Are we taking this ‘being mindful’ business too far? Let’s be completely honest: is it really that important to ‘tune in and connect’? Yes, absolutely, 100%. While we are on the topic, though, as much as it is helpful to talk about what mindfulness IS, it is just as important to note what mindfulness is not.
What mindfulness is:
Mindfulness is that A-ha moment. One of the most rewarding parts of parenting is that moment when you see your child really GET a new thing. It can be small such as the moment the butterfly alights on their arm when they can take a deep breath and know to be still. It can be big like realizing how much power their words can have when they express true gratitude for something. It’s that awareness of what can be, what they can accomplish – sometimes without even doing more than just being aware of their impact on others – that is so very powerful.
How do you teach that? How do you help a child learn that sometimes being and letting others be, and just being aware of all of that is actually a beautiful experience. Experiencing is a beautiful thing; slowing down and taking the time to savor the time, the feelings, the interactions. The best way to teach this is to do it yourself; you know, there’s a lot of power in mimicry. When was the last time you put your busyness aside to just be, and to really focus on what was around you as you enjoyed your stillness? Or to be fully aware of how what you do or say impacts others?
Mindfulness, in essence, is tuning in. Paying attention. Focusing on details. It is deliberately not multi-tasking. Letting the importance of a space, a moment, an experience, take precedence over all else, and savoring. Paying attention to how you feel, what your senses are whispering, focusing on that one thing, keeping reactions at bay, and giving it the time it is due before moving on. Not only does mindfulness help your thoughtfulness and gratitude grow, but it also builds your ability to channel your thoughts in a deliberate manner; focus is an important skill that one must hone in order to develop. Mindfulness helps us to tame our reactions, embrace calm, and put thought into responses. Mindfulness is staying in the present, letting your mind really see what it is you are focusing on, and teaching it to not think about what was, or what will be. Mindfulness is not necessarily meditation, but it can be, as both concept embrace being present and focusing.
Mindfulness can play a key role in focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, to being aware and placing value on what is occurring rather than just letting life pass by. Focusing on emotions that result, or interactions with self and with others can help one gain insight into their own needs and responses as well as those of others, increasing awareness, sense of self, empathy, and acceptance.
Quite literally, practicing mindfulness changes the brain: just like exercise strengthens the connections between muscles and bones, mindfulness strengthens the connections between different parts of the brain, a one of which is especially active during times of big emotions and the part that is the calm observer. By giving these two parts of the brain stronger connections, the calm part can help weigh in more when anxiety or stress rears its ugly head. ‘What if’ thoughts are less stressful to a brain that can stay relaxed and focus on the now.
Mindfulness is savoring, a practice of noticing the good stuff around you and taking the extra time to prolong and intensify your enjoyment of the moment, making a pleasurable experience last for as long as possible. You know, like when you eat a piece of good chocolate, letting it slowly melt on your tongue. That is savoring. So whether it's preparing a meal, pausing to admire the sunset, or telling a friend your good news—the idea is to linger, take it in, and enjoy the experience. Eventually it'll become a habit—one you'll never want to break. Regularly savoring events and experiences in your life will lead to your being more optimistic, and more satisfied with your life. Savor past experiences with positive reminiscing; savor the present by practicing mindfulness; savor the future through positive anticipation. Mindfulness is spending time being 'unbusy.' We often use the excuse of not having enough time, rushing around, rather than taking the time to slow down and developing an understanding of our own inner insights. Do you let yourself be bored? Do you spend time just being and experiencing what life flows around you? Do you make the effort to see past the obvious: is it just a tree, or is it the scores of green leaves, masses of branches, and all of the life that lives in and around it? Do you see the insects, spiders and birds thriving in it? There is a lot of wonder in the appreciation of all of it, of what is around you. Noticing the finer details is as important as getting all of your to-do tasks accomplished.
Mindfulness is the simple act of identifying and then appreciating the things people do for us is a modern-day wonder drug. It fills us with optimism and self-confidence, knowing that others are there for us. It dampens our desires for “more” of everything—and it deepens our relationships with loved ones. And when we express our gratitude to someone, we get kindness and gratitude in return. Positive brings more positive. But keep in mind: you’re not thanking people in order to get the reciprocal response. You’re thanking people to acknowledge their efforts, positive effect, or to pay your respects. Being thankful can be done in person, with letters, or even in a gratitude journal. Being grateful brings a great appreciation to your interactions with others, and perhaps opens your eyes to how your actions affect those around you as well.
Mindfulness is really listening. It is being able to identify your own beliefs and opinions in order to be able to really listen to what you are hearing, and to know when your opinions and beliefs might be coloring what you are hearing. Actively engaging in the listening process, in the person you are engaged with, acknowledging their point of view and ideas,
What mindfulness ISN’T:
Mindfulness is not self-involvement or self-indulgence. Unfortunately, the idea of being mindful and tuning in and being present has become translated to ‘Me first’. I mean, yes, in a way, but only in the sense of not ‘Me last’ if that makes sense. Self-care does not mean doing things at the expense of others.
Mindfulness is not obliviousness. By tuning in (to the experience, to the feelings, to the emotions) you are not tuning out from other things. When making the effort to understanding and acknowledging your response to something, this is not a reason to then no longer listening.
Mindfulness is not about always being happy. Realistically checking in with yourself, being in tune with your emotions, being honest with yourself and your reactions – all of these actions (should) lead you to the realization that honest feels are NOT always happy.
Mindfulness is not easy. Sure sure, the more you practice it, the more automatic it will be. At first, though, it can feel like a strain. And, because at its very heart, mindfulness is no-excuses, honesty, and self-understanding and sometimes that is not easy information to process. Or maybe too much information to process. And, then again, sometimes mindfulness is like a gift because you get to see and experience beauty that you may otherwise have blown by. With its promises of assisting everyone with anything and everything, the mistake of the mindfulness movement is to present its impersonal mode of awareness as a superior or universally useful one. Its roots in the Buddhist doctrine of anattā mean that it sidelines a certain kind of deep, deliberative reflection that’s required for unpacking which of our thoughts and emotions are reflective of ourselves, which are responses to the environment, and – the most difficult question of all – what we should be doing about it. This is where it is so key to be self-aware and check in with your questions on how you are feeling, what you are thinking, and gauge your positions. (I have shared with you multiple questions you can use to do these check-ins. Happy to share them again, if you’d like.)
Encouraging you, friends, to be mindful, I realize that I’m a bit of a hypocrite, actually. Here I am telling you to be mindful, to deliberately take the time to just be and I am also admitting that rather than following my own advice, I often feel as though my cup (and plate, and every proverbial utensil) runneth over. I feel like I must go go go because there isn’t enough time for x, y and/or z. So still, even with that, I do try my best to take the time, as often as I can to just be. To stop and focus on what’s around me, and enjoy the silence, or the noise or whatever is around. Being deliberately aware of what is or is not around can help one to develop their skills for empathy, and for looking outside one’s own self. Being aware of your impact on others or seeing how well things flow around you brings awareness of your space and the space of others, reducing the focus on self. By focusing less on our own self, we start realizing that just like we are responsible for our own self and our own actions, so are others; our own self-efficacy goes hand-in-hand with that of others’. This is a powerful concept to own.
My favorite place to be aware, to sit and just be is outside in our little garden. We have a hodgepodge of things growing, mostly green leafy edible things, and tomato plants. I am inevitably awed that these tomato plants still bear fruit although they are undoubtedly the driest, gangliest looking things. I enjoy being out in the green space, maybe playing a game with the kids, or deadheading some of the plants. I love that my kids love to come and help. Guaranteed, if I did it myself, it would be that little piece of peace I crave, but sharing it with them helps them to learn more about nature and how to nurture that which will in turn feed us or give us something beautiful to admire. They love to water the plants, and inevitably turn to find all sorts of different bugs. They really get what I am talking about when I talk about the wonder of the garden. They are involved from compost to seed to seedling to salad bowl. It’s an amazing lesson for them. Showing them to be more mindful of what they eat helps them to think about what else they are putting into their body. We’ve had many conversations about ingredient lists and processes food goes through before it sits on the shelf. They understand that less is more when it comes to fruits and veggies and other foods, and often surprise me with their intuitive food selections.
It can be easier to leave mindfulness lessons up to others. Oh sure, you think: Their teacher will give them some lessons on mindfulness. And while this may be true, incorporating more mindfulness in your own life is a good thing: being more purposefully focused in your life, and learning how to accept without judgment plays a role in well-being and satisfaction. Mindfulness plays a key role in happiness, and who doesn’t want to be more happy, right?