Mindfulness is a buzzword you may be hearing a lot about these days. This word seems to be everywhere, yet there are a lot of misconceptions about what mindfulness is, and what it isn’t. Mindfulness is not about making your mind clear of all thoughts, or being calm at all times. It’s not about being perfectly “zen.” Mindfulness is just about paying attention to your life, as it is happening.
We are pulled in all directions, by multiple distractions and demands on our daily lives. Technology can be both a blessing and a curse, when it comes to the quality of our life. Scientific studies show that multi-tasking and being constantly distracted, actually makes us unhappier and more anxious. Yet, at the same time, technology usage is addictive, as the ongoing alerts and “likes” flood our brains with dopamine and other feel good substances, which keep us wanting more.
So, how do we stop this vicious cycle and reclaim our lives? Mindfulness is a powerful tool that is accessible to all of us, all the time. You can start by putting away your phone or turning off the tv, and focusing on where you feel the breath, as you breathe in and out. Do you feel it as the air moves in and out of your nostrils, or your chest, or your abdomen? Can you sense tightness in your jaw, your neck, or your back? What sounds do you hear? The key is to notice what is happening in your body, with curiosity and non-judgment, without letting yourself get carried away by any particular thoughts or feeling or sensation. If your mind wanders, gently bring it back to the present moment, focusing again on your breath, or your bodily sensations. Remember, the mind’s natural tendency is to wander and to rapidly take in and process enormous amounts of information. Be gentle with yourself if your mind wanders, or if you feel agitated, or anxious, or impatient, or fall asleep. This is all normal, and being gentle with yourself is also an exercise in lovingkindness, which is another important component of mindfulness.
Why do mindfulness? When you train your brain to focus on the present moment, you actually increase its capacity for attention and focus. Research reveals that mindfulness can improve memory, actually increase the size of your brain, improve anxiety and depression, improve test taking, enhance athletic and theatrical performance, lessen pain, boost your immune system, help you make better food choices, reduce the numerous harmful effects of stress on your body, build empathy and connections with others, and even reverse your body’s aging, on the DNA level. These are only some of the multitude of benefits of daily mindfulness practice.
Like any other skill, mindfulness can be cultivated. The key is to practice daily. Even 10-20 minutes a day of mindfulness exercise can make a huge impact. For example, studies conducted by Harvard University, showed brain volume grew, with daily mindfulness practice, after only eight weeks! However, in order to reap the many benefits of mindfulness, it’s not enough to understand that it is beneficial. Regular mindfulness practice is essential. If you want to train for a marathon or want to become a concert pianist or a professional athlete, you can’t just read about it in books; you have to log in hours of practice. Being more mindful can start by putting away your phone, and paying attention to your breath, to the people in front of you, and to what is going on around you. Even taking a second or two, throughout the day, to take a deep breath, can help.
Give mindfulness a try, and notice what happens. There are many types of mindful exercises that you can try. Taking the time to be mindful is an act of self-care, and can enhance the quality of your life. When you find your mind wandering, or on days when being mindful feels difficult, you can choose to start over at any time, and focus again on your breath and the present moment. Mindfulness embraces the philosophy that it is never too late to start again. Mindfulness matters because your life matters.
- Jennifer Ju, MD
Jennifer Ju, MD is a primary care physician, whose focus is on traditional and holistic health. She has provided professional development workshops on mindfulness to the Milford Public Schools on numerous occasions, as well as to the Early Childhood Center in Fairfield. She has given mindfulness presentations to parents, and to children and young adults, as well. She is passionate about empowering people to be their best self. Jennifer is also a founding board member of the Milford Education Foundation, and is committed to promoting education, and supporting children and teachers, in our community.