What is Mindfulness and why does it matter? It’s important to first define what Mindfulness actually means, as many times it is misunderstood.
Mindfulness is defined as: “Mindfulness is the practice of purposely bringing one's attention in the present moment without evaluation, a skill one develops through meditation or other training. Mindfulness derives from sati, a significant element of Buddhist traditions, and is based on Zen, Vipassanā, and Tibetan meditation techniques.”
Mindfulness and meditation are not the same, and neither of these practices will instantly fully “shut off” your thoughts. As Emily Fletcher of Ziva Technique frequently quotes to her clients and spoke in an interview with Organic Authority, "The mind thinks involuntarily, just like the heart beats involuntarily." You cannot control your thoughts any more than you can control systems that function automatically within your body, like your heartbeat. And that’s great news.
Too many times people start and quickly give up on Mindfulness and Meditation practices, because they falsely believe they must stop their thoughts completely to succeed at it. Even monks who meditate all day long on mountaintops do not silence their thoughts entirely while meditating. The real goal is to bring one's awareness back to the present moment over and over (and over and over and over again) through a “mantra”, or some form of an awareness tool, such as breathing, sensory experience, etc. A mantra is a mind vehicle that is used in meditation to serve this purpose. When thoughts inevitably distract you, the mantra brings you gently back to the present moment (if you choose it).
The same can be done when practicing mindfulness. You just need to choose an awareness tool. I was recently introduced to a mindfulness exercise for anxiety (through the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy app Bloom) that involves all 5 senses. You simply stop what you are doing, sit back, and slowly become aware of 5 things in your immediate visual awareness, naming them silently or out loud, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste. This brings us back into what is truly “reality”, which is the present moment.
Life was always meant to be lived in the present, but unfortunately, our minds present us with challenges. The mind LOVES to analyze the past and project stories onto the future. While that’s normal and natural, and not something you need to fight, it is really important to become aware of and start to observe non-judgmentally. Your reality doesn’t exist in the past or the future. And while you cannot change the past, you can positively influence the future through your choices in the now. This can include very powerful mindfulness exercises like the one above, breath work, and even visualizations of where you’d like to be - involving all the senses!
Let’s try a Visualization exercise on for size. This allows you to bring yourself into a state of calm bliss in the now by picturing you are on a vacation (and it’s free of charge!). Sit back for a moment and try it - imagine yourself in a place you’d love to be that brings you great joy and calm. Let’s say it’s the beach. Imagine 5 things you can see - the ocean, sand, children’s toys, beach blankets, and chairs. Four things you can touch could be the softness of your beach towel, your body sinking into your beach chair, the sun warming your skin, and the sand between your toes. Now imagine you can hear the ocean waves crashing, seagulls as they soar above you, and the wind hitting your umbrella. What are two things you could smell? Sea salt air, or sunscreen on your skin. And see if you can taste the remnants of a fruit bowl you brought as a picnic - mango, pineapple, melon, grapes, etc.
"You cannot control your thoughts any more than you can control systems that function automatically within your body, like your heartbeat.
And that’s great news."
What’s so incredibly powerful about the mind, and what we can use to our advantage, like you experienced with the beach exercise, is that the mind can take you on a trip and believe something is happening in the present, whether it's truly real or not. This can be felt both negatively and positively. You could imagine right now that you are standing in front of an audience speaking, your voice shaking, and developing butterflies in your stomach, feeling symptoms of fight or flight like sweaty palms and a racing heart, even though you aren’t actually giving a speech. OR, you could picture yourself standing comfortably and confidently in front of people, accepting the nervous energy and using it to fuel your excitement, a gleam in your eye, and a smile on your face as you feel the warm and focused energy of your audience cheering you on. Very different experience. Which you choose to envision is up to you.
And what’s even MORE powerful, exciting, and fascinating is that while that experience may not be happening in this moment, it does have the power to influence your reality in the future just as much as it does in the present. How? Because your unconscious mind, which processes your physical and emotional experiences, is always listening. If it can grasp onto a perceived reality (real or fabricated), it knows it can make it happen. Want to reach a goal in the future? Picture yourself experiencing it now using your 5 senses, and see how that makes you feel. The more you can see it, feel it, taste it, smell it, and hear it, the more you believe it’s a real possibility and can take action on it now.
There are so many wonderful mindfulness practices. And while all can be rewarding, calming, pleasant, and even fun, I urge you to consider it a necessity, and not simply something you “might try some day”. Life cannot be lived in the past nor in the future. The present is calling all of us to pay attention and to take action, right now, on what we can control. The more we are trapped in our heads, the harder it is for us to tap into our instincts, our truth, and clarity at any given moment. You cannot make great decisions, nor be a great leader, nor act upon what nature is calling you to do from a chronic state of fight or flight. The body knows how to function best in parasympathetic mode (aka rest and digest), where that heart beats without you telling it to. It is from that state that we can enter “flow” and work in conjunction with nature, being the co-creators we were always built to be. It doesn’t matter what field you work in - we are all co-creators of our reality on this journey as human beings.
February is National Cancer Awareness month. While so many of us have been touched by cancer, either personally or through a loved one who has survived or sadly passed, in bringing that to your awareness just now, I want to focus on one thing. Cancer brings up a lot of emotion - fear, anger, frustration, bitterness, hope, appreciation for life, communication with the body and soul, an openness to letting go of control, and trusting in something greater. All feelings are valid. The sooner you bring a practice of Mindfulness to where you are now (even amidst Cancer), the more you can experience life and those you love wherever you are, regardless of circumstances. Mindfulness can ease the emotions and help you move through if you are currently undergoing cancer treatment. It can ease the feelings you may feel of fear for a loved one going through it, helping you love them deeper and accept the circumstances as they are. It can help people accept whatever comes their way and allow the feelings to be what they are, even if that means coming to terms with one’s own immortality on this earth. It’s not a defeat. It’s the experience of supreme freedom.
I’ll never forget this story - a friend of mine who is an Acupuncturist was studying with an incredible mentor and teacher. He will never forget watching as his mentor soothed a dying client before his eyes and helped them connect with the peace within themselves so deeply, that they were finally able to let go and pass in peace. The energy was visceral. In that moment, watching someone pass in peace was an experience of divine intervention. It was a soul departing with the body on peaceful terms, from a place of acceptance in the moment.
Read the book Siddhartha, and you’ll have a completely new understanding of the power of Mindfulness. It doesn’t require becoming a monk, nor indulging in every earthly pleasure known to man. There’s something inexplicably magical about it, and it’s “free of charge”. Something available to us at all times, should we choose to connect with it. I hope you take this message to heart and begin practicing Mindfulness today and every day.