A lot has been said about mindfulness and the many benefits it brings to our lives. Concepts, ideas, and articles about it are everywhere these days claiming that being mindful will help us battle many of our most damaging human behaviors: depression, anxiety, and stress.
Mindfulness is a powerful concept, but an abstract one. Personally it took me a while to understand what mindfulness really means and the practical way to apply it to my life. I would like to share my findings with you.
Let’s start by explaining what mindfulness is, in simple terms.
Mindfulness is the practice of placing your attention in the present moment without judging or thinking about the past or the future and then holding that attention over time.
When we are still and quiet, turning off the outside world and focusing our attention in the present moment, we find clarity of mind. We connect with ourselves, allowing us increasingly to understand who we are.
Once we understand a little bit more about ourselves, being mindful gives us perspective on how we act. It allows us to observe our thoughts and actions and create more space around our reactions. Emotions sink in, disentangling negativity in a way that permits better understanding of the root of our emotions and slowing down our reactions. When we slow down our reactions we have time to choose how we will react to each situation. I understood this concept better when I heard a Buddhist monk explaining that being mindful creates more space around our reactions. It is the difference between diluting salt (negative emotions) in a cup or in a lake. By practicing mindfulness we transform ourselves from being cups to being lakes.
Do not expect mindfulness to create perfection in your life. It is a tool to help us realize who we really are. Its power comes from the transformation it generates when we act out of wisdom, from acceptance and compassion toward ourselves and others.
I repeat; we are not trying to create perfection. We are allowing our minds to transform us through understanding and perspective.
Mindfulness is a practice, and as such it should permeate life.
For me there are two ways to apply this abstract concept to daily life:
ONE is to just NOTICE
We can make mindfulness present in every action during our daily life, for example, in our speech by noticing our words and the effect they have in others, when we eat by noticing the flavors and textures, in simple actions such as taking a shower by noticing the touch of the water and soap in our skin, and when we listen to others by avoiding distractions and really paying attention.
TWO is to SIT and STOP
As often as I can (when I wake up, before going to bed, in the middle of a walk, or waiting for soccer practice to finish), I sit and for a little while I focus on my breath and turn my attention inward, using the acronym STOP.
S stands for Stop
- Stop, sit, and focus on the inside.
- Start by taking small breaks during the day. One minute, then two, then five.
T stands for Take a few breaths
- Focus on your breathing. Allow thoughts to come and go without judgment.
- Accept what you are feeling and thinking.
O stands for Observe
- Realize what’s going on inside you.
- Investigate the root of your feelings. Ask yourself questions.
- Listen to yourself.
P stands for Pause
- Let good feelings in and bad feelings out. Take a moment; have a break.
- Put things into perspective.
- Don’t forget to find compassion toward yourself and others.
Mindfulness is a practice. It takes discipline and perseverance.
Lao Tze’s words are an excellent way to remind us how to manage our thoughts and return to a mindful center:
“If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, you are living in the future. If you are at peace, you are living in the present.”