If you haven’t noticed, mindfulness is quite the buzz these days. It has been on the front page of Time, the New York Times, Wired, Psychology Today, and numerous other magazines. It has been featured on TV shows such as Oprah and Dr. Oz. CEOs, politicians, and athletes are claiming that it is what gives them a competitive advantage. Psychologists, doctors, and neuroscientists are studying its benefits for mental and physical health.
So what exactly is mindfulness? The simplest definition is “clear awareness.” It is the capacity to be present, consciously knowing what is happening in your experience moment by moment. You can apply that attention to your mind, body, or environment. It is both a state of mind and a quality that you can develop through practice. Although we all have access to this quality, it takes patience and perseverance for it to become part of the fabric of who you are.
Although we all have access to this quality, it takes patience and perseverance for it to become part of the fabric of who you are.
Now, as you read this, you may be thinking that you are already aware, that you already know what’s going on. That may be true on one level. But if you take a closer look, you will see there are many times in the day when you are not fully present. If you have ever tried to concentrate on one thing in meditation, such as your breath, you know just how challenging it is to stay present for very long.
Take an ordinary activity like driving. How many times have you driven somewhere and been asked which way you came, only to realize you can’t remember which streets you drove down? Of course, you had some modicum of attention because you didn’t crash or get lost. But memory partly depends on attention, and if you are not mindful, not conscious of what is happening as it is happening, then you are probably on autopilot. This is one of the reasons we don’t remember much.
The Multitasking Brain
Autopilot is what happens when we’ve done something, like walk, drive, or do the dishes, so many times we don’t need to focus on it anymore with mindful attention. It almost does itself. So, as we’re doing that activity, we start to space out or think about things like our to-do list or the top ten tunes of what’s worrying us. Or we muse on what to cook for dinner, the problems in our relationship, or the terrible state of the world. Whatever it is, our attention is not on what we are doing. It is elsewhere.
This divided focus has been referred to as “constant partial attention.” It is the multitasking brain, which allows us to do more than one thing at a time, mostly to our detriment. Often we choose to do this to get through all the demands of our busy day, whether it’s looking after the kids while cleaning the kitchen, or commuting to work while taking a call from a client.
Sometimes our job demands it of us. Yet it leaves us not present to much of anything. We are on the phone, but also checking our email. We are reading an important document for work, but also listening to the news on the radio. We are at a dinner party, but also checking our smart phone for Facebook updates. Our kids are talking to us, but we are also figuring out a work problem.
The net result is that we are not very present, and that is the opposite of being mindful. I’ve seen funny but painful YouTube videos of people walking while texting—and banging into lamp posts, tripping over curbs, falling down stairs, even bumping into a bear on the loose in a mountain town! I have seen cars driving out of the shopping mall with six-packs of beer left on the roof and coffee cups left on the trunk. How many times have you seen people look for a pair of glasses they were already wearing?
Perhaps we should be a little more alarmed at all of this inattention because of the harm it can cause, especially as we are all so consumed by our screens and devices. Texting while driving has become an epidemic. Nearly 330,000 injuries occur each year from accidents caused by texting while driving. The National Safety Council reports that cell phone use while driving leads to 1.6 million crashes each year.
Yet contrary to the popular myth that multitasking helps us get more done and be more efficient, research shows that multitasking on the job diminishes both our efficiency and the quality of our work. Even worse, multitasking releases the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, which can lead to all kinds of health problems.
A large study conducted by Harvard Medical School turned up some surprising results about the effects of not paying attention. Researchers asked people in the study three questions as they went about their day: “What are you doing?,” “Are you paying attention to it?,” and “How do you feel?” They tracked several thousand people over a period of weeks, checking in on them by phone throughout the day and asking them those three questions.
They discovered that, on average, participants were not present 46.9 percent of the day. If we sleep for roughly a third of the day and are only present half of our waking hours, then by the time we are sixty, we ’ve only been awake and present for twenty years! That’s a lot of time lost.
We’re Happier When We Pay Attention
What was perhaps more important in the findings was that people reported feeling happier when they were present, even if the activity was a mundane chore like laundry, washing dishes, or ironing. The study revealed that, again contrary to popular belief, people are not happier when they just space out or daydream during a dull activity. So next time you are cleaning the house, walking the dog, or taking a long drive in your car, give it your full attention and see for yourself what happens.
People reported feeling happier when they were present, even if the activity was a mundane chore like laundry, washing dishes, or ironing.
For the past decade mindfulness has been in the spotlight, with thousands of studies being conducted on it. Although the research is still preliminary, there is an emerging body of evidence that points to its potential benefits. It has been shown to improve attention, concentration, and learning; reduce stress and blood pressure; and enhance immunity and memory. Not bad for one quality of mind.
The good news is we all have an innate ability to be aware. It is the nature of our mind. However, most people’s minds are untrained, so the way many of us use our attention is less than optimal. Just look at our dopamine-hungry habits of seeking novelty and stimulation when working on the computer. How often do we get seduced into web surfing, online shopping, or cruising Facebook or Snapchat while trying to focus on a work project? That inattention and quick task-switching then becomes its own habit, its own well-worn neural pathway that diminishes our concentration and effectiveness.
Another reason we are not so good at being present is that we are too caught up in distractions and often unable to just be with ourselves. In another study, participants were asked to sit in an empty room with no stimulation for fifteen minutes and do nothing except think. They could also choose to do that but, while in the room, administer unpleasant electric shocks to themselves. Interestingly, a large percentage of participants (up to 67 percent of men) chose to receive an electric shock rather than face the discomfort of no stimulation and being alone with themselves and their thoughts. One participant administered the electric shock over 180 times! What would you do in that situation?
We all have an innate quality to be aware—but most people’s minds are untrained, so the way we use our attention is less than optimal. How often do we get seduced into web surfing, online shopping, or cruising Facebook or Snapchat while trying to focus on a work project? That inattention and quick task-switching then becomes its own habit, its own well-worn neural pathway that diminishes our concentration and effectiveness.
What mindfulness brings to us in this attention-deficient, overstimulated culture is the ability to find a sense of grounding and focus amid the chaos of competing pulls on our attention. It trains us to be aware of those impulses toward distraction yet remain steady and not react to them.
Meditation: Getting Started
If mindfulness is so helpful, then how do you start? A metaphor that is often used is one of training a puppy. You probably know that a two-month-old puppy is very exuberant and into everything—every sound, smell, stimulation, and chewable thing. Sound like someone you know? So you have to begin with learning to stay, just like a puppy—to stay steady in the present moment, no matter what else is going on.
The easiest way is perhaps one of the simplest and oldest techniques known to man, which is to focus your attention on the physical sensations of your breath and notice each time your mind wanders off in a different direction. You practice this a few billion times until your mind gets the hang of it, and staying present starts to take less effort. Once this has become easier, you begin to apply that focused attentiveness to everything else in your experience, to your whole life.
But how does this relate to the complexity of life? Perhaps the most relevant example is how it translates to our most common activity, looking at a screen, be it a computer, smartphone, or TV. With mindfulness you simply focus on the task at hand, like writing your college paper, crunching some numbers, programming, crafting a proposal, or reading a document, rather than leaping on every impulse to check the stock market, look on eBay for a bargain, or see if airline ticket prices have gone down for this summer’s vacation.
Mindfulness brings awareness to what you are doing, and with that clarity comes the possibility of choice. You can learn to intercept unhelpful, unwanted habits and cultivate positive ones. And as you learn to do that in the laboratory of meditation, you can translate it to any activity, whether it’s playing sports, writing computer code, or listening to your child when they come home from school.
A 10-minute Practice to Cultivate Mindfulness
Mindfulness has been cultivated and practiced for thousands of years through the art and science of meditation. Think of meditation as a lab for the mind that produces awareness in a concentrated form.
This exercise is a meditation that will help you strengthen your capacity for awareness so that you can cultivate mindfulness in your daily life.
- Find a place where you can be undisturbed for at least ten minutes. Sitting in a chair where you can be upright yet relaxed, assume a comfortable posture. Allow your body to be at ease.
- Gently close your eyes and turn your attention inward. Sense how your body feels in this moment. Mindfulness is a quality of attention that’s allowing, inviting, curious about what is. So as you pay attention to your body, see if you can bring a quality of attention that’s accepting and allowing of how things are in this moment.
- Move your attention through your whole body, noticing where you may be holding any unnecessary tension, inviting your belly and shoulders to relax, softening the muscles around your eyes and face, relaxing your jaw.
- Sit with awareness of your body, and notice that it is naturally breathing by itself, your breath effortlessly coming and going. Allow your breath to be exactly as it is, and bring your full attention to it. Notice how your breathing is in this moment. Is it long or short, deep or shallow, relaxed or tense? Notice how your breath changes each time you breathe.
- Be with your breath as though you were encountering it for the first time, as if this were the first breath you ever took.
- Notice where you feel your breath most clearly. Is it at the nostrils as the cool air enters and warm air leaves your nose? Or in the back of your throat? Or in the lifting and expanding of your upper chest when you inhale or the contraction of your chest when you exhale? Or perhaps in the rising and falling of your abdomen?
- Establish your attention in the place where you feel your breath most clearly. Pay attention to the full duration of an in breath and an out breath. Stay present if there’s a pause between breaths; simply be aware of your body sitting until the next in breath comes. When you notice sounds appearing and disappearing, sensations arising and passing, emotions, thoughts, and images coming and going, just acknowledge them and then bring your attention back to your breath.
- If it is helpful, you can make a soft mental note of “in” when you inhale and “out” when you exhale. Make sure the mental note takes only about 5 percent of your attention and that the majority of your focus is on feeling the actual sensations of your breath.
- If your attention becomes absorbed in thoughts, memories, or plans, simply reestablish a connection with your breath. When you notice that thinking is happening, that itself is a moment of mindfulness. There is no need to judge yourself; just bring your attention back to your breath.
- As a way of deepening your attention to your breath, focus on the very beginning of an in breath. Gently sustain your attention just for that one in breath. Then notice the beginning of an out breath, and sustain your attention just for that one out breath.
- No matter how many times your attention wanders or how far you become lost in thought, it takes only a moment to return to mindfulness, to the present moment. Return to the present moment by reestablishing a connection with your body and then reconnecting with your breath.
- It’s natural for the mind to think. Mindfulness practice is coming into wise relationship with thought and with everything that happens in your experience. So without judgment or criticism, bring your attention back again and reestablish a connection with your breath. Connect and sustain your attention with each in breath and each out breath. Notice how each breath is different from the previous one. Allow your awareness to be absorbed by and permeate each breath. Pay attention to the fine sensations and nuances of your changing breath. If you find yourself becoming tense or trying to control your breath, relax a little, making sure there ’s ease in your body.
- In the last few minutes of the meditation, let go of what’s gone on before and just begin again. Allow yourself to simply be aware of sitting and breathing. Rest in this natural awareness of your breath as it comes and goes.
- As you begin to bring this meditation to a close, take a moment to sense your body, your heart, and your mind. Notice the effect of this exercise.
- When you feel ready to end this meditation, slowly open your eyes, and gently move and stretch.
Bring the same quality of mindful attention you used in this meditation to everything you encounter. See if you can sustain this mindfulness as you move through your day. And remember that the more you do this formal mindfulness training, the more you’ll be able to bring mindful awareness into the rest of your life.