For me, mindfulness is a way to fully enter into and experience life, to accept the reality of my situation without having it overwhelm me. I have more appreciation for my pleasant experiences and more compassion for the unpleasant ones. Mindfulness practice has shifted the way I interact with others, with my situations, and with myself.
So what exactly is mindfulness? Mindfulness is being aware of the present moment with non-judgment, or curiously noticing what is happening without trying to change anything. There are three main components to mindfulness.
The first is being aware, or paying attention. So much of the time we are not fully aware of what’s going on around us. How often have you driven home at the end of a long day, arriving home only to realize you have no memory of the drive home? So much of the time we go through the motions, disengaging and letting our thoughts and emotions go elsewhere. So take a moment to be aware of what you are doing right now. Are you sitting? Standing? Pacing? Are you inside or outside? Are you reading, or flipping back and forth between this site and other sites? Having conversations? Are you fidgety, or still? Are you breathing deeply, holding your breath, or sighing? What emotions are you experiencing right now? What thoughts are going through your mind? Simply notice what you are doing, where you are, what you’re thinking about or feeling. Noticing, being aware, is the first step of practicing mindfulness.
Second, being aware of the present moment. So much of the time our thoughts are either in the future or in the past. Planning what I need to do, or what I need to say to that person. Reliving something that happened earlier in the day and going over it again and again and again. Or reliving something that happened years ago. Very rarely are we ever right here, right now. This moment. This breath. This thought. This emotion. For myself, this was really challenging to do. My thoughts get sucked into the future or past so quickly, I don’t even realize it’s happened for awhile. Five minutes would go by before I realized I wasn’t in the present anymore. Over time I noticed I’d recognize I’d jumped out of the present sooner and sooner. There are times when I can stay in the present for a few minutes at a time before I jump into the future or past thoughts. Then a few minutes go by, I notice where my thoughts are, and bring them back to the present. This isn’t to say that thinking about the future or past is wrong. We have to plan and problem solve in order to work and do well in life. It can be wonderful to stop a savor memories of the past. It’s the intentional aspect that makes a difference. Can you choose to be in the present moment?
Third, being aware, in the present moment, with non-judgment. This has been the most challenging, and the most rewarding, aspect of mindfulness for me. What does non-judgment even mean? To judge means to form an opinion from the facts presented. Non-judgment means to simply look at the facts. A fact is something that can be measured - “It rained one inch today.” An opinion is a response to the facts - “It’s dreary out today.” Our thoughts can be facts, opinion, and most often, a mix of facts and opinions. The problem is that when we have a thought, we tend to assume it’s a fact, simply because we had it.
For me, I find it easier to think about being curious. What are the facts? What is happening? This is not problem-solving, or answering questions. It is simply trying to notice all that can be noticed. If it’s an object you are observing, what is the shape, the color, the density, the texture, the motion, the sound, the smell, the taste? It’s easier to practice this skill of being curious, noticing facts, with a neutral object. It’s easy to make judgments, or form opinions when learning to describe. “That’s a beautiful flower.” That’s a judgment. To take the spirit of mindfulness I might say “that flower is yellow, with a white center, thick petals, and an upright green stem.”
The real beauty of this approach is when we can take this mindful approach to our thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations, curiously noticing what is, without judging it as good or bad. It seems so simple, to simply notice my emotion, my thoughts, and let them be as they are, without trying to change them or make them go away. And yet it is so profound. Acknowledging my current reality, allowing it to be neither good nor bad, has radically shifted my mood, my relationships, my work, my relationship with myself. I feel myself being more genuine, more true to who I am, and liking who I am. It is so amazing for me to watch people make this shift, and the joy and wonder that fills their faces as they settle into themselves with peace.
It is traditionally called a mindfulness practice, as it is something we have to do over and over and over again. It’s not something that you’ll get once and be done with. Sometimes it take a while to figure out how to notice facts versus opinions. But keep practicing.