Your head is spinning after another hectic day. You feel stressed, confused, pulled in different directions. You are not living in, much less enjoying, the here and now.
What's missing is mindfulness, the practice of remaining in, and accepting, the present moment — which is the only reality you have, when it comes down to it.
In being everywhere but now, you may be sacrificing your health, well-being, relationships, the ability to think clearly and the beauty of life itself, research has found.
Researchers "are confirming the benefits that (mindfulness) practitioners have advocated for many years," says Charles A. Francis, co-founder and director of the Mindfulness Meditation Institute in Raleigh, N.C. and author of "Mindfulness Meditation Made Simple" (Paradigm Press). Research also shows that the practice helps people improve their mental abilities, such as abstract thinking, memory and creativity. And, it extends to relationships, improving leadership and social skills.
Perhaps most important, it simply helps you enjoy life with all the good, bad and ugly that come with it. Mindfulness carries with it an acceptance of the present moment, which allows you to bask in the sound of a bird call, the squeals of your children playing in the backyard, the aroma of a good cup of coffee, the pleasure in a great idea that comes from being calm and contemplative.
"Mindfulness really means paying attention on purpose," explains Jeffrey Santee, a psychologist and mindfulness instructor based in Wheaton, Ill.
Here are tips from Francis and Santee on learning to master mindfulness:
Start with baby steps. Find a quiet place, and get into a comfortable sitting position, Santee says. Practice focusing on your breath, and the present moment, for 10 to 15 minutes at first, then gradually increase the time. As you practice, take note when your attention wanders off. Don't become angry or impatient; it's common, especially in the beginning. Just be aware of when that happens, Santee says, and gently but firmly redirect your attention back to your breath. Sensations, impulses and thoughts played out in the mind may draw your attention away from your breathing. By bringing your attention back to it, you are training your mind to be less reactive and increasing your ability to concentrate.
Accept discomfort. It's also common to have some bodily discomfort, Santee says, but resist the first impulse to shift your position. Instead, accept the discomfort as part of your experience at that moment. You may find that it's possible to "relax into that discomfort," which can reduce it. Even if it doesn't go away, you are training yourself to remain calm and less reactive in the presence of it.
The mind will seem to have a mind of its own, Santee says. You may find yourself thinking about any number of things, some of which are important to you, and some that are not. All thoughts are considered to be of equal value, but by declining to get involved with them, you will develop an internal understanding that you are "more than those thoughts," he says, allowing you to separate nonfiction from fiction.
Practice mindful walking. Walk more slowly than usual, making it a smooth and continuous movement, while being conscious of every step. This can have a huge calming effect because it forces your mind to slow down along with the rest of your body.
Structure your mindfulness practice to fit your lifestyle. You're not a monk living in a monastery. You need to find the best time for practice within the normal flow of your day, Francis says.
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