Life isn’t perfect – I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that. But luckily, mindfulness practice doesn’t require perfection. In fact, quite the opposite. Mindfulness practice allows us to let go, live life in the moment, embracing what’s happening with open arms and warm acceptance. Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? Well, as you can imagine, it’s easier said than done. When faced with life’s challenges, it’s easy to become overwhelmed with emotion. We can fall into familiar but not-so-helpful negative thinking patterns and rumination. This is why it’s so valuable to practice mindfulness in our daily lives – to prepare us to face whatever comes. We can’t stop the waves but we can learn to surf them!
What is Mindfulness?
If you’re not familiar with mindfulness, you may think that it’s a tradition reserved for the religious or spiritual. But in fact, modern mindfulness is a secular, evidence-based approach to wellbeing. This makes it an effective tool to treat and prevent mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety. The best part? Mindfulness allows you to take your mental health into your own hands, with no reliance on anyone or anything else. Just a few benefits that have been documented with mindfulness practice are the following.
- Stress relief
- Better relationships
- Improved productivity
- Reduced anxiety
- Better sleep
- Higher levels of contentment
- Lower blood pressure
- Increased resilience
- Improved focus
- Reduction of pain
We practice mindfulness by being fully aware of how we experience life in the present moment, without judgement. It’s the practice of just “being”, something we humans are not so great at. While we’re used to constantly “doing”, we can get better at being in the present moment by using meditation and other relaxation techniques.
“In mindfulness, we start to see the world as it is, not as we expect it to be,Mark Williams, Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World
how we want it to be, or what we fear it might become.”
A History of Mindfulness Practice
Although mindfulness practice is typically secular in the West, its rooted in Eastern religion. The techniques can be traced back 2,500 years, to Buddhist and Hindu traditions where meditation was used as a tool for introspection. It was in the 1970s when intentionally living in the now began to grow in popularity in the West, with teachers such as Thich Nhat Hanh sharing their knowledge and practice with academics and researchers.
“The present moment is filled with joy and happiness. If you are attentive, you will see it.”Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life
Pioneering academics in the field include Jon-Kabat Zinn (University of Massachusetts) and Mark Williams (University of Oxford). Along with their colleagues, they developed MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) and MBCT (Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy), both of which are eight-week programmes that have shown to be effective clinical treatments for depression and anxiety.
“Meditation is the only intentional, systematic human activity which at bottom is about not trying to improve yourself or get anywhere else, but simply to realize where you already are.”Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation In Everyday Life
MBSR, MBCT, and other mindfulness programmes share a lot in common. Generally, a mindfulness teacher guides a participant or a group through various techniques during weekly sessions. They also tend to set daily practices for participants to carry out at home, on their own. This requires dedication from students, with many courses assigning 45 minutes of practice each day. Alternatively, mindfulness practice can be started in the comfort of your own home, either by yourself or while around others. You could even begin with a single minute here and there, then build to longer stretches.
Ways to Begin Living in the Moment
So, how can you get started with mindfulness at home? Of course, it’s great to have a certified teacher to guide you through it, but it’s not necessary. Mindfulness practices generally fall under one of two categories: formal or informal. No matter what your current situation looks like, there is most likely a mindfulness practice that is suitable for you.
Formal Mindfulness Practice
Traditional meditation is one of the most formal mindfulness techniques. It involves dedicating time to sit or lie down in stillness, focusing your attention in a specific way. The subject of focus can vary, and different people prefer different methods, but some include:
Deep Breathing – Observe the journey of your breath from the inhale to the exhale, without trying to control it.
Body Scanning – Slowly scan up and down the body, observing any noticeable sensations, without judgement.
Visualisation – Bring an image into your mind’s eye to nurture your personal strengths, embrace new traits, or shift your perspective. Picturing a lake can help foster tranquillity and stillness. Visualizing a mountain might increase your sense of stability by making you feel more grounded.
Metta – In Pali, metta means loving-kindness. During this type of meditation, one offers loving-kindness to all beings. This includes oneself, family and friends, strangers, those one has challenging relationships with, and even other species.
Feelings Focused – This form of traditional meditation focuses on exploring painful emotions. We build self-compassion when we have the courage to live in the moment, sitting with our pain and discomfort, during emotionally challenging times.
Although formal meditation is one of the most effective methods, it’s certainly not the only way to become more mindful.
Informal Mindfulness Practice
Informal mindfulness weaves the habit of living in the moment into daily life, which requires little to no time commitment. The goal is to approach usual activities in a new way – with a beginner’s mind. Approaching situations with fresh eyes, wonder, and curiosity, like a child might, is essential to succeed in a mindfulness practice. To accomplish this we must discard baggage based on past experience and address our biases.
So, with this in mind, here are a few ways to live life in the “now”, to bring more mindfulness to your day-to-day activities…
Mindfulness in the Morning – Before you open your eyes, take a few minutes to be still. How is your body feeling? Spend a few seconds noticing how the sheets feel against your skin, the sights, sounds, and smells in your room. Settle into your surroundings. Starting this way sets the tone for the day.
Mindful Eating – Many people have breakfast whilst checking their phones, reading the newspaper, or watching tv. Try eating and drinking more mindfully by eliminating distractions. Chew each bite slowly, paying attention to all of your senses, and staying present in the moment.
Mindful Movement – You likely spend a considerable part of your day in motion. Whether you’re walking or working out, every movement offers an opportunity for mindfulness. When we live life in the moment, we notice the ground under our feet, our surroundings, and the sensations inside our body, in response to our actions.
Body Awareness – Stress can lead to a buildup of tension. When this process goes unnoticed, there’s a snowball effect. Accumulated tension, from stress, is extremely damaging to the body. Heightened awareness, through mindful attention, provides an opportunity to reverse this process.
Mindful Chores – There are non-negotiable activities in our routines that we don’t necessarily look forward to. The next time you have to carry out a chore, such as cleaning or doing laundry, try approaching the activity with fresh eyes. Be fully present in the mundane moments.
“Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.”Zen Proverb
Be Where You Are – Are you bored, frustrated, upset? Use that as a mindfulness practice in itself! Accept “what is” without resisting your feelings or trying to change them.
Journaling – Rather than writing about the past or your dreams and goals, record what you’re feeling in the moment. Journaling can be used as a tool to focus on the present, live in the now.
What do you see, smell, and feel? What sensations do you notice in your body? What is your current mood?
Gratitude – A gratitude practice can be used to promote a positive mood, encourage hope, and foster resilience. Each morning, remind yourself of the things you have to be thankful for. Or make one list, and keep it somewhere visible.
Seek Out Mindfulness Opportunities – There are many other ways to bring yourself into the now, to live your life in the present moment. In fact, every second of every day presents a new opportunity to become more aware.
This Moment is the Only Moment
How often are you truly aware of and fully living in the present? How often do you spend time stuck in the past, or anticipating the future?
When our minds are anywhere other than “the now”, we’re not mindfully experiencing life.
This moment is the only moment. Breathe it in! Enjoy it! Treasure it!
The current “now” will never return. Everything else you do, life outside “the now”, is just remembering or imagining! Here and now is the only time, the only place, to truly connect with yourself, others, and the world around you.
Mindfulness Involves Acceptance
By practicing living mindfully, day by day, we start to make the most out of our lives. We find more joy even in the small, seemingly ordinary moments. With that being said, it’s important not to use mindfulness to strive toward a particular goal, or have expectations about what you can “get out of” mindfulness. That might sound nonsensical, since we live in a society that teaches us to be constantly reaching for a specific goal.
Mindfulness is unique, in part, in that striving is not helpful. Of course, you’ll be drawn to the practice for various personal reasons, and there will always be aspects of your life that you’d like to change. That’s perfectly fine, but once you acknowledge this desire, you can let go of grasping. This isn’t complacency. It’s a freeing up of energy to take positive action instead of working with a mind clouded by fears, judgements, and resistance.
Remember to be patient with yourself. Seek a place of balance, somewhere between ignoring or suppressing pain and overidentification with it.
Hourglass Breathing Exercise
This breathing exercise is a wonderful practice for both beginners and more experienced meditators. Because It takes just a few minutes, it can be incorporated into your working day. Use it as a tool to “reset” whenever you need a break. It’s an ideal “rescue remedy” when you’re beginning to notice early warning signs of stress.
Remember the three stages by imagining an hourglass – wide at the top and bottom, narrowing in the middle.
Stage 1: Expand Your Awareness
For the next few minutes, pause all activity and be present with yourself. Move from a state of “doing” to a state of “being”.
Close your eyes and sit in a comfortable, upright position. Then, begin to expand your field of awareness. What physical and emotional sensations are you aware of, here in the current moment? Do you have strong emotions? Can you stay with and accept them?
Stage 2: Narrow Your Focus to the Breath
Bring your awareness inward. Focus on your breath. Follow its journey from the nostrils down into the lungs. Accompany it, as it fills the the abdomen and travels back up and out again.
Breathing is an amazing process! Notice the gentle rise and fall of your belly as you inhale and exhale. Stay with this awareness for multiple breaths.
During meditation and other mindfulness practices, your mind will occasionally wander away to thoughts, feelings, plans, or worries. This is completely normal. Your brain is doing what it was designed to do. It does not mean that you’re “bad at” meditation. Don’t expect to clear your mind completely. Whenever the mind wanders, gently guide your attention back to the breath.
Your mind may stray once, twice, or a thousand times. Just keep bringing yourself back. This is how you begin living in the moment, how you become more present.
Stage 3: Widen Your Awareness, Once Again
After you’ve focused on the breath, and practiced letting go of thoughts and distractions, let your focus expand once again. Widen your awareness to include the surrounding environment. You are whole and complete – fully recognize and accept yourself, as you are in this moment, and the realities of your current situation.
Now, open your eyes and continue on with your day.
Try this out the next time you’re feeling a little stressed or overwhelmed. Just a few minutes of mindful awareness can change the course of your entire day.
Living Life In the Present Moment, Rather Than In Retrospect
This excerpt, from a poem originally published in Chicken Soup for the Soul, captures the essence of mindfulness and living in the now.
If I had my life to live over again,
I’d dare to make more mistakes next time.
I’d limber up.
I’d be sillier than I’ve been this trip.
I would take more chances […]
Oh, I’ve had my moments.
If I had to do it over again,
I’d have more of them.
In fact, I’d try to have nothing else – just moments,
one after another, instead of living so many years ahead of each day […]
If I had my life to live over,
I would start barefoot earlier in the spring
and stay that way later in the fall.
I would go to more dances,
I would ride more merry-go-rounds,
I would pick more daisies.Nadine Stair, If I Had My Life to Live Over
A Final Thought On Living in the Present
There are a multitude of ways to be mindful. Try different techniques to find those that work for you. For some, mindfulness means going for a daily walk and take in the surroundings – the sounds, sights, smells, and sensations. Other people find joy in preparing their evening meal, taking time to nurture themselves and their loved ones through nutritious food. For many, mindfulness means sitting still in the morning, before the world is awake, checking in with the body and mind prior to beginning the day.
What are some of your favourite ways to be mindful?