Mindfulness: Our Anchor in Life’s Whirlpool

By: Other | February 15, 2019

Written by Paul Paris, Ph.D.

Many of us are busy people with our lives full of responsibilities, tasks and activities. Balancing work or volunteering, family, our social lives and hobbies are all important. But, sometimes we become overwhelmed by the activity, especially when stressed and life becomes a checklist to get through rather than moments to enjoy.

Recent research suggests that most of us in the U.S. spend almost 50% of our day thinking about something other than what we’re doing! When our attention is elsewhere we can miss opportunities to learn and grow from our experiences or truly enjoy the pleasant or meaningful experiences we have. It could also lead to feelings of being overwhelmed by all the things we need to do in a given day or week.

We can, however, anchor ourselves in life’s whirlpool. Some simple practices exist for intentionally directing our attention to the present moment, in a nonjudgmental and accepting manner. Such practices constitute the very definition of mindfulness, modified from Dr. Steven Hayes, which can help busy individuals feel more connected, grounded, and satisfied in their daily lives:

Start Small

A lot of misconceptions exist about mindfulness practice. A prominent one is that it involves intensive, regular practice that is incompatible with a busy schedule. In fact, practicing mindfulness daily tends to be more effective when the “dose” is small. For example, taking just a few moments to focus on the smell and savor the flavor of a few sips of morning coffee is mindfulness. Or, taking a few moments at work to focus on the sensation of your natural breathing in and out for 2-4 cycles is mindfulness. Mindfulness is a skill. The more you do it the better you get at it, no matter how small or brief it may seem. The important thing is to do it at least once a day.

Gently Notice Mental Drift

Our brains are designed to generate and process information very fast, like a computer. That’s a great thing when we are problem-solving or engaging in a performance-based task such as a test, but not so great when we try to simply focus on the present moment. Drifting attention to other thoughts or distraction during mindfulness are normal parts of our human experience, especially when first practicing mindfulness. When this happens, practice what I call the “boomerang effect” by gently noticing your attention wandering. Then, as best you can in a nonjudgmental way, direct your attention back to the mindfulness practice. You may need to do this several times during the same brief moment. This is normal. If you catch yourself judging yourself or your attention drifts, gently notice that. Acknowledge it. Again, direct your attention back to the mindfulness practice.

Avoid Multitasking When Practicing Mindfulness

Most of us need to multitask in our daily lives, such as using bluetooth to talk on the phone while driving or eating lunch while reading an article or report. When practicing mindfulness, multitasking is not effective, whereas focusing on one activity or feeling is effective. In the example activities above, effective mindfulness focuses attention on the sensations of drinking the coffee rather than on reading or talking while drinking it. Similarly, when focusing on your breathing, checking your phone for messages should not occur at the same time.

Use the Senses as Your Anchor

One of the best ways to begin a basic mindfulness practice is using your five senses to focus yourself in the present moment. This is as simple as taking in the sounds around you wherever you are, such as seated in your office chair, or feeling the weight of your back, buttocks, and legs in the chair, or feeling your feet on the ground. Unlike multitasking, multisensory focus is effective when your awareness guides you into the sensory experiences of the here and now. Also, know that you don’t need to remain completely still. If you shift in your chair, for example, just notice that happening while continuing to focus on your sensory experience in the present moment.

Remember, mindfulness is the basic practice of consciously directing your attention to the present moment in an accepting and nonjudgmental fashion. As with any skill, it takes time, patience, and practice to develop proficiency in it. If you are willing to try, it may help you feel more connected to your life in a positive way. I’ve always been a fan of singer and songwriter, Sarah McLachlan, and one of my favorite verses of hers is “Don’t let your life pass you by.” This does not happen when you are mindful because you are immersed and engaged in your life right now, just as it is, and those missed opportunities to truly experience life will begin to ebb.



Image: Will Foster on flickr and reproduced under Creative Commons 2.0

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