Mindfulness is all the rage. Every day it seems there is new article touting its many virtues, coupled with an image of a thin, beautiful white woman meditating on the edge of a sparkling lake, or surrounded by tall, flowing grasses in the middle of an open field. Do gorgeous women not get itchy?
I have trouble connecting to any of the common depictions of mindfulness. It either feels too new-agey for me, beloved by people who drink kombucha, and are completely sincere when talking about communing with the heart of the earthworm in the ground beneath them, the soul of the hawk in the sky above them, and every molecule and atom that exists in between the two. Or it seems too much like a lifestyle fad, the third point in a triangle of clean-eating and whatever it is that motivates people to snap pictures of themselves doing yoga poses in the concourses of baseball stadiums. Please stop this. Just grab a beer and go watch the game. That is why you are here.
“That is why you are here,” is the essence of mindfulness, though, and the part of it that I most strongly connect to. While it may not be an easy task, mindfulness is a fairly simple idea: it is about being more present in your life. For some people that might mean connecting to and drawing energy from every sound, smell and sensation that surrounds them, but you do not have to learn to paint with all the colors of the wind to experience the benefits of being more mindful. Learning to be more present in any given moment, to fully attend to the task or experience right in front of you, can help make you more productive at work. It can make you a better, more engaged partner, friend, or parent. It can help reduce your stress and increase your enjoyment of leisure activities and downtime. It can improve your workouts and decrease your likelihood of injury. It can help you feel better rested, calmer and more in control of your mood, temperament and emotions.
It is true that I am making mindfulness sound easier than actually is. It takes practice to develop the ability to clear your mind of noise and clutter, and increase your focus and attention in the present moment. But you do not have to reach the level of a zen master in order to experience the positive impact of mindfulness in your daily life. Too often we operate with idea that we have to be all-in to make something worth doing in the first place. We end up denying ourselves useful, beneficial experiences because we cannot make the commitment to engaging in them all day, every day. Health and wellbeing are not all-or-nothing concepts. We move back and forth along a continuum of wellness. Sometimes we are doing great. Sometimes poorly. Most of the time, we are somewhere in between.
Mindfulness and meditation have become intrinsically linked. A true, complete mindfulness practice probably cannot exist without regular meditation. But again, I am arguing that there can still be value without completeness. Maybe meditation is not for you. Some people cannot do it. Some just do not want to. I am not a huge meditation fan. I will do guided meditations from time to time when I am feeling especially stressed or unsettled and need some assistance to move away from distressing thoughts and calm my mind (and I do think breathing and other relaxation exercises can be immensely helpful, though to my mind these are different from traditional meditation), but I cannot meditate for long stretches of time, I do not meditate on a daily, and rarely even a weekly basis, and I have no interest in learning to do so. And yet, I have found a way to incorporate mindfulness into my daily experiences, and it has made it easier for me to feel more in control of my time, and more engaged with the people and activities in my life.
Here are two simple practices I have used to improve my mindful engagement and attention.
1. I take time to purposefully pet my dog (or cat when he will tolerate it).
This is my dog:
He is sweet and beautiful, and the most well-behaved pooch I have ever known. He demands so little of me, gives me so much in return, and all too often when he wants to be pet, I will give him a couple of light taps on the head and then shoo him away because I am in the middle of something, or just do not want to be bothered. But every now and then (not often enough, I am sure he would tell you!), I sit down in the middle of the living room floor, or we stop and sit beneath a tree during a walk, and I pet him. Just pet him. I focus only on what it feels like to be petting him. How his fur feels. How tight his muscles seem to be. What his face looks like. How his breathing changes. How happy I am to be connecting with him, and how happy he is to be getting the attention he really longs for and deserves. I am engaged only in the act of petting him, and doing so in a very focused, purposeful way. Whenever my mind starts to wander, I come back to the action of petting him and reconnect to what I am feeling and what I am witnessing in him. Not only do I find this practice to be soothing for both of us, but it has helped me develop a greater ability to attend to other people’s needs. Once you learn how to really focus on one thing, you can begin to apply those lessons to other aspects of your life.
2. I talk to my husband, without any distractions.
We could all use a little more mindfulness in our relationships. My husband and I talk all the time, but often it is while we are also doing other things. When we run together, we have long conversations about all manner of topics. It is interesting and engaging, but our minds are also focused on how are bodies are feeling, and we are not fully attending to the conversation. Or we will talk when we are making dinner, eating dinner, washing dishes. We talk when we walk the dog, when we are folding laundry, when we are getting ready for bed. Sometimes one of us will be on the computer, reading a book, or doing something on our phones, and the other one will start talking and we will half listen, give a quick response and go back to what we were doing before. This is all great talking and I love it, but none of it is entirely mindful because we are always engaged in other tasks, so our attention is divided, or shifting back and forth between the thing we are doing and what the other person is saying.
From time to time, I like to sit with him and just talk. No multitasking. No taking care of other business, or knocking out a couple of mindless tasks that will not steal too much of our attention. I like all of the attention, every last bit of it, to be on our conversation. These are always our best talks. We really listen to each other and respond in thoughtful, fully engaged ways. We ask questions and connect the conversation to other interesting things we have read. The conversations flow wonderfully and build upon themselves. I do not sit, waiting for a moment to make my own point, but really, intentionally listen to what he is saying. We make room for each other in the discussion. Not talking over each other or around each other, but taking turns and giving space for new information and ideas to enter.
While these conversations are not our primary way of communicating–we are far more often doing multiple things at once and catching up on each other’s days in a looser, less focused manner–I believe they have improved our relationship overall because we have had more practice paying attention to each other and really giving each other all of our time and focus in those discussions. When I tell my husband that I need to talk to him about something, and he puts aside whatever else he was doing in that moment, I know that I have his full attention and that his focus will be entirely on me and what I am saying. That makes me feel valued and loved. It gives the signal that our relationship is important and deserves our full attention.
I encourage you to find your own small ways to incorporate mindfulness practice into your life. This could mean engaging more fully in play or conversation with your children, without any other distractions, and no multitasking. It could mean taking twenty minutes to yourself to read a book or a magazine, and focusing only on the words in front of you, letting all other thoughts come and quickly go from your mind, and bringing your attention back to the words on the page. It could mean taking a walk and only allowing your mind to take note of the things you are seeing, hearing and feeling. Do not think about your to-do list. Do not plan the week ahead in your mind. Just walk and be fully engaged in that experience. Mindfulness can take a variety of forms. Find the one that works best for you and work on developing that. Pick the moments in which you want to be most fully present, and make that your mindfulness practice.