In my last post, we looked at the growing body of evidence that suggests being mindful, or paying attention to the present moment, has many benefits. Mindfulness is a powerful, yet simple antidote to habitual multitasking, helping us be more effective as students and professionals. It is also a great way to improve the quality of our daily lives.
So how do we become more mindful? Try some of these methods and see how you feel.
The breath is often looked as the root of mindfulness. It is a behavior that can either be done automatically, which is how most of us live, or intentionally and with awareness. Without trying to breathe in any special way, turn your attention to the physical sensation of breathing. Feel how the lungs and chest expand on each inhale and then relax on the exhale. Notice where in your body you experience the physical sensation strongest: is it in your chest? Stomach? Nose? There is no need to try to change what you are feeling; the goal is simply to focus on your breathing for a couple minutes in a nonjudgmental way. Mindful breathing is a good introduction to mindfulness and can help you feel more calm after just a minute or two.
This is a common and effective practice. Take a few deep breaths and then check in with each of your physical senses: feel the pressure of the chair that you sit in; notice the space of the room around you; observe the sounds you hear; and notice if there are any perceptible scents or lingering tastes. Then turn your attention back to your breathing, paying attention to the physical sensation. Many people find it helpful to count their breaths in the beginning to help them focus. The mind will inevitably wander, and each time you catch yourself drifting down some line of thought, just note the distraction and come back to your breathing. Don’t try to control them, but notice when a thought arises and then return your attention back to your breathing. Try spending a few minutes this way on a regular basis, and sitting for longer as you become more comfortable with it.
When you sit down to study, spend a minute or two becoming aware of your physical surroundings: the feeling of sitting in the chair; the sounds around you. Take a few breaths, focusing on the physical sensation of the inhale and exhale. When you begin to work, set a timer for about 20 or 25 minutes. Each time that you find yourself distracted, try to notice when it has happened as early as you can. Then take a few more breaths and come back to your work. Remember that distractions are inevitable, so there is no need to become frustrated or impatient. As you practice mindfulness, you will have fewer distractions.
Ever notice that when we have a significant ache or a pain, it feels impossible to ignore it? Here’s the interesting question: how often are you aware and appreciative of all the times or parts of your body when they are not in pain, but perhaps feeling quite comfortable? If you are like most of us, we almost never notice the absence of pain or discomfort. To become more aware of your body, try a mindful body scan.
Pause and take a few breaths. Then begin to scan how your body feels today, noticing the parts that feel relaxed and comfortable, and which parts feel tense and uncomfortable, without trying to change them. Start with the top of the head and scan down to the feet, including all the little components of your body. For example, you might start scanning this way: the top of the head, then the scalp, then ears, forehead, eyes, lips, jaws, and so on. The tricky part is to avoid dwelling on areas of discomfort, which is what we tend to do in our normal lives. The goal is just to notice what feels comfortable and what feels uncomfortable, without attempting to change anything. This exercise can be really useful for when you are experiencing tension or pain, as it helps point out all of the parts that are not in pain, giving you some perspective on the experience.
Interactions With Others
Our bodies can give us a lot of insight into our relationships and connection to others, especially during moments of intense emotion. When you see that one coworker, do you feel tension come into your shoulders, tightness spread to your stomach? Does watching your child play bring a soft, easy smile to your face? Or perhaps, you may realize that you are bringing tension from an earlier experience, such as a rough drive home, and taking it out on a loved one. Noticing how our bodies feel can help us understand how we are feeling in the moment, which allows us to step away from knee-jerk, unhelpful reactions. As you interact with others, try to be mindful of how you are feeling physically. This attention to your bodily cues can bring greater insight into the nature of your relationships.
There are, of course, many other ways that you can incorporate mindfulness into your daily life. Here are some of my favorite links for practicing mindfulness:
Cultivating a mindful approach to life will help you reduce stress, get better sleep, improve your relationships, and generally be more effective in your studies and your work. Mindfulness takes a bit of practice as we fight against ingrained habit, but the rewards come with time. So give it a try, and if someone asks you why you are only focusing on one thing at a time now, just let them know: multitasking makes you stupid.
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