The late, great neuroscientist Victor Frankel once said, “Between stimulus and the response, there is a space, and in that space is our power and our freedom”.
We have the power to focus our attention in the present moment to shift our reactions. In making that conscious choice to intentionally place our attention, we can create the power to transform our current reality and empower ourselves beyond measure.
First, to understand what is meant by “the present moment”, we need to look at its opposite, which is commonly called “Autopilot”. Simply put, Autopilot describes any time that your mind is not focused on what is right in front of you.
Some examples of autopilot are:
- Daydreaming while driving and not knowing how you got to your destination
- Thinking about work while playing with your kids
- Re-playing the conversation you had with your boss while taking a shower
- Paying attention to your phone while eating dinner
- Worrying about bills while brushing your teeth
- Being lost in thought when someone is talking to you
Are you seeing yourself and your life in any of these examples?
If you’re still reading this, the answer is almost certainly “yes”. The experiences described above are part of being a human. In fact, it’s part of what’s called the Default Mode Network, the brain’s survival mechanism, which can make being present difficult. Your brain scans back and forth from the past to the future, and then looks for problems in an effort to keep you safe. This can cause you to ruminate about the past, worry about the future, and “time travel”, as some of the above examples suggest.
This is why we have to deliberately, consciously, and actively bring our attention out of the Default Mode, and into what is actually happening in the present moment through mindfulness.
So, what is mindfulness?
While reading this, keep in mind that there is no agreed upon or final definition of mindfulness. There are multiple ways to view and interpret mindfulness as a concept.
Mindfulness.org has defined mindfulness as “the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.” (https://www.mindful.org/what-is-mindfulness/)
Mindfulness of the present is bringing your attention to each of the five senses as you are experiencing them. Bringing your attention to what you are hearing, seeing, smelling, touching, and tasting is part of the present moment.
Mindfulness is also about cultivating awareness of your mind and learning how to consciously direct your attention. It’s about being in charge of your own mind by understanding it, taking control of your reactions, and responding skillfully. You have a choice as to how you respond to life, and you don’t need to stay in the same reactive patterns you have chosen thus far.
Mindfulness is about knowing:
- What you are doing
- When you are doing it
- Why you are doing it
- Where you are doing it
- How you are doing it
'Freedom lies in understanding yourself from moment to moment.' - Bruce Lee
Mindfulness and Suffering
Mindfulness practice is also about learning how to develop a way of being present with yourself, especially your suffering. This is important to our modern, Western minds, which exist in a culture that promotes the escape from suffering; through eating, drinking, drugs, television, cell phones, or any other distraction which push us to escape from the present moment.
By sitting silently with ourselves and focusing our attention on our present state, which may include suffering, we are able to penetrate and observe it, eventually allowing it to simply pass. Our thoughts, feelings, and suffering may return, and we again sit with them, observe non-judgmentally, and let the thoughts or feelings pass. In this way we are not escaping them, but becoming aware of them, allowing them to be, and letting them pass. This practice has innumerable benefits to the mind and body.
How do I start?
In the West, there has been a recent explosion of interest in mindfulness-based practices. Just this past year, mindfulness was featured on the cover of Time magazine.
Current thought-leaders suggest a highly relaxed yet highly concentrated state for a session of 8-30 minutes a day (relaxed body/awake mind).
- Sit with eyes closed, legs uncrossed, feet planted, and focus on your breathing
- If you need to, take a couple of deep breaths to begin to relax
- When thoughts or emotions enter into awareness, simply notice them without judging them or telling a story about them, and (re)-focus back onto the breath.
- Repeat that same process over and over.
- It’s that simple.
Remember, you’re not supposed to be “good at it”. That’s why they call it practice. Your mind will wander hundreds of times, and each time the object is to notice when you are in thought, and to bring your attention back to the breath. The object IS NOT to “clear your mind”, as is a common misconception.
Doing this daily practice helps the brain learn to Pay Attention. Practicing over time will cultivate an ability to stabilize focus and deliberately choose to bring attention back when it waivers from an intended focus.
After practicing a mindfulness-based exercise such as meditation consistently for 8 weeks, 30 minutes a day, you may begin to notice some changes:
- Capacity for concentration may increase
- Decrease in anxiety (after 8 weeks of practice- the amygdala, the danger center of your brain can shrink)
- You may become more aware of your own mind and mental activity
- You may become aware that a more relaxed state of being is available to you when you choose to engage it
Your general flow of life energy can improve with the practice of mindfulness meditation, and in turn this energetic flow will allow you to improve other areas of your life. This includes your relationships, because you will notice when you are not being fully present with others, and have the ability to make a conscious choice to shift your focus and become more present and available to those you love.
Try it for 5 days in a row for 8-30 minutes a day and see what changes you notice.
Remember, we’re working with 2 million year old brains with a built-in operating system of reactivity. Our collective ancestors survived by constantly scanning their environments for danger. We have inherited that automatic system. Our default mode is programmed to ruminate on the past, worry about the future, and look for problems, but we have the ability to notice when that system is engaged.
Mindfulness contains the power to help us to be more in command of our reactions, calm our brains, and will help us to live more conscious lives.