Mindfulness has become really big over the past few years, and as a psychotherapist I try to educate clients about it whenever possible. Mindfulness can be defined, quite simply, as a state of active, open attention to the present. When we’re mindful, we consciously observe our thoughts and feelings from a distance, without making judgments of good and bad. We focus on living in the moment, rather than worrying about the future or regretting the past. I think mindfulness can help anyone, but in particular those who tend to worry or who happen to be a little negative at times. Even if you don’t put yourself in either category, it can be hard not to get caught up in future or past-oriented thinking- when we have work, families, bills, activities, and so on. After all, our society doesn’t exactly promote mindfulness. And with all of the technology, activities, and stimulation we have today- and our propensity toward multi-tasking, it can be difficult to focus on just one thing, truly being in the moment. In my opinion this is a setup for unhappiness if we don’t keep things in perspective.
As a busy professional and family man, I have become more interested in how I can incorporate mindfulness into my own life. I won’t say that I practice mindfulness per se, but I do try, even if it’s only in small ways. I’m also no expert on the subject, but I have been trying to learn more. What I do know is that mindfulness can help us to slow down, check in with ourselves, and literally “smell the roses”, allowing us to minimize the effects of stress, accomplish more, and get more enjoyment out of life.
As I’ve mentioned, I think there are two main causes of a lack of mindfulness, which commonly result in some type of distress, whether it be unhappiness, feelings of regret, depression, anxiety, anger, and so forth. The first is a tendency to put too much focus on the past or future. When we do this, we often waste time thinking or worrying about things we can’t control- something we said or did (or didn’t say or do), or maybe something we’re nervous about. If we really looked at what we can control, then do something about it, perhaps we could spend more of our time living in the present.
The second thing is trying to do too many things at once- constantly multitasking or feeling like we need to be entertained. Sure, many of us take pride in our ability to multitask, but chances are we accomplish less and our performance suffers when we try to do too much. A recent study shows this, but we’ve come to believe that multitasking is the way to go. In addition, many of us have adopted that idea that we must be entertained at all times. What’s the first thing you do today when you sit and wait at a restaurant or stand in line in a store? You probably take out your smartphone and start texting or checking your Facebook. A lot of restaurants have TVs in the waiting area as well. Gone seem to be the days when we just sit and people watch or talk to our friends or family. People should understand that it’s okay sometimes to just be- to sit or stand, look around, wait, strike up a conversation, etc. The mindset of needing constant entertainment, I believe, takes away from our ability to be mindful.
I’m not saying that being mindful means that you will never experience worry, regret, or unhappiness, but I am saying that mindfulness can help us to keep these thoughts and feelings in perspective- minimizing the negative effects that they have on our lives. We can be mindful in just about anything we do, so it’s not necessarily just one thing, but it can be an approach to life. Here are just a few tips if you might like to try. You might like some of these ideas, or you might think of some of your own.
- (Literally) take the road less travelled: Most of us travel in the same areas, take the same boring commutes, and probably have made these drives without really recalling the details of how we ended up at our destination. Try leaving a few minutes earlier, or if you find yourself with extra time one day, take a route you have never tried- or take a road you have always wanted to go down, but didn’t. When you do this, take notice to what you see. You might enjoy it, and you may even find a better route than you were used to. Relatedly, take a Sunday drive sometime. Drive somewhere you have never been or take an alternate route to a familiar place.
- Try new foods: Many of us find ourselves eating the same things, day in and day out. We know what we like, we frequent the same stores or restaurants, or we just develop habits. Try picking up something different at the grocery store or ordering something different on a menu. When you eat it, take notice to how it smells, how it tastes, and what the texture is like. If you’re at a restaurant with a partner, friend, or family, order different things and share. You just might find a new favorite, you can expand your repertoire of foods or things you can cook. At the very least, you can say you’ve tried ______.
- Sample new music: Music is another area in which we tend to know what we like and don’t like. We may have a tendency to listen to the same artists or same genres of music over and over- even if we believe our tastes are pretty broad. If you don’t listen to the radio, try a few different stations. Particularly if you listen to the radio online, via satellite, or even through your TV, you can find a whole range of stations, perhaps commercial-free and with some stuff you haven’t heard before. Click on one of the videos your friend is always posting to Facebook. If you can, just sit and listen to music without doing anything else. Really listen to it. Hear the lyrics, feel the beats. You might find something new- a new station, new artist, or even a genre you either haven’t heard before or didn’t know you liked.
- Exercise without music: I always have my iPhone with music when I run, work out at the gym, or go on a bike ride alone. Like most people, I really enjoy listening to music while exercising, and it gets me pumped up to work harder. But try exercising sometime without music- preferably outdoors. Whether you like to walk, run, ride a bike, skateboard, and so on, take the time to notice your surroundings- nature, other people, buildings. Listen to the sounds you hear- your feet hitting the ground, your breathing, the hum of your wheels on the pavement. Smell flowers or even food cooking at restaurants or on neighbor’s grills. Sure, we can do much of this while listening to music, but our music can also be distracting, and our focus goes there. I still love to have my music, but it can be fun sometimes to go without it- especially if I am in the woods, at the beach, or in a city or town away from where I live.
- Take a picnic lunch or dinner to a local park or nature area: This is something you can do on the weekend- alone, with a friend, partner, or with your family. You can also do this cheaply. Find a nice place to sit- in the shade; near a lake, pond, or river; or even in a city park. Have some conversation, people watch, nature watch, or just focus on your lunch and enjoy that. You might find a new place to go and it might be a nice way to spend time with others. And at work many of us tend to eat while working or even skip lunch. Even if you take 15 or 20 minutes to go outside and eat your lunch, you might find that this adds some enjoyment to your day- and makes it easier to power through the afternoon.
There are many more ways to become more mindful. The point is to take time to be in the moment and to notice things you may not have noticed before- sights, sounds, smells, textures. This also allows us to try new things, it makes life more fun, and I think it makes us more interesting. When we learn to be mindful, we have new experiences and we open up new possibilities. And in my opinion, this is what enjoying life is all about.
If you would like the sound of this, but aren’t sure how to start or don’t think you can do it, there are a number of things you can do. First, you might look up a few Web sites related to mindfulness. You could also find a book about it at your local library, book store, or online. It will likely take some time to be successful, because mindfulness is not what comes naturally. You may even want to bring in some professional help- especially if you do struggle with anxiety or tend to be negative. A psychotherapist or psychologist may be able to help you to tackle these issues. If you’re interested in mindfulness and think it may be helpful, you can ask a potential therapist if they use mindfulness in their practice. Lastly, whatever you do, remember that this may take some time and practice. Take care.
© Jesse D. Matthews, Psy.D., 2013