The power of mindfulness

“Mindfulness helps you go home to the present. And every time you go there and recognize a condition of happiness that you have, happiness comes.”— Thich Nhat Hanh

Many of us aren’t actually here most of the time. Our minds are in somewhat of a Matrix-like existence. In other words, our bodies are existing in the present moment, but our minds are somewhere in the past or the future. They’re remembering, worrying, regretting, planning but never simply being. It’s become such an epidemic – this phenomenon of constant mental and emotional separation from reality – that most people aren’t able to remain in the moment for even short stretches of time.

But it’s okay. If you’re not very good at being mindful or you’re not even exactly sure what it means, don’t worry. These two words encompass the crux of mindfulness, and embracing them will put you well on your way to becoming a mindful person. Sure, there’s a lot more to it than that, but if you take away anything from this post, let it be those words. In fact, if you want to stop reading at this point, fine. Don’t worry.

TRY THIS: Stop everything you’re doing. Leave your eyes open for the time being so that you can finish reading this paragraph, but cease all other movement. Do some fidgeting and shifting if you need to; make sure you’re comfortable, and then freeze. Next, listen to what’s going on around you. Notice sounds you didn’t notice before. What can you hear? Maybe the hum of the furnace, the quiet whoosh of traffic in the distance. Maybe you can even hear your heart beating. Don’t do anything about these sounds, just notice them. Now do the same with scent. What do you smell? When you’re finished reading this sentence, close your eyes and see what else you can notice in this moment.

If you’ve managed to become a bit more mindful, either through that activity or elsewhere in your life, it probably doesn’t require an explanation. But for the sake of those who are still seeking the power of now (an excellent read, by the way), here’s mindfulness in a nutshell: Mindfulness is the act of connecting mind and body in the very moment that you’re in right now. Pretty straightforward, right?

But if it were really that easy, there wouldn’t be a thousand articles and books available on how to achieve it. The truth is, mindfulness gets easier the more you practice it but, until then, it’s really rather challenging. It’s not easy for most of us to let go of our responsibilities, our plans for the future, or our roots in the past. It’s not easy to recognize and let go of thoughts that are no longer serving us. Because, as humans, we’re taught to feel our emotions. And that’s okay. That’s great, even. The secret is learning to feel the emotions you’re experiencing now, not the ones you were experiencing yesterday, or the ones you’re planning to experience eight weeks from now at that big meeting.

TRY THIS: See if you can stop talking. I don’t mean from your mouth, I mean from your mind. Our brains are trained to think, so don’t get discouraged if you’re not able to turn off the chatter. Simply use this exercise as a way to realize that your brain is constantly doing, constantly pondering, constantly dealing with the stimuli that’s being thrown at it. Let go of any feelings of judgement or reprimand; that defeats the purpose. Just close your eyes, and teach your busy brain to rest.

So what’s the point? What does it matter if you can harness the power of your mind? It matters a lot, actually. First and foremost, it’ll improve the quality of your life. Take a second to think about how harmful it must be for your mind not to be able to sit back, relax and enjoy the view every once in a while. It would be tiring after a while, no? When your mind is constantly elsewhere, worrying and stressing and thinking, it’s not able to bask in the beauty of life itself. Many of us are so busy chasing after something that we don’t have yet – happiness, money, success, nice things – that we never actually reach a destination. We never find those things. They’re always in the future, a few steps out of reach. Being mindful allows happiness to be within your reach. It delivers it right under your nose.

On top of making you feel better, mindfulness will make you act better. Frustration and anger are a constant threat in our lives, and only mindfulness can give you the tools to fend off these dangerous emotions. Being fully present teaches us to step back and see the situation from a different perspective. We’re not thinking about the cause of our anger or what this anger means, we’re simply thinking about how we can react to that anger now. When someone advises you to take a breath when anger starts to bubble, they are guiding you toward mindful thinking – whether they know it or not. Mindfulness, my friends, will make you a better person.

"Being mindful allows happiness to be within your reach. It delivers it right under your nose."

TRY THIS: Next time something makes you angry, take a breath before you react. See the situation for what it is. Will releasing your anger by lashing out improve the situation? Will it benefit anyone? How could you respond in a more constructive way? Harnessing our emotions is hard – sometimes really hard – but being mindful makes it a lot easier.

One final note about the benefits of mindfulness: it allows you to let go. In our society, we’re governed by so many things that are out of our control. We allow our entire day to be ruined when we make an error at work. We get upset that the weather forecast for the weekend is less than promising. We lash out at people without understanding their backstories. All of these actions are harmful to our well-being, and they’re all a result of not taking a few seconds to draw inward and reflect on our current situation. We allow ourselves to be governed by circumstances and misguided perceptions, which results in negativity and ill health. In other words, the source of our suffering always lies somewhere other than the moment we’re in. Now is the ultimate hiding place from suffering.

I think it’s important to emphasize that the majority of our suffering comes from within. Mindful people are able to protect themselves from themselves by pausing and observing, and a lot of this mindful energy is harnessed through the breath. The breath is used as a tool in many ancient rituals and practices – yoga, tai chi, and meditation, to name a few – because it has an unparalleled power to instill a sense of calm. If you’re not big on belief and faith, calming the breath is scientifically proven to lower cortisol levels, the hormone responsible for regulating our fight or flight response, AKA stress. How does it work? Quite simply, the act of focusing on your breath disables you to think about anything else. Our minds aren’t able to truly focus on two things at once, so turning your awareness to your inhales and exhales centers you in the moment and doesn’t leave room for any other thoughts. Need some protection from the outside world? Your breath is your best friend.

TRY THIS: Wherever you’re sitting, draw your shoulders back. Allow the crown of your head to reach toward the ceiling. Ground down through your low body. Soften your muscles and your joints. Be tall and relaxed. Good. Now mindfully start to notice your next inhale breath as it pulls in through the nostrils. Feel it seep down through the throat and observe it as it fills the lungs and low belly. Now slowly exhale. Follow the breath’s path back out the body. Feel it carrying toxins and negativity as it departs. Repeat this pattern a few more times. Are you more present? Are you more mindful? Note how you feel.

"Now is the ultimate hiding place from suffering."

Achieving a state of mindfulness doesn’t have to be accomplished in a meditation ritual or a religious practice. You don’t have to be in church, or a temple, or even in a quiet place by yourself. You can achieve mindfulness at any point of the day, no matter where you are or who is surrounding you. In a crowded room? Be mindful. Draw your awareness inward and notice exactly where you are and exactly how you’re feeling. Forget where you’re going and be in that crowded room. This is mindfulness.

Practice mindfulness in every area of your daily life. Practice it when you’re doing the things you don’t enjoy, as well as the things you do enjoy. Observe how it deepens the exciting adventures and brings more enjoyment to the mundane tasks. And speaking of mundane tasks, I encourage you to stop treating your life as a to-do list. When you’re washing the dishes, try not to think about what chore or errand you’re going to tackle next. Just wash the dishes. Mindfully wash the dishes. Zero in on every bubble. Feel the texture of the sponge between your fingers. It may sound silly, but mindfulness truly is about subtle changes. You can maximize your happiness by applying tiny mental adjustments to your outlook on even the most ordinary activities.

Mindfulness isn’t new. It’s not a trend. Yoga pants with mesh up the side? That’s a trend. Mindfulness is timeless. It’s been practiced for thousands of years by everyone from Buddhist monks to mother’s on the prairie to royal Egyptians. In fact, the old adage “stop and smell the flowers” encompasses the heart of mindfulness, and you probably never realized it. Ever close your eyes during a frustrating task to recollect your thoughts? Ever take a deep breath before heading out onto the field to play a big game? You’ve practiced mindfulness. It’s not new, and it’s not hard. It’s just a matter of practicing it more and more.

I encourage you to feed any urges you might have to gain more knowledge on the art of being mindful. Indeed, there are many other facets of mindfulness that haven’t been addressed here and a myriad of books and resources on the subject. But worry about that later. For now, just breathe.