Now That I Have Your Attention…What Mindfulness Has To Offer
Can you hold an object in your mind for three minutes? Does it even make sense to you why someone would want to? Only a few hours into my inpatient hospitalization for depression and anxiety, among other ailments, I reluctantly found myself in a group session and the facilitator was telling me to focus on this piece of chocolate. I can tell you, in that moment, I wondered who the crazy one was…Of course because professionals in mental health know what they are doing, there were several reasons why this was part of my treatment plan. I came to realize that the ability to focus on an object was an exercise in mindfulness. I have learned many things about mindfulness over the last decade in therapy and it has become an integral component of the management of my mental health.
The Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley notes that “Mindfulness means maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment. Mindfulness also involves acceptance, meaning that we pay attention to our thoughts and feelings without judging them—without believing, for instance, that there’s a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to think or feel in a given moment. When we practice mindfulness, our thoughts tune into what we’re sensing in the present moment rather than rehashing the past or imagining the future.”
In other words, mindfulness is intentionally focusing your attention on a simple task or object, experiencing it at a primal or elemental level. There is so much that falls under the umbrella of mindfulness. As encouraged by my care providers, I picked up coloring and paper crafting as a way to practice mindfulness. I have always enjoyed coloring but it took on a new dimension as a way to let my mind empty and to focus my attention on a color or a shape on the page.
Today I have dozens of coloring books but my favorites are still mandalas. According to Psychologist Carl Jung in a piece from Pocket Mindfulness, “Coloring mandalas helped patients experience many of the benefits of meditation, like inner calm and self-realization.” Jung believed that the mandala pattern was a representation of the intricacy of ‘self,’ and noticed that many of his patients would doodle circle drawings. He used the idea and the practice of coloring to promote wellness among his patients, noting that, creating and coloring mandalas symbolized ‘a safe refuge of inner reconciliation and wholeness.’”
Mindfulness and me
I was diagnosed with Adult ADD about 20 years ago. It was a very difficult health decision to start taking medicine for it. It felt ironic to take a stimulant to help me be attentive. I felt a lot of self-blame for my deficiencies in attention. I accept that the medicine I take daily allows my brain to slow down enough to get my train back on the track, moving forward. The way mindfulness has helped me in regard to my ADD is that I often am still unfocused or experience difficulty staying on task, so I will try to do some relaxing breathing and refocus on the task at hand. I also have used classical music as a part of my strategies to study and complete housework.
I used mindfulness as a part of the Lamaze method of natural childbirth. Part of my labor plan was to focus my attention on an image (waves at Lake Michigan) coming in and out, listening to music (George Winston) and pairing my breathing with that, and focusing on a special object which was a stuffed mama polar bear.
Other techniques of mindfulness that I have used are guided meditation. I was given several of these from the doctors and therapist and I also used an online paid meditation called HeadSpace. Becoming more mindful is helpful to everyone. Each individual will need to determine which techniques work for them. Best of all, you don’t have to be in formal therapy or have a diagnosed illness to benefit from mindfulness.
6 Mindfulness Exercises You Can Try Today
1. Mindful Breathing
This exercise can be done standing up or sitting down, and pretty much anywhere at any time. All you have to do is be still and focus on your breath for just one minute.
Start by breathing in and out slowly. One cycle should last for approximately 6 seconds.
Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth, letting your breath flow effortlessly in and out of your body.
Let go of your thoughts for a minute. Let go of things you have to do later today or pending projects that need your attention.
Simply let yourself be still for one minute. Purposefully watch your breath, focusing your senses on its pathway as it enters your body and fills you with life, and then watch it work its way up and out of your mouth as its energy dissipates into the world.
2. Mindful Observation
This exercise is simple but incredibly powerful. It is designed to connect us with the beauty of the natural environment, something that is easily missed when we are rushing around in the car or hopping on and off trains on the way to work.
Choose a natural object from within your immediate environment and focus on watching it for a minute or two. This could be a flower or an insect, or even the clouds or the moon.
Don’t do anything except notice the thing you are looking at. Simply relax into a harmony for as long as your concentration allows. Look at it as if you are seeing it for the first time. Visually explore every aspect of its formation. Allow yourself to be consumed by its presence. Allow yourself to connect with its energy and its role and purpose in the natural world.
3. Mindful Awareness
This exercise is designed to cultivate a heightened awareness and appreciation of simple daily tasks and the results they achieve.
Think of something that happens every day more than once; something you take for granted, like opening a door, for example. At the very moment you touch the doorknob to open the door, stop for a moment and be mindful of where you are, how you feel in that moment and where the door will lead you. Similarly, the moment you open your computer to start work, take a moment to appreciate the hands that enable this process and the brain that facilitates your understanding of how to use the computer.
These touch point cues don’t have to be physical ones. For example, each time you think a negative thought you might choose to take a moment to stop, label the thought as unhelpful and release the negativity. Or, perhaps each time you smell food, you take a moment to stop and appreciate how lucky you are to have good food to eat and share with your family and friends.
Choose a touch point that resonates with you today. Instead of going through your daily motions on autopilot, take occasional moments to stop and cultivate purposeful awareness of what you are doing and the blessings it brings your life.
4. Mindful Listening
This exercise is designed to open your ears to sound in a non-judgmental way. So much of what we see and hear on a daily basis is influenced by our past experiences, but when we listen mindfully, we achieve a neutral, present awareness that lets us hear sound without preconception.
Select a piece of music you have never heard before. You may have something in your own collection that you have never listened to, or you might choose to turn the radio dial until something catches your ear.
Close your eyes and put on your headphones. Try not to get drawn into judging the music by its genre, title or artist name before it has begun playing. Instead, ignore any labels and neutrally allow yourself to get lost in the journey of sound for the duration of the song. Allow yourself to explore every aspect of the track. Even if the music isn’t to your liking at first, let go of your dislike and give your awareness full permission to climb inside the track and dance among the sound waves.
5. Mindful Immersion
The intention of this exercise is to cultivate contentment in the moment and escape the persistent striving we find ourselves caught up in on a daily basis. Rather than anxiously wanting to finish an everyday routine task in order to get on with doing something else, take that regular routine and fully experience it like never before.
For example: if you are cleaning your house, pay attention to every detail of the activity. Rather than treat this as a regular chore, create an entirely new experience by noticing every aspect of your actions: Feel and become the motion when sweeping the floor, sense the muscles you use when scrubbing the dishes, develop a more efficient way of wiping the windows clean. The idea is to get creative and discover new experiences within a familiar routine task.
Instead of laboring through and constantly thinking about finishing the task, become aware of every step and fully immerse yourself in the progress. Take the activity beyond a routine by aligning yourself with it physically, mentally and spiritually. Who knows, you might even enjoy the cleaning for once!
6. Mindful Appreciation
In this last exercise, all you have to do is notice 5 things in your day that usually go unappreciated. These things can be objects or people – it’s up to you. Use a notepad to check off 5 by the end of the day.
The point of this exercise is to simply give thanks and appreciate the seemingly insignificant things in life; the things that support our existence but rarely get a second thought amidst our desire for bigger and better things.
For example: electricity powers your kettle, the postman delivers your mail, your clothes provide you warmth, your nose lets you smell the flowers in the park, your ears let you hear the birds in the tree by the bus stop, but…
One last thought…
I have a new granddaughter and last night as I held her, she was alert and her eyes seemed focused on the light filtering in through the opaque sheers of the front window. She is only a month old and soon, she will be alert more often, will see much further out the window, and most importantly be able to see more than the light itself. But sometimes the light is all we need to see for those few minutes, at a time we need to refocus.
Other mindfulness resources: