February 01, 2016
I wake up in the morning and immediately reach for my phone, check my email, Instagram, and Facebook. Finally looking at the clock and realizing this has already put me behind schedule, I jump out of bed, pull on some clothes, and grab some breakfast to go. I get to work and am already annoyed from the traffic and the terrible driver who cut me off on the highway. I get report on my patients, and finally sit down to take a moment to breathe and gather myself before beginning my shift. But before I take 2 breaths I receive a text from my friend asking about my plans this weekend. Which reminds me to check my work schedule. Which prompts me to get on my work email. Finally I look at my patients’ charts, organize my day, and rush off to begin the many tasks on my checklist. This is all before 8 am. Many times this whirlwind continues until I finally lay down in bed at night, and I realize that I haven’t taken a single moment to slow down, think, and take in the present moment and what is happening around me.
Does this daysound familiar? How often do days pass without slowing down before you look back and wonder where the time has gone? How often are you actually living in the present moment? We tend to fast forward through the present moment to “better” moments in the future, whether that be the upcoming weekend, our next vacation, etc. The problem is, once those “better” moments arrive, we are left unsatisfied and unfulfilled because they don’t live up to the expectations our minds anticipated. Today we are constantly being pulled in 1 million directions at any given time, which makes it difficult to take time each day away from work, away from social media, away from our phones. Time to just be.
Mindfulness means “maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment,” according to psychologist Jon Kabat-Zinn. It is “presence of heart.” According to Dr. Daniel Siegel, we must not only be present from moment to moment, but have a true understanding of our thoughts and feelings, and the ability to change and modify them. When we have this awareness and control over our thoughts, feelings, and emotions, we gain:
• Insight into what we want, how we feel, and what we think
• Ability to deal with our emotions and fears in a productive way
• Flexibility in our moment to moment reactions
• Empathy and intuition in reading others
• Moral awareness of how our actions impact the world around us
• Greater ability to cope with stress
• Decreased anxiety
• Improved focus, attention, and memory
Research has also shown that practicing mindfulness is beneficial to your physical health. People who meditate regularly are more likely to exercise, sleep better, make healthier eating choices, have lower blood pressure, and have a stronger immune system to fight off illness.
But how do we gain this mindfulness in our lives when most of our days go as I described above? Luckily, there are a few easy exercises we can do to develop focused attention, insight into ourselves, and empathy.
1. Awareness of Breath Exercise—sit or lie in a comfortable position. Breathe in for 3 seconds, hold your breath for 2 seconds, and exhale for 4 seconds. Focus only on your breath. Dismiss any distractions and redirect your mind back to your breathing. Mindful breathing has been shown to decrease stress, anger, and anxiety. It also increases focus and concentration in your daily tasks, and helps you to stay in the “present” rather than constantly being distracted by the past and future.
2. Expressive Writing—writing about an emotional challenge can be much more beneficial than ruminating over it. It gives us a chance to step back and clearly evaluate the situation, rather than become entangled in our thoughts and emotions. Research has shown that writing about your experiences makes them more manageable, and can boost feelings of happiness and wellbeing, reduce depression and anxiety, and increase performance at work and school.
3. Active Listening—How often are we talking with another person, but the whole time we are thinking of the next thing we are going to say? Active listening is key to good communication. Invite someone to talk with you for 10 minutes about what is on their mind. Be a better listener by paraphrasing, asking questions, using engaged body language, taking turns talking, and avoiding giving advice. Learning to actively listen has been show to prevent miscommunication and improve relationships.
Mindfulness is about being awake. About paying attention to our lives in a systematic way in order to come to a deeper knowledge of who we are and who we want to be. When we gain this self-knowledge, we are empowered with the ability to transform our lives!