Mindfulness

This month's Skill of the Month is Mindfulness. It is something that has been around for centuries but in recent years has gained more attention in the Western world. Basically, mindfulness is the opposite of multi-tasking. It is doing one thing at a time, with full attention to that which is being done and doing so without judgement.

As most skills go, it is easier said than done and requires practice to become more proficient at it. You might try a quick exercise now: try to "hover" your tongue inside of your mouth. With your lips closed, lift your tongue from the bottom of your mouth and don't allow it to touch the sides, top or bottom of your mouth. See if you can do it for 60 seconds. 30? 20? 10? It is an easy thing to do but requires you to think about doing it. This would be an example of an easy mindfulness exercise. 

What good does that do? There are many reasons to practice mindfulness. For most people I have worked with, it lowers both depression and anxiety because your focus is on the present moment--what is going on right at this second--not something in the future or in the past. Additionally, it improves memory! For me, it also facilitates gratefulness about what I have and can do. I begin to realize that I can breathe, I can walk, I can brush my teeth or wash my dishes in relative comfort while there are so many that cannot. I also notice how beautiful these everyday things really are--how much I've been missing just because I never paid attention to it! I remember distinctly one day walking in a mindful way in my neighborhood. I was on the same little street I had walked down at least 100 times before but THIS time I noticed, for the first time, a tree. I'm sure I'd seen it before, many times, but I had never really SEEN it. Observed it. Looked at it. I remember thinking "This is a beautiful tree--look how it swirls up--the bark doesn't just go straight up, it curls around the tree--its gorgeous! How have I never seen this before?" The world looks completely different when you look at it mindfully, because perhaps for the first time you're SEEING it, focused on the details. For most of us, we are just walking and thinking about a million other things instead of walking and seeing what is around us. We're using that walk to "multi-task"!

 Image via http://visual.ly/mindfulness

Image via http://visual.ly/mindfulness

Multi-tasking is good, though, right? Wrong. Multi-tasking isn't "bad" (that would be rather judgemental) but its something that our brains aren't really set up to do. Try this: time yourself saying the alphabet. It probably took you about 10 seconds to do. Now time yourself counting from 1 to 30. Again, about 10 seconds (or less). Now, try saying the alphabet and counting to 30 at the same time. Chances are, you'll say something like A-1, B-2, C-3, D-4... and it will take you a whole lot longer than 20 seconds to complete. It would have been far more efficient to just say the alphabet start to finish and count 1-30 start to finish. Even this, though, you're doing one thing, then shifting your focus to the other thing, then back to the first and so on. Its only highly "over-learned" things that you can even come close to actually multi-tasking on. Now, not every multi-tasking thing is like this, obviously it doesn't require me any mental effort at all to walk in my neighborhood, so I can do this while talking on the phone, or thinking about dinner plans or any number of other things, although it might be less safe for me to walk while not focusing on walking--I might trip because I didn't notice a branch sticking out or something.

So, how do we practice being mindful? Pick any activity: could be breathing, eating, looking at a flower, sorting laundry, walking, doing the dishes, brushing your teeth... anything. Now, just do that one thing without thinking about anything but the thing you're doing! Easy, right? Wrong again. Our brains are wired to constantly give us information about all kinds of things. So, while I'm brushing my teeth, I'm frequently thinking: "what am I going to wear today? what should I make for dinner? did I remember to call that client back? I need to tell my husband that drain is running slow again..." I'm not thinking about the actual teeth or brushing at all. So, when your mind jumps to something else, which it WILL, just gently, non-judgementally, bring it back to what you're doing. If I verbalized the thoughts, it might sound something like this: "I am putting toothpaste on my toothbrush... being careful not to put too much... now I'm running it under the water for a second... now I'm brushing this tooth right there... what am I going to wear today? I think its going to be cool this morning so maybe... oh, wait, toothbrushing... I can feel the toothbrush in my hand... I feel the bristles on my gum... what should I do about the dog? I'm worried about her weight... oh, yeah, toothbrushing... moving on to the next tooth... that lightbulb needs changing... I'm brushing my teeth..."  This would actually be quite good! This example wasn't very judgemental about not being great at staying mindful. The first time you try to be mindful, it might sound like this... "I'm brushing my teeth... this is boring... I have too many things to think about... oh, toothbrushing, yeah, I'm not good at this mindfulness thing... ugh! I did it again! I can't even do this one thing right!..." But that's okay! Knowing that your mind is just doing what its supposed to do hopefully will allow you to drop the judgements about your ability to stay mindful. Now you can say "I'm practicing the art of being mindful." This allows you to not be great at it--you just need more practice! 

The really great thing is that you can be mindful (or practice being mindful) in just about everything you do. As you drink your coffee in the morning, as you pet the dog, as you fix breakfast, as you dress, as you breathe...

One last tip about mindfulness: I find it is most helpful in staying mindful if I can focus on my 5 senses. So, if I'm brushing my teeth mindfully, I might think "I see the toothpaste going onto my toothbrush... I hear the water running over my toothbrush, I hear the toothbrush in my mouth, brushing away... I taste the minty freshness of the toothpaste... I feel the bristles on my gums, I feel the foaming of the toothpaste in my mouth... I smell the minty smell of the toothpaste..." So, why not give mindfulness a try! See and experience what you've been missing, while you lower your stress level!