Do you ever have trouble sleeping because it feels like your mind just won’t stop? Can’t read that assigned chapter because, even though you’re looking right at the page all you’re seeing is yesterday’s frustrating events play over again? “I can’t believe that woman honked at me. It’s not like I didn’t have my turn signal on.” “I wonder what is on tomorrow’s test?” “…Peanut butter…” You can’t stop worrying about the future or analyzing the past. You’re thinking about everything but the present. Your mind feels so…full and out of control.
The ancient practice of Mindfulness can help us regain control of our minds so we can spend more time in the present moment and less time trying to sort through a cluttered mind. What is Mindfulness? According to Shapiro, “Knowing the state of your mind in this moment, without judging it, evaluating it, thinking about it, or trying to change it, is mindfulness” (5). Sounds easy, but what usually happens when a thought floats into our minds? The “committee” arrives to talk about it, pick it apart, and open the door for other anxiously awaiting thoughts. The other day I sat down to meditate and began thinking, “Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Something smells like lasagna.” The committee immediately said, “Lasagna sounds good!” and proceeded to, “I wonder if I have time to get some burger before Willey’s closes. How much longer do I have to meditate? Oh, shoot! I’m thinking! Man, I suck at meditating.” It doesn’t take long for an aware mind to shift right back into mindless chatter. “Our mind analyzes our successes and failures, judging and comparing, planning and fearing for the future” (Ma 46). This creates a constant state of stress and anxiety (46) and hinders our ability to focus.
So, how do we begin practicing Mindfulness? Meditation is the most common form of mindfulness practice and an easy way to start. Simply take a moment and bring your awareness to something present. Maybe it’s a sound, like a ticking clock or something you see, like a tree outside your window. You may want to try bringing you attention to your breath. Whatever it is, try to become fully immersed in its presence in this moment. Try not to make any judgments about what you are experiencing. If you find yourself thinking, “That ticking sounds like ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ by the Beatles,” simply acknowledge that thought and gently bring your mind back to the present. Continue. Should you find yourself wandering off, it’s okay. Just draw your attention back to now. Practicing this for any period of time is practicing mindfulness. Practice isn’t limited to seated meditation. You can practice while walking, cleaning dishes, exercising, etc. You can do it anytime, anywhere, and there’s no risk of overdose. Yoga and Qigong (pronounced “chee-gung”) classes are also practices in mindfulness. Students are encouraged to be present and to listen to their bodies and their breath.
Over time, through practice, the task of quieting our minds and focusing becomes easier. This is especially important today “in an age of distraction and information overload. Technology has moved from our desktop to our pockets, and that evolution has increased our likelihood to be saturated by information and unable to adequately reflect” (Polgar 76). With our minds so overwhelmed, it is no wonder it has become so hard to study! The practice of Mindfulness can train us to ignore the distractions so we can focus on the problem.
The stress of problem-solving can also be reduced. When we let our minds run on autopilot, we often react on autopilot, meaning that judgments are often imposed automatically on everything that is encountered” (Shapiro 10). In a way, we are experiencing an alternate reality, one that comes with our personal baggage, our habits, and conditioned responses rather than true reality. This can cause a lot of stress as we try to solve problems because we are, essentially, working with false information. When we are mindful, we can see reality as it truly is, free of the binding of the past and the future. Being able to look at a situation clearly, without distraction, can turn a stressful event into one that is manageable.
With benefits like these, Mindfulness has helped the student population. According towww.mindful.net, a website dedicated to promoting the practice of mindfulness, practicing students have claimed benefits “as diverse as helping them cope with exam stress and sleep, to improving their performance in work and sport.” So, why not give it a try and see how it helps you. Take a moment and see what it’s like to be mindful instead of mind full.