Would you be skeptical if I told you that without taking a pill or seeing a therapist, you could lower your blood pressure, raise your self-esteem, experience equanimity in the face of stress, improve the quality of your sleep, reduce chronic pain, get greater enjoyment from eating even while eating less, increase your energy and make better decisions? That you could be happier and see the world around you more positively?
The practitioners of mindfulness make these and other remarkable claims—and their claims are not without merit! Research is pouring in from a variety of disciplines, such as neuroscience, psychology, medicine and business, validating these significant benefits of mindfulness. (You can find a comprehensive publication database here.)
What exactly is mindfulness? Some describe mindfulness simply as "moment-by-moment awareness." Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, best-selling author of Wherever You Go, There You Are, describes mindfulness as "paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally, to the unfolding of experience moment to moment." Bodhipaksa's straightforward definition is my favorite: "Mindfulness is the gentle effort to be continuously present with experience."
Anyone who is willing to practice the gentle art of being present has the key to unlock the benefits currently being validated by research. The question then becomes where and how to begin. Here are three options:
1. Study a dog. Dogs are great practitioners of mindfulness, according to Jonathan Kaplan, PhD, author of Urban Mindfulness: Cultivating Peace, Presence, and Purpose in the Middle of It All. Besides being nonjudgmental (dogs think their owners are great no matter what kind of bad hair day they are having), dogs live only in the present moment. What happened a few minutes ago is of no concern, and tomorrow does not exist. Clearly, a dog is a sound role model for staying in the here and now.
2. Read a book, specifically, Jon Kabat-Zinn's definitive work, Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness. Besides articulating the theory of mindfulness and sharing the remarkable stories of how his patients are benefiting from its practice, Dr. Kabat-Zinn also provides a detailed program to help readers begin their own journey "along a path that ultimately leads nowhere, only to who you are."
3. Try a gentle experiment in mindfulness. Marty Cottler, PhD, a psychologist who specializes in teaching mindfulness in Grass Valley, California, recommends a three-minute practice for beginners:
At least once a day, check in with yourself. Intentionally pause for 10 seconds while you become aware of your breathing. Don’t try to change how you are breathing. Breathe naturally but with awareness.
For the remainder of this exercise, cast your eye-gaze downward to minimize visual distractions, and if possible, close your eyes and proceed.
Next, for approximately 60 seconds, move your attentive awareness from the top of your head down throughout your body to your toes and back up to the top of your head. As you scan your entire body, note areas of unpleasantness and pleasantness, such as tense shoulders or a full belly.
For another 60 seconds, focus your attention on your breathing at one of the following locations: your nostrils, lips, chest or belly. Practice awareness of your breathing at the part of the body you selected as your focus. Your attention will wander. Notice this and gently escort your attention back to awareness of your breathing at your selected body location.
For one more 60-second interval, practice being attentive to whatever grabs your attention: internal or external sensations as well as inner feelings and thoughts. Just notice—don’t chase after any of these sensations, feelings, or thoughts.
Lastly, open your eyes, raise your gaze, reestablish your connection with the outside world and carry on with your day. After following this routine for a few days, ask yourself if you are notice any difference in your daily experience.
We can easily lose track of our sense of self given the pressure of an increasingly hectic world where we are continuously bombarded with information and demands for instant decisions. Mindfulness is a way to cope—and even thrive—in this environment.
Steve Goodier, a Methodist minister and founder of an online support system, sums up the joy of practicing mindfulness in his motto, "Wherever you are, be there. If you can be fully present now, you’ll know what it means to live.” Echoing this theme, Dr. Kabat-Zinn says that mindfulness is neither a philosophy nor a religion; rather, it is "a way of being, a way of living your moments and living them fully."
What greater loss could we experience than dying without ever having been alive? And what better gift could we give ourselves than to be present during our numbered days, to live each moment fully? Be assured that in whatever time I have, my goal is to show up and be present.