Practicing mindfulness could make us happy, it is claimed, reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, and help us sleep better. Some go further and say practicing mindfulness meditation cures many conditions (e.g., ADHD, bipolar disorder, OCD). Not all who practice mindfulness, however, want to manage a health condition. While some practice for a specific purpose, like weight loss (through mindful eating), others just want to live a more mindful life—to cultivate mindful awareness in class, at work, while driving…everywhere.
There are individuals, of course, who do not practice mindfulness for various reasons: They believe practicing mindfulness is too religious or new age; they have tried mindfulness and found it does not work for them; or they do not know how to practice.
I have decided to address a number of these concerns and claims in a series of posts on mindfulness. I hope to discuss how mindfulness changes our brains, affects our body, how mindfulness can make us happy, etc.
I would like to start the discussion in my current post, by addressing the need for mindfulness, since the one thing we practice regularly is mindlessness. For instance, let me ask you: What are you doing right now? I mean right now? You are reading this sentence, you say? What else?
You might be sitting in a comfortable chair at home, leaning against a wall in a department store, wolfing down a sandwich during your lunch break at work, or browsing the net in a very crowded bus—with two bags of groceries at your feet, hoping to read something to help you feel a little more relaxed or happy.
In these and other circumstances, each one of us exists at the intersection of this moment and this place, the here and the now. A few seconds later, the me of now will have different sensations, thoughts, feelings, and perhaps a different internal or external environment. That will become my new present. This is important to remember.
Our brains have learned to filter out much of what happens inside and outside our bodies to help us stay focused on specific tasks, such as reading this very sentence. So we ignore many “presents” so we can create our own narrative. So when you say “Today I went shopping,” what else did you do today? What else did you see, think, and feel?
Of course, I am not suggesting the ability to focus on what needs to be done is a bad thing.
How disastrous would it be if your attention, like a feather moving with the lightest of breezes, was completely drawn to—say, the sound of your heartbeat, the scent of petrichor, an itch, a dull sensation in your foot, pangs of hunger, the sound of a stranger walking in the distance, a vague feeling of sadness, the memory of a dream, the thought of a medical appointment weeks away, angry feelings about an anticipated argument with your partner—without it ever finding its way back!
To be mindful is to be aware that our attention is drawn to many things, things that interest us, frighten us, promise pleasure, confuse us, etc. To be mindful is to be aware that sometimes the unpleasant nature of our present situation motivates us to escape the here and the now—through leaving a situation, busying the mind with other activities (movies, games), use of alcohol and drugs, and so forth.
To be mindful is not to stop our attention from being drawn to different things; indeed, sometimes we need to pay attention to other things (e.g., the smell of smoke from the kitchen while you are doing your taxes in the bedroom).
So what is mindfulness…exactly? In my next few posts I will talk more about that, and about practicing mindfulness, mindful breathing, beginner’s mind, and how mindfulness can make us happy. But before I end this post, I like to ask you to try something. Pick your favorite color, then look for things of that color while you are walking, taking the bus, or even sitting in a coffee shop. This exercise may help you begin to notice things you did not notice before (or had stopped paying attention to) even in places you regularly visit.