Mindfulness: What is it and how is it helpful?
May is mental health awareness month and the topic this year is Mindfulness. What is mindfulness and how is it helpful? Mindfulness is the practice of being aware of the present moment. It has its roots in many traditions, most commonly thought to have originated in the ancient Eastern philosophical practices of Hinduism and Buddhism, but mindfulness has been a practice of all religious and spiritual traditions.
Mindfulness is the trendy buzz word in the healing arts. Often times, mental health professionals discuss and practice mindfulness with clients in an effort t to help clients find relief from stress and anxiety while gaining a better sense of self. Why is this? Well, because it works.
You may recall your earliest prompt to practice mindfulness as a child when your parents told you to: “Pay attention,” most likely when you were crossing the street. Mindfulness is a bit more than just paying attention or not getting hit by a car. It involves cultivating a peaceful place in your mind and in your body so, that you may better cope with the grievances of life. In a world that involves quick brief spans of meaningless attention where multitasking /thinking has been rewarded and encouraged, it is even more critical that we spend time practicing mindfulness and being in the present moment. We now know that this multitask processing is harmful to our spiritual, physical, mental and emotional health. Recent research from Stanford, University of Michigan, University of California, and others shows that this divided attention negatively impacts the brain in the pre-frontal cortex, hippocampus, and limbic regions. These are the areas of the brain that are critical to emotion regulation, distress tolerance, problem solving, and where many other highly valued processes occur. This is why mindfulness has become much more than a buzz word or trend in mental health. It is thought that mindfulness can support improved physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual existence while improving daily functioning . Thich Nhatt Hanh, Vietnamese Zen Master and author, describes that mindfulness allows us to be present, at peace, and experience true happiness in life. Living in the past and in the future is a breeding ground for anxiety and a general sense of uneasiness, and mindfulness is us living in the moment.
Due to the culture of busy lifestyles, it may seem difficult to practice mindfulness. I am going to share with you some key pointers as to how to begin this practice. First, try not to judge yourself or be critical of yourself while learning a new task. Second, start with brief periods during simple tasks that are typically considered pleasurable (to help increase serotonin: that chemical in the brain that helps us feel happiness). One way to practice mindfulness is in the shower. When is the last time you took a shower without rummaging through the points of a meeting, reflecting on a past interaction, planning the chore list around the house or yard, or going over what you are going to do somewhere in the future? Instead of focusing on the past or future, focus on the events that occur while you are showering. Notice the temperature of the water, notice the steam, notice the sounds of the shower, feel the water rolling down your body and describe how it feels. Smell the shampoo and feel its texture, notice how it changes when it is agitated by being scrubbed into your scalp and hair, and notice the wonderful sensation of scrubbing your scalp and so on. Notice it and describe it without judgment in your mind. Use all your senses and enjoy it. When your mind goes back to everywhere else but the immediate task, just gently bring it back to the present task at hand without being critical of yourself.
Try this on a daily basis and see what changes it brings to your life and find other times to deepen your awareness and start experiencing the here and now. The past has occurred and the future will be met when you get there.