Mindfulness

Unless you’ve been living under a rock somewhere, I have little doubt that you have been subjected to the term “Mindfulness” in the not-too-distant past. Mindfulness is one of those topics that has swept the world and permeates so many different facets of life. A quick Google search on the term (0.5 seconds) returned 850 million hits. For somebody who is not sure what mindfulness is all about, that is a lot of information to sort through. In fact, it can be so overwhelming that it becomes counter-productive to the task at hand. So, what I want to do in this blog is attempt to simplify the matter for you. To put it in terms that makes it comprehensible and something you want to follow through with by using a simple acronym, P.A.I.N.

Why?

Before I get into the acronym and explain my take on mindfulness I think it is important to understand why it is so important. The answer is simple actually, the alternative to living mindfully is living mindlessly. Unfortunately, that is exactly what so many people, us included, spend so much of our life doing. Think about what you did yesterday. Chances are much of your day was dedicated to tasks that required no thought on your part but they just sort of happened. From the morning coffee to the route you drove to work, to the majority of tasks you spent the day doing.

The Difference

You may or may not be able to relate to this analogy. Anybody who knows me knows how passionate I m about my motorcycle. Unfortunately living here in the colder climate of southern Ontario it is parked a good portion of the year during which my wife claims I suffer from PMS (Parked Motorcycle Syndrome). To me the difference between mindlessness and mindfulness is like the difference between driving my car and riding my motorcycle. The car gets me from point A to point B but it is more about the destination. As I drive, I think about what my schedule is like that day or what I might order at the restaurant or some other mindless stuff. When I ride my motorcycle, it is about the journey. I feel the breeze, I hear the sounds, I smell the fresh air, or not so fresh if I happen to be driving in farm country, and so on. The car is about the end result, the motorcycle is about the experience and that sums up the difference between mindlessness and mindfulness for me.

How?

So how does one move from just going through the motions of daily life to experiencing the journey? In my studies on the subject, I have narrowed things down to four main principles which is where the acronym P.A.I.N. comes in. So, let us jump in.

1. P - Present

The first principle of living life mindfully is to live in the Present. I believe that it is hard to overstate that a mind stuck in the past is destined for depression and a mind focused solely on the future is destined for anxiety. The only viable way to get the most out of any moment in time is to be present in that moment. Eckhart Tolle, author of The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment put it this way, “Most humans are never fully present in the now because unconsciously they believe that the next moment must be more important than this one. But then you miss your whole life, which is never not now.” He explains how most people look at the present moment as an obstacle to be overcome instead of an opportunity of experiencing life pointing out the insanity of such a lifestyle.

There was an excellent picture taken by John Blanding of the Boston Globe back in 2015 during the premier of the movie Black Mass in nearby Brookline, Mass that illustrates this point perfectly. While everyone else in the crowd is busy trying to capture the moment on their phones, one elderly lady can be seen leaning against the temporary railing with a big smile on her face as she drinks in the moment. Look up your favourite band on YouTube and you are sure to find phone footage of somebody who was at a concert and decided to immortalize the moment to enjoy it later instead of enjoying it in the moment. Here is a question. Can you relive a moment later if you didn’t live it in the first place?

Now do not get me wrong, I am not against recording things for the sake of posterity or remembering with fondness the good times we have encountered. What I am saying is to truly get the most out of life we must be present as life happens and life only happens in this moment. I’ll finish this principle with a quote I heard many years ago from author and American historian Alice Morse Earle, “Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift. That is why it is called the present.”

2. A - Awareness

The second principle of mindfulness is to be Aware. Mindfulness can trace much of its roots back to Buddhist meditation and because most of us do not have extensive knowledge in the practices of Buddhism many people have the misconception that mindfulness means emptying yourself of all thought and entering a plain of tranquility. I’ll be the first to admit there are times when we need to shut out the world and recharge our batteries. This is not the purpose of mindfulness, however. How can I enjoy the feel of the spring breeze on my skin, the aroma of a flower, or the sweet taste of my favourite dessert if I am not aware that such things are happening in this moment?

Without our five senses it would almost be impossible to experience the moment. I question whether we would even be able to understand the passage of time without at least one sense. By that very same logic, to get the most out of the present moment we are living in, we must employ all our senses to their maximum potential. There was a time in my life when I drove commercial garbage trucks in a large city. Often at the end of the day as I would dump my final load at the transfer station or landfill, I would walk around to the passenger side of the cab and clean out whatever garbage may have accumulated throughout my day. It was often a surprise for me to realize how many coffees I had drank over the course of my day. Mindlessly I would drink them down without any thought to how they tasted or how warm/cold they were. Once again please do not misunderstand my point here. Of course, I needed to concentrate on my job and keep my focus on driving or else the consequences could have been catastrophic. I mention this as an example of what it is like to not be aware.

A December 2021 article in Forbes magazine written by Bryan Robinson Ph.D. points out that when people stop using mindfulness to “zone out” and “withdraw” and instead become aware of what you are experiencing while you are experiencing it “directly affects your mind, body and brain and your interpersonal relationships.” The article continues that this type of mindful awareness has been shown to slow down a person’s heart rate, boosts immune systems and improve cardiac health.

3. I - Intention

The next important principle of mindfulness is to be Intentional with it. Whether it be the hurts of the past which have us trapped in negative rumination, or the anxieties of not knowing what lay around the next corner, life has a way of preventing us from slowing down and being present and aware. In other words, there are so many things vying for your attention that unless you are resolute in slowing down and being mindful, it will never happen.

It will not be easy at first. I recall when I was first challenged to take a daily mindless activity and attempt to apply these principles of mindfulness to it, I failed miserably! I chose my morning cup of coffee because it seemed like a simple enough task yet for a solid six weeks, I struggled to get through that “simple enough task” without my mind wandering or getting caught up in multi-tasking. You may not like to hear this, but mindfulness is a discipline that takes not only intentionality but effort and consistency before we become good at it. Your brain and your body have become accustomed to doing things a certain way and will need to be retrained to do things differently.

The key to developing this new discipline is to begin small. If you think you are going to turn your entire life around by tomorrow, you are only going to become discouraged when it does not happen. Then you will be more likely to give up. Instead begin with a small, daily activity that only takes a few moments and that you usually do mindlessly. Like I said, for me that was my morning coffee. For others it has been taking a shower or eating a meal. The options are endless. But be prepared to show yourself some compassion when it does not happen as quickly as you expect it to. There is no set time period for this new habit to take hold. My apologies to those who believe it takes 21 days, or 30 days or any specific time. There are just too many variables. However long it takes you, do not give up. Continue to work at it and one day you’ll find it is happening. Refer to this article on how long it takes for a behaviour to become automatic.

4. N - Non-judgmental

The final principle of mindfulness in this acronym is perhaps the most difficult. The “N” in P.A.I.N. stands for Non-judgmental. Being judgmental is something that is instilled in us from a very young age as we are taught to treat every moment either as worthwhile, not worthwhile, or neutral (almost as bad as not worthwhile). In doing so we are putting a great deal of stress upon ourselves and on “the moment”.

Once again, I feel it necessary to explain myself lest somebody should misunderstand what I mean. To be nonjudgmental does not mean that judgments do not enter my mind, rather when they do I stop myself from utilizing my natural biases to automatically label something as bad or good without providing it the benefit of the doubt. There is a mantra I like to use and suggest my clients use as well, “It is what it is!”. The coffee (yes coffee again, I may have a problem) may be too hot but why does that have to be bad? These types of negative biases usually exist because of irrational negative beliefs we have about ourselves. Of course the coffee is too hot, nothing every goes right for me. This line of thinking then takes us down a negative spiral that prevents us from enjoying what could otherwise be a pleasant moment.

Blogger Jesper describes the types of judgments I am referring to as “shorthands we’ve developed of the world to process our environment quickly and define our needs simply”. Because of this the judgments we make are usually not based on all of the pertinent data. Subconscious conclusions that add up to nothing more than illusions. Palma Michel explains it this way, “non-judgment is the ability to realize that these experiences are just happening, and have nothing to do with you. They are neither good nor bad, they’re just happening and they will pass.”. Or in other words “It is what it is!” The traffic lights are not plotting against you, the guy who bumped into you on the crowded subway platform was not trying to disrespect you, and the coffee is not too hot because everything goes wrong in your life.

What Does It All Mean

We live in a society that is full of stress and anxiety and studies have shown that COVID 19 has only made things even worse. Some experts are braced for what they refer to as a “tsunami of psychiatric illness” due to the pandemic. Not just from the illness itself but also from resulting economic impacts, the stress of quarantine and social distancing and other factors which are expected to persist for years. Now more than ever it is important that we take whatever steps we can to overcome the negative influences we face everyday so we can not just survive mentally but thrive mentally. The best place to begin is mindfulness. There are literally thousands of scientific studies like this one from that show that mindfulness is positively related to wellbeing.

The American Psychological Association (APA) lists some of the benefits of mindfulness as reduced rumination, stress reduction, improved memory, better focus, less emotional reactivity, increased cognitive flexibility, relationship satisfaction, improved immune system functioning, and more. To put it another way, the upside is so large, what have you got to lose by giving it a try.

If you are not sure where to start, then speak to someone does. Here at ReThink Me we are trained and experienced in coming alongside people in the journey to mental vitality and helping them with the tools they need to make it happen. Including mindfulness. We are ready whenever you are.

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