By Mark Nash | Contributor
Mindfulness is entering the mainstream. Right now, our awareness of mindfulness—what it is, how to do it, what benefits it holds—is probably where yoga was about 20 years ago. And like our early encounters with yoga, we’re just starting to fully understand what mindfulness is and what it can do for us.
Let’s start with a definition. At its most basic, mindfulness simply means paying attention, but in a particular way. More specifically it means being present to what’s happening in the moment and, in particular, noticing what you’re experiencing both internally and externally. It also means staying in the here and now as opposed to living in the past or trying to predict the future. And finally it means doing all of this without judgment.
Think about when you’re driving home from work. Have you ever had the experience of all of a sudden looking at your surroundings and having no idea where the last two miles went? That’s because your attention was…well, elsewhere. And not only weren’t you aware of the scenery going by, you probably weren’t aware of what you were thinking about or feeling emotionally or experiencing physically.
To be clear, you certainly were thinking and feeling, and your senses were all working just fine; you just weren’t conscious of any of these things in a particularly attentive way. And to some extent, that’s how it should be. If we were always taking note of everything we think and feel and experience, we couldn’t function. Our natural filters keep us (relatively) sane.
That sweet spot, in between zoning out and sensory overload, is an important aspect of mindfulness. We become aware of what we’re thinking, we can identify our emotional state, and we’re paying attention to the information we’re getting through our senses. Not every moment of every day but enough to be able to monitor what we’re experiencing, and that is the first step toward being able to affect our experience. In other words, the more we know what’s going on, the greater the likelihood of our being to make the changes we want to make in our thoughts, our feelings and our experience of our world.
Take a breath
How, then, do we find this sweet spot? What with thoughts, feelings and sensory input, how do we pay attention to what matters without getting overwhelmed? What’s the app for that?
Fortunately we carry it with us all the time, and it’s completely hands free, so you can access it even while you’re driving (or cooking or eating or showering). It’s our breath.
Breath is great for helping you to pay attention because it’s always right there, waiting for you. And while the rest of you is there too, the breath is especially useful because it has all kinds of components that you can focus on: the different stages of breath (inhale, pause, exhale, pause); the sensation of the air moving in and out of your nose or mouth; the movement of different parts of your torso; the sound your breath makes (which you can increase or decrease if you like); heck, if you’re doing this in a really cold environment, you can even see your breath. So much to pay attention to! Which means that when we start drifting away, we only need to remind ourselves of our breath, and we’re right back in the awareness groove.
There’s also the added benefit of breath being a natural mellowing agent. Often, our runaway thoughts, including the ones that are giving us a hard time about our circumstances or feelings, can really ratchet up the tension. Coming back to our breath—good old, slow and steady, ever-present breath—can help us find a moment of calm in the middle of our thought storm. Just watching it can do that; or, if we like, we can regulate it a bit. When we slow it down and make it deeper we bring more oxygen to our brain, and we stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is our body’s natural stress reducer.
But the most important aspect of connecting to our breath is that is increases our physical awareness of the present moment in a very tangible, concrete way. Once we become aware of what is happening in our body, we can connect more easily to our thoughts and feelings. And that’s when things start to get really interesting.
Mark Nash lives in Charlotte and has a psychotherapy practice in Burlington. For questions or comments about this article, you can contact him at marknashvt.com. This is the first of a three-part series that will appear over the next two months.