I felt eyes boring into my back as I walked along the wooded bike trail near my home.
It was early morning, the air crisp and clean. There was no noise other than the sound of my steps and the gurgle of a creek. I was alone, but yet I wasn’t. Stopping, I did a 360° turn, scanning all directions.
Who—or what—was watching me?
The crack of a twig drew my eyes upward and I saw a large white owl. Its head swiveled slowly as I walked. I had found my watcher.
Eerie though it might have been, it was also an epiphany of sorts. I had been paying attention to the present moment.
I had been mindful.
But that wasn’t always the case. I used to pride myself on my ability to multitask. I was always in a hurry, my mind filled with thoughts about the past and future. But rarely the present. Not only did I miss out on things, I was always tense and stressed.
My first step to corral my thoughts was to take an improv class. With plots, characters, and scenes made up on the moment, I was forced to be present in the now. But it wasn’t enough.
Later I took a photography class from a colleague, Chuck. While on an outing to the arboretum where the students were encouraged to take pictures, I continued my rushing around. Chuck put his hands on my shoulders and told me to slow down–to pay attention to the big and small things that were right in front of me.
It was my first glancing connection with everyday mindfulness. I decided to learn more about it.
What is mindfulness?
In the simplest terms, mindfulness is paying attention to the present moment on purpose and without judgment. That includes being aware of your thoughts, emotions, and sensations. By being aware without judgment, it gives you time to avoid jerk reactions.
Lifehacker provided the following as one of 20 definitions posted on the Positive Psychology Program website.
“Mindfulness has many synonyms. You could call it awareness, attention, focus, presence, or vigilance. The opposite, then, is not just mindlessness, but also distractedness, inattention, and lack of engagement.”
Daniel J. Siegel, clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and Executive Director of the Mindsight Institute, was quoted with this definition on the same website.
“Mindfulness in its most general sense is about waking up from a life on automatic, and being sensitive to novelty in our everyday experiences. With mindful awareness the flow of energy and information that is our mind enters our conscious attention and we can both appreciate its contents and come to regulate its flow in a new way.”
I really like his last phrase. We can appreciate and regulate the flow of information in our mind in a more conscious way. It can be hard, but awareness is the first step toward everyday mindfulness.
What are the benefits of mindfulness?
Science has discovered several physical benefits of mindfulness. Five of the most commonly cited are:
- Decreased stress—lower anxiety levels and a feeling of calm
- Greater ability to deal with illness—both worry and symptoms can be reduced
- More control over illness recovery—due to increased self-kindness and decreased rumination
- Decreased depressive symptoms—enhances ability to regulate emotions
- Improved general health—helps improve behaviors related to physical well-being
The number of articles describing the impact mindfulness has on the brain has been increasing. According to a 2015 HBR article:
Recent research provides strong evidence that practicing non-judgmental, present-moment awareness (a.k.a. mindfulness) changes the brain, and it does so in ways that anyone working in today’s complex business environment, and certainly every leader, should know about.
To test your awareness of the various health benefits and claims, take this 10-question mindfulness quiz on WebMD.
How is everyday mindfulness practiced?
The basis of most mindfulness practices is the focus on breathing. Concentrating on inhaling and exhaling slowly—paying attention to the movement of air through your body—focuses the mind on the present. It can be practiced at any and all times throughout the day. Sometimes it is spontaneous, and at other times it is combined with meditation or yoga, both of which tune into breathing.
Mindfulness is becoming mainstream, even being used in situations you wouldn’t expect. The New York Times explained its role in the military.
Mindfulness — the practice of using breathing techniques, similar to those in meditation, to gain focus and reduce distraction — is inching into the military in the United States and those of a handful of other nations….the troops who went through a monthlong training regimen that included daily practice in mindful breathing and focus techniques were better able to discern key information under chaotic circumstances and experienced increases in working memory function. The soldiers also reported making fewer cognitive errors than service members who did not use mindfulness.
The neuroscience of mindfulness involves, in part, strengthening a part of mental capacity known as “working memory” — a short-term, moment-to-moment catalog of tasks understood by scientists to effectively hold only a few pieces of information at one time.
As working memory clouds through overload, decisions become jumbled and reactions more impulsive. Breathing-induced focus lets people home in on the task at hand. But it does take practice.
Still not convinced?
Everyday mindfulness is not voodoo. It’s not new age mumbo jumbo. It has value for the average person, the average manager, the average employee. And Psychology Today has shared the Top 10 Reasons Why Mindfulness is Cool.
10. It’s free.
9. It helps us accept things that we cannot change.
8. It’s accessible to all of us, regardless of our spiritual beliefs.
7. It’s supported by research as being helpful (but it’s not a panacea).
6. It can be done without any extraordinary effort.
5. It encourages us to trust in our own experiences.
4. It helps us get over our selves.
3. It allows us greater flexibility in living.
2. It can be done anytime, anywhere.
1. It feels nice(r).
When you’re done reading this, pay attention to your present moments. Slow down. Take time to practice everyday mindfulness.