If we examine our days truthfully, most of us would agree that we tend to spend a lot of time operating on autopilot. We’re always making plans, thinking about the future, trying to complete our To-Do lists. We are so busy rushing towards the future and some perceived wonderful event that is more exciting than the present moment, that we don’t actually experience our lives. Eckhart Tolle, author of The Power of Now says, “Most people treat the present moment as if it were an obstacle that they need to overcome. Since the present moment is Life itself, it is an insane way to live.”
How often do we drive somewhere, only to arrive at our destination and not even remember the drive? Or in great anticipation we eat our favorite meal only to realize at the end of it that we didn’t actually taste the flavors at all because we were lost in thoughts about something else? Our days are made up of many seemingly mundane events, e.g. driving, eating, cooking, washing the dishes, etc., yet these are what our days are made of, so surely there must be some way to bring some joy to these activities so we can arrive at happiness now.
Practicing mindfulness is the fastest way to live our lives more fully with happiness and wisdom. The actual practice of mindfulness involves moment to moment awareness of what is happening now, both internally and externally. Internally we become more aware of our body and our mind, while externally we begin to broaden our field of awareness so that we actually take in the external environment as well, leading to a sense of spaciousness, alertness and stillness.
One way to experience present moment awareness is to just become aware of what is happening right now. Try this brief mindfulness exercise, and really reflect on each section before reading the next:
Let your awareness expand as you read this article. Become aware of your surroundings. Perhaps your hand is touching the mouse, feel this sensation. Notice the objects around you, such as any objects on your table. Expand your awareness to the environment you are in, for instance notice the size of your surroundings, whether it’s a small room or if you can see the enormity of the sky outside. Notice the colors of your environment. Become aware of any sounds happening around you. Without thinking or mentally commenting on what you notice, just take a moment to become aware of these things.
Now, bring your attention to your body and notice the sensations that your body is experiencing. Feel the pressure of your body against the seat. Notice any stress or tension in your body, any discomfort or if it is relaxed. Don’t try to relax your body or change position, the point is to just be aware of what the body is experiencing.
Become aware of your mental state, whether you’re feeling happy, melancholic, worried or frustrated. Just notice this mental state without judgment or wishing you were feeling something different.
Try to rest your mind in a state of non-thought, or if a thought comes, just watch it pass without letting your mind get caught up in it. Really start to get a sense of what it means to be in the present moment…
Let your mind become curious like a new born child, take in your experiences and surroundings as if you have never heard, smelt, tasted or seen them before. Feel a sense of wonderment in what you are experiencing.
Notice how time seems to slow down the more you keep your mind in the present moment.
Notice the peace that is beginning to creep in as your thoughts begin to subside.
Now imagine experiencing each moment fully, and how much time you will suddenly seem to have in your day if you are able to practice this moment to moment awareness continuously.
People who have mastered the art of mindfulness, and even those who simply practice it, will concur that not only does living mindfully bring you more peace, less stress and greater awareness; it will actually bring you more joy and happiness too. Right now our minds have grown dull with the monotony of all our thoughts about ourselves: our regrets or longings of the past, or our hopes or fears about the future, and we’ve lost our sense of curiosity with the world. But as we practice mindfulness and start to expand our awareness to the world (other than listening to our usual commentary) we begin to notice things we’ve long since taken for granted. These might be noticing the snugness of your favorite slippers on your feet, the summer breeze caressing your cheek, the smile on your family member’s face.
All the time we are surrounded by an abundance of beauty and the opportunity to find happiness in the present moment. As the popular Vietnamese Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh says, “We can smile, breathe, walk, and eat our meals in a way that allows us to be in touch with the abundance of happiness that is available. We are very good at preparing to live, but not very good at living. We know how to sacrifice ten years for a diploma, and we are willing to work very hard to get a job, a car, a house, and so on. But we have difficulty remembering that we are alive in the present moment, the only moment there is for us to be alive. Every breath we take, every step we make, can be filled with peace, joy, and serenity. We need only to be awake, alive in the present moment.”
Mindfulness is not just about feeling present and happy all the time, however; it also helps us to deal with troubling situations as well. The key with mindfulness is that it is a practice that is nonjudgmental. This means we need to learn to notice everything that is going on without wishing it was different, whether it is a good or bad situation. Usually, in an unpleasant situation, once our negative emotions overwhelm us, it’s hard to see anything in a positive light and we can easily do, say or think the wrong thing which we will most likely regret later. But through the practice of mindfulness we can develop some distance between ourselves and our emotions so that we don’t cling to the thoughts and emotions as being something we identify with. It doesn’t become ‘my anger’ anymore; instead we see it as just ‘being angry’. So we no longer think ‘I am so angry!’ instead we can say to ourselves more calmly, ‘I am just experiencing some momentary anger and I know this will soon pass.’
Practicing mindfulness has many great health benefits including reducing stress, strengthening our immune system, and reducing psychological problems such as depression and anxiety (American Psychological Association). Mindfulness can be cultivated through doing practices such as yoga and tai chi, however, mindfulness has become popularized over the past decade through the practice of mindfulness meditation, which is a simple, yet profound practice that the Buddha taught to his followers 2,600 years ago. The practice of mindfulness meditation does not require the use of prayer or rituals. It simply requires us to focus on our breath.
Mindfulness is a practice that needs to be practiced, however. Rarely can we spend a few minutes in the present moment before our minds rush off thinking about something else. As Thich Nhat Hanh explains, “There is a story in Zen circles about a man and a horse. The horse is galloping quickly, and it appears that the man on the horse is going somewhere important. Another man, standing alongside the road, shouts, ‘Where are you going?’ and the first man replies, ‘I don’t know! Ask the horse!’ This is also our story. We are riding a horse, we don’t know where we are going, and we can’t stop. The horse is our habit energy pulling us along, and we are powerless.” (Excerpt from Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, The Heart of Buddha’s Teachings)
Our minds have become habituated into being anywhere but the present moment, so it takes the training of mindfulness meditation to steer it onto a different and new course. A course, I must say, is much more participatory and enjoyable! By taking the reins of our crazy horse-like mind, we can finally become an active participant in our lives again. Coming back to the present makes us feel more alive, more in control, and it helps us to experience the beauty of everything so that we see everything as new and not the same boring routine again. Time becomes infinite; and we find inner peace because we can silence the mental commentary happening continuously in our minds. Or if we cannot silence it, we can at least loosen its grip on us. Our minds need proper rest and rejuvenation. Practicing mindfulness in our daily lives is like taking a break for the mind. I’m sure it is saying to us, “Oh, after 35 years you’re finally letting me breathe! Thank goodness!” Mindfulness allows us to remove some of the mental junk we’ve been weighing ourselves down with for far too long. In fact, mindfulness is the very antidote to all the mental proliferation that our minds constantly engage in. It helps us to see beneath the agitated thoughts to the spaciousness and calmness of our mind that was there all along. It is this peace and stillness which is really our true nature.
Once you have learnt the basics of mindfulness meditation, then practicing mindfulness in daily life becomes a lot easier. It’s the beginning of reprogramming our minds and training it to remember to pay attention to the life we are living now, not the life we lived in the past or will live in the future. Living in the present moment really has to be the only way to live if we want to feel at peace, content and at home with ourselves, and it will open up the doors for a new way of life, a new understanding and a new reality for us. As the popular Buddhist teacher and nun, Pema Chödrön says: “If your mind is expansive and unfettered, you will find yourself in a more accommodating world, a place that’s endlessly interesting and alive. That quality isn’t inherent in the place but in your state of mind.”
My other posts on mindfulness:
Join me in a guided 10-minute mindfulness meditation
My talk on Letting Go & Developing Unconditional Love with Mindfulness
Mindfulness Training – Live Without Fleeing the Now
Mindful Eating – A Taste of Mindfulness
10 Mindfulness Exercises to Help You Live a Mindful Life
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