A MOMENT IN MIND
How mindfulness can improve your life
By clearing your mind of distractions and consciously directing your entire focus onto the present moment, you can live a more happy and effective life, say Dr Stephen McKenzie and Dr Craig Hassed.
What is mindfulness, and can it help us live our daily lives more happily and effectively? The active ingredient of mindfulness is simply the ability to be present and aware of what is actually happening to us and within us, by not allowing our attention to drift off and daydream about what happened yesterday, or might happen tomorrow. Mindfulness is what’s meant by the popular practical philosophical advice to ‘wake up to yourself’ – after all, how can we really live any day if we don’t fully wake up to it?
The idea of mindfulness may be new to mainstream thinking, but it has been around for as long as attention has. You have almost certainly practiced mindfulness intuitively and spontaneously already at some stage of your life, even if you only stumbled across it by accident and didn’t know what it was called, or even that it had a name. You might have been fully mindful when you really looked at a sunset or at a child smiling at you.
So how can mindfulness help us live better lives? The answer is, by helping us to better rest, eat, work, learn, play, exercise and more fully enjoy every aspect of our lives.
Resting and sleeping mindfully
The quality of our actions depends on the quality of our rest. Mindfulness can help us rest between activities, as well as help us sleep. Feeling at rest even while engaged in action is possible, and this comes naturally when we are fully aware of, and fully connecting with, what we are doing. Good rest and sleep are vital to our health and happiness, and these can be greatly improved if we do them mindfully.
Features of mindful rest and sleep
- Introducing a mindful pause between our activities that naturally separates them, and helps us start each new activity freshly.
- Being aware of our body and its need to rest.
- Practising a simple mindfulness exercise before going to sleep, such as being non-judgmentally aware of each of our senses for half a minute or so.
- Being patient and gentle with ourselves.
The quality of our lives is greatly affected by how as well as what we eat. One of the many great advantages of eating mindfully – with full awareness – is that it will make our food taste better and be more satisfying, as well as be better for us, because if we are mindful we are more likely to chew and digest our food better, to know when we’ve had enough to eat, and to choose food that will be better for us.
Try this simple mindful eating experiment: eat something that you regularly eat, but do it mindfully, by truly experiencing it through each of the senses – consciously feel it, see it, smell it and taste it. How was it? Did you experience the food in a heightened manner? If you would rather experiment by mindfully experiencing a glass of good wine, by all means do so! Wine judges practice tasting wine mindfully without necessarily calling it mindfulness.
Features of mindful eating
- Pausing before eating helps us to be in touch with our bodies and what they need.
- Fully paying attention to the act and experience of eating.
- Slowing down eating and increasing savouring.
- Noticing our attitudes and emotions around food.
- Learning to recognise and unhook our attention from unhelpful thoughts and emotions, particularly in relation to eating.
- Making conscious food choices.
- Remembering to enjoy food and eating – it’s natural, and we wouldn’t be here long without it!
Working and learning mindfully
In the hurly-burly world of the workplace, or the learning place, some might look upon mindfulness as a touchy-feely kind of thing; something you do on a work retreat organised by a member of HR who, although well-meaning, has gone a little soft in the head and wants the executives to hug trees and do a little astral travelling to boot. At the very least, mindfulness might be seen by many as a time-waster designed by lazy people who want to make a virtue out of doing nothing. Well, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, an increasing number of high-level organisations and corporations are looking to mindfulness as a core strategy for improving resilience, focus and performance and for fostering the kinds of qualities that make good leaders – the kind of leaders that team members want to follow.
Features of mindful working and learning
- Paying full attention and being fully present – no matter what work or learning activities we’re doing.
- Managing our working or learning environment by reducing and managing unnecessary distractions and technology such as mobile phone calls, the internet and email; reducing unnecessary stimuli such as sound pollution, Facebook and Twitter; managing interruptions so that the focus is on what it needs to be on.
- Beginning with priority one, proceeding with one task at a time and having the mental flexibility to change priorities when needed.
- Really listening to other people.
- Knowing when to take breaks and freshen up, including getting away from the desk to eat lunch.
- Understanding that knowing when to stop working or studying is just as important as knowing when to start.
Playing and exercising mindfully
There’s more to life than what we have to do to survive, such as eat, drink, rest and work. Life should be enjoyed, and being mindful makes everything that we do more enjoyable, including our recreation. Think of the last time you missed an unmissable golf putt, or of any other mistake that didn’t seem possible until you made it. Were you simply aware of what mattered – the golf club, the ball, the hole – or was your mind zooming off into the future, the thrill of winning, the misery of defeat; or to the past – the last time you performed a similar action and its results? When we are mindful we are fully connected with the reality of what we need to do next, which will make everything that we do more enjoyable as well as more likely to be successful.
Features of mindful playing and exercising
- Focusing fully on what we’re doing right now and not on its possible outcome.
- Playing hard but enjoying the game or other recreational activity, rather than getting anxious about the possible outcome.
- Valuing sportsmanship and our connection with the others who we are competing with or against.
- Cultivating a flow state. Elite athletes often talk about entering a ‘zone’, but this is available to anyone who is fully mindful.
Formal mindful practice
As well as practicing mindfulness in our daily activities, it is also very helpful to formally practice mindfulness – even if only for five minutes – at least once every day. This simply requires consciously focusing your attention on something tangible and present such as your breath, or the sensations in your body, and maybe scanning the attention through it bit by bit. Notice how the breaths or other bodily sensations come and go, how they change – without labelling or judging them. If thoughts come, just let them come, and let them go again; and gently return the attention to the bodily sensations. Like most things worth doing, the more often we do this, the easier it gets – and it helps us to be mindful more often during the rest of the day.
The bottom line to daily mindful practice is just being fully connected to everything that we do and who we do it with. This will naturally result in a life that is balanced, enjoyable and productive – a life fully lived. Are you fully connected with whatever you’re doing? If not, then it might be a good time to wake up to who you really are and your real life opportunities. The best place and time to practice mindfulness is the only place and time we can practice it – here and now!
Dr Stephen McKenzie
Stephen has over twenty years of experience in researching and teaching a broad range of psychological areas. He is currently a lecturer and research fellow at Deakin University’s School of Psychology, where he is investigating mindfulness as a clinical treatment.
Dr Craig Hassed
Craig is an internationally recognised expert in mindfulness who has been instrumental in promoting mindfulness as a simple and accessible technique for enhancing wellness, preventing and managing illness, and improving performance within health, educational and corporate settings. Stephen and Craig’s new book Mindfulness For Life is available from www.exislepublishing.com.au