Have you ever started eating an ice cream cone, taken a lick or two, then noticed all you had was a sticky napkin in your hand? Or been going somewhere and arrived at your destination only to realize you haven’t noticed anything or anyone you met along the way? Of course you have, we all have! These are common examples of “mindlessness,” or as some people put it, “going on automatic pilot.”
We all fall into habits of mind and body, of attention and inattention, which result in our not being present for our own lives. The consequences of this inattention can be quite costly. They can result in our missing some really good things, and also in our ignoring really important information and messages about our life, our relationships, and even our own health.
Our reactions to the stressful events of our lives can become so habituated that they occur essentially out of our awareness, until, because of physical or emotional or psychological dysfunction, we cannot ignore them any longer. These reactions can include tensing the body, experiencing painful emotional states, even panic and depression, and being prisoners of habits of thinking and self-talk including obsessional list making, and intense, even toxic self-criticism.
An important antidote to this tendency to “tune-out,” to go on “automatic pilot,” is to practice mindfulness. To practice mindfulness means to pay more careful attention in a particular way. We all have the quality of mindfulness in us. It is the quality of bare awareness that knows what is here in the present moment. Mindfulness knows what is going on outside, and also, inside our own skin. However we experience life, through whichever sense gate life comes to us – eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, even the mind itself – mindfulness is capable of knowing that seeing, or hearing, or smelling, or tasting, or feeling, or even thinking – is happening in this, the present moment.
So, we can practice mindfulness and become more present. All we have to do is to establish attention in the present moment, and to allow ourselves to be with what is here. To rest in the awareness of what is here. To pay attention without trying to change anything. To allow ourselves to become more deeply and completely aware of what it is we are sensing! And to be with what it is we are experiencing. To rest in this quality of being, of being aware, in each moment as our life unfolds.
And, to the extent we can practice “being” and become more present and more aware of our life and in our life, the “doing” we do about all of it, will be more informed, more responsive, and less driven by the habits of reaction and inattention.
Make the effort! Whenever you think of it in your day or night, remember that you can be more mindful. See for yourself what it might be like to pay more careful attention and to allow yourself to experience directly what is here, especially including what is here in your own body, heart, and mind. When starting a new activity (beginning a meeting with 2 minutes of silence and attention on the breath, or taking a few mindful breaths before entering a patient’s room, or a focus on the breath before starting your exercise routine, are some possibilities). In the middle of an on-going situation or process (bringing attention to the breath, or to the sensations arising while washing dishes, eating a meal, walking the dog, doing a job, etc.) Or when you are just waiting, in between the things on the schedule (gently bringing attention to the breath or the sounds or the sensations or the sights or even the thoughts while at a red light, in a line at the bus stop or grocery, or waiting for someone else to arrive).
In these situations, use the sensation of the breath as the “anchor” for awareness in the present moment. Establish mindfulness on the narrow focus of just the breath sensation. Allow yourself to feel the breath as it goes in, and goes out and the pause between in and out. Do not try to control the breath. Simply let it come and go. Bring as much attention, as completely and continuously as you can to the direct sensation of the breath.
After awhile, if you wish, when you have established awareness on the breath sensation, you could widen the focus to include all body sensations along with the breath sensation. Again, not trying to change anything at all! But, simply allowing yourself to feel, to be aware of the changing sensations in the body.
After awhile, again if you wish, you can further widen the focus to include all that is present. This means whatever you are hearing, seeing, tasting, smelling, touching, or even thinking. Just practice being with these different experiences as they unfold. Allowing yourself to feel your life in this moment. Resting in mindfulness, the open-hearted choiceless awareness of what is here in this moment.
Anytime you feel lost or confused or frustrated, gently narrow the focus and return awareness to the sensation of the breath. You may have to do this frequently. It is ok. Or you may wish to concentrate mainly on the breath, especially if you are new to meditation. That, too, is ok. The important thing is the quality of awareness you bring to the moment. One moment of mindfulness, one breath when we are truly present, can be quite profound. See for yourself!
You can practice mindfulness in this way throughout the day and night! Practice for a few breaths at a time, even for a few mindful moments. And, if you wish, you can make this a more “formal” meditation practice, by setting aside some time (from a few minutes to an hour or more, as you wish) free from other activity or distraction to devote full attention to simply being present, being mindful of what is present. Over time you may find that the “formal” practice supports and strengthens your ability to practice “informally” throughout the day and night in different situations.
Expect your mind to wander! Especially if you practice for even a few breaths or for a few minutes. Practice kindness and patience with yourself when this happens and gently return awareness to the breath sensation.
Notice any tendency to “be hard on yourself,” or to feel frustrated or a failure. See this kind of judgment as just another kind of thinking, and gently return awareness to the breath.
Expect to feel some relaxation, especially if you practice for even a few breaths or for a few moments. This relaxed feeling is an ally. It helps us to be more present, more mindful. Relaxation alone is not what mindfulness is about, however! It is about being present with awareness.
Expect to become more mindful with practice! Expect to notice more things, including more painful things. This is actually progress! You are not doing anything wrong! Quite the opposite, you are increasing mindfulness for all things. When you begin to notice the painful things, see if you can hold yourself with compassion and kindness, and continue to bring open-hearted awareness to the experience that is unfolding. By practicing staying present, not turning away from the painful in our lives, we can learn to remain open to all the possibilities in each situation. This increases our chances for healing and transformation in meeting the pain we face. And it also gives us a way to be with those situations when there is nothing more we can do to “get away from the pain” but must find a way to be with it. We can discover that the quality of mindfulness is not destroyed or damaged by contact with pain, that it can know pain as completely and fully as it knows any other experience.
Finally, be careful not to try too hard when practicing mindfulness. Don’t try to make anything happen, or to achieve any special states or any special effects! Simply relax and pay as much attention as you can to just what is here now. Whatever form that takes. Allow yourself to experience life directly as it unfolds, paying careful and open-hearted attention.
Jeffrey Brantley, MD, is a consulting associate in the Duke Department of Psychiatry and the founder and director of the mindfulness-based stress reduction program at Duke University’s Center for Integrative Medicine. He is author of Calming Your Anxious Mind, Daily Meditations for Calming Your Anxious Mind and The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook. For more information, visit his bio at DukeHealth.org.