "westerners") of thinking that may help bring some balance back to our chaotic, busy, and media-obsessed lives (trust me, I'm not judging - I am currently writing this while watching TV, eating, and occasionally checking my email).
Mindfulness, at its essence, means being in the moment. Focused on what is happening around you. Paying attention to what you see, taste, hear, smell, and touch. Focusing your mind on one thing at a time, and avoiding the distractions (e.g., phone, TV, email, worries about tomorrow, ruminative thoughts about yesterday) that detract from that one thing you are focused on. The idea is that life is a series of moments, each one here and then gone. If you miss a moment, you miss a period of your life. How often is your brain really focused on what is happening NOW? How often are you distracted by media, your thoughts, daydreaming, or worries?
In relationships, being mindfull may be especially important. For example, if you are a parent, think about the time you spend with your children. If you are like me, at times you likley find yourself texting, answering emails, or thinking about the 5,000 things you need to do in that precious 2 hours between the kids' bedtime and yours. Kids KNOW when we are not giving them our full and complete attention (ever noticed what happens the second you answer your phone?). In fact, they find every imaginable way to try to get our full attention. Having moments with your children when you are really focused on what they say, what they are doing, how they are feeling, and what is happening between you is essential to building good parent-child relationships. For that matter, being mindful in relationships is essential to ALL relationships (Have you ever talked to someone while they are watching TV? Annoying, right?). We all value the times someone is really present, focused, and in the moment with us.
So where do you start? If you are interested in giving this mindfulness thing a try, there are some pretty simple things you can do to start being more aware of what you are doing in the moment:
1) Try focusing on one thing at a time. We are all used to multi-tasking, although most research seems to indicate we are not really all that good at it. We tend to do better when focused on one thing at a time. Choose something you tend to do while doing other things (e.g., watching TV, working, playing with your kids, eating, riding the train, walking, listening to music, exercising, etc.). Try doing this activity while doing NOTHING ELSE. Try to focus your brain on what you are doing (what you see, hear, taste, smell, touch). It may seem difficult, boring, or like wasted time at first. After the activity is done, think back to how much of it you remember. Think about how that one moment in time was recorded in your memory. Compare that to other times you did the activity without being focused on it. See if this helps your productivity or quality of life. If it helps, keep doing it with more and more activities.
2) Breathe. One of the simplist ways of being mindful is to do deep breathing exercises. Try sitting in a quiet place. Close your eyes and just focus on your breath. Breathe in in for 4 seconds and out for 6, filling up your stomach and then your chest, and slowly letting the air out of your chest and then out of your stomach. When thoughts pop into your head (and they will), don't be hard on yourself, just notice that a thought popped up, remind your brain to focus on your breathing, and move your attention back to your breath.
3) Try Yoga (or another physical activity that encourages a focus on your body). Yoga is a great way to increase mindfulness because it encourages a focus on your body and breath. It is calm, so you can focus on these things more than you would when playing faster-paced sports. However, you can also practice mindfulness when preparing to hit a baseball, running, walking, dance, horseback riding, or even shooting a bow and arrow. Next time you do physical activity, really pay attention to your body. Notice your muscles, your heart-rate, your breathing, where your body is in space, etc. Pay attention to how this focus impacts your enjoyment of the activity.
4) (Don't Hate Me for Saying This...) Put Down your Phone. One of the things about our current culture that is particularly anti-mindfulness is our addiction to our smartphones. It is way too easy to click on that Facebook, Email, Youtube or Twitter icon and .... 5 hours later realize that you got sucked in. Phones can also be bad for relationships - think about all the times you are around your family or friends, and you or they are on the phone. It's hard to connect to others when our attention is focused on that $400 mini-computer that we will probably find a way to implant in our head one day. Try this - choose an hour a day to put the phone away. If you feel really motivated - schedule 30-minute intervals throughout the day when you are "allowed" to check your phone, and leave it away the rest of the day. Good luck, because this one is hard.
5) Limit TV/Games/Screen Time. If you are still reading at this point - well done! Most people probably bow out after #4. Another thing to try is cutting back a bit on screen time. When we are playing games or watching TV, our brains sort of zone out (very different from mindfulness). It is really easy to turn on the TV the moment we get bored. But think about the last time you binge watched Gilmore Girls or Game of Thrones... kind of feels like you weren't really around for that 25 hours of your life, right? Our brains are used to immediate stimulation, all the time. So you are likely to feel really bored at first. If you can get past that, you may find that you find other things to do, and you may actually find that they are more relaxing and enjoyable than TV was.
Remember - our brains are not used to focusing on one thing. It takes time and effort to get good at being mindful. While it is not possible (or even desirable) for us to be mindful every second of the day, having just a few more moments throughout your day when you are being mindful and aware can help you to slow down, reduce anxiety, improve relationships, and enjoy life!
These strategies can help, kids too!