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  • Writer's pictureDr. Watts

Mindfulness - The Art of Being Present

Updated: Sep 11, 2023

“Mindfulness” is a popular buzzword at the moment, but what does it actually mean? When I bring up the topic with clients in the course of our work, everyone feels that mindfulness is a good thing, but often they have only a vague idea of what it actually is. They tell me that mindfulness is a way to calm yourself or a way to empty your mind and think about nothing; or an exercise for stress management and control of emotions; or a way to focus better; or a tool for dealing with anger. All of that is true in many ways, but in the end it still remains a question, “what is mindfulness, actually?”and “how do you practice it’?


Mindfulness has its roots in the ancient practice of meditation, so mindfulness and meditation overlap, but are not the same. Mindfulness aims to maintain your focus in the present moment on whatever activity you are doing. When you are mindful, you are fully focused on and actively engaged with the here and now. There are no specific requirements for mindfulness. You can practice mindfulness anywhere at any time - all you need is to be present. People who practice mindfulness are not specifically meditating; they are intentionally directing their focus to an activity, be it smelling a rose, petting a dog, mopping a floor, brushing their teeth.



Mindfulness - Being present in the moment


Meditation, on the other hand, is a formal practice that involves sitting and breathing in specific ways depending on the school of thought. At its most basic, meditation is a contemplative practice that aims to transform the mind in order to reach a mental place of sustained awareness that allows for the experience of deeper states of consciousness and existence.


Both mindfulness and meditation have as one of the goals training the mind to achieve grounded quietness. Without that training, a new puppy and the mind are very much alike. Take my 5-month old puppy, Maya, for example: calm and quiet one moment, then suddenly jumping up and barking furiously at a sound that only she hears. Then bustling about in a busy-body kind of way, pulling toys out of baskets, running off with a sock or slipper, jumping on my dog Stella and nipping her ears. On it continues - out of the blue, a burst of puppy rampage, running around like a little demon tornado, tongue flapping and eyes bugged out. Then flops down out of breath, but just for a minute - something caught her attention: a piece of paper needs tearing, a random piece of dirt has to be eaten, a loose string on the couch has to be pulled. Life with an untrained puppy is like living with a mind that never stops thinking. Trouble controlling one’s mental energy is, in fact, one of the complaints that frequently brings people to therapy


A recent study from Harvard found that people spend 46.9% of their waking hours, that’s almost half the time, thinking about other things than the present. That’s a lot of time for the mind to wonder about aimlessly! Inevitably it will end up stuck in the swamps of regret and the wilderness of worry. For clients I have who suffer from anxiety and depression, that percent is even higher - 70-80% of the time ruminating about the past or worrying about the future. That creates a state of internal chronic stress, which is at the root of many illnesses that plague us - heart disease, hypertension, metabolic disorders, sleep problems, obesity, Type 2 diabetes, alcohol abuse, depression, anxiety, anger. "Mind-wandering is an excellent predictor of people’s happiness,” the study’s author said. “In fact, how often our minds leave the present and where they tend to go is a better predictor of our happiness than the activities in which we are engaged.”1


Mindfulness as a practice is a recent development. Although it has its origin in the Hindu practices of meditation, it has been introduced into mainstream in the US in the 1970s by Dr. Kabat-Zinn, a professor of medicine at University of Massachusetts. A practitioner of meditation, he recognized the benefits for health and well-being it bestowed on those who meditate. He opened a Stress Reduction Clinic and developed the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program to help patients cope with stress, pain, and illness through “moment by moment awareness.”


Although people have a positive attitude about mindfulness, they often don’t end up doing it because of confusion about what they actually need to do. Some mindfulness exercises suggest that you become observant of your internal experiences: if you are ruminating about some past mistake, observe your rumination and then calmly let it float by like a cloud in the sky. It sounds nice, but I find that to be an advanced skill that causes people to "get lost in the weeds" of their own thoughts and end up actually ruminating even more. In place of observing internal experiences, I have found that a mindfulness exercise that focuses attention on sensory experiences is more manageable in the early phases of training that puppy of yours called the mind.


Sensory Mindfulness is the simplest and most manageable mindfulness exercise. It uses each of the five senses during the practice: sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste. The exercise aims to help you focus on the experience of each sense as you narrate what you perceive, what each particular sense is telling you. Read through my example then repeat it with something in your own life.


There is no required length of time -- you can do it for 2 minutes or for 20 minutes. If you can do it only for 2 minutes, try to do it several times a day. Obviously, just like training a puppy, you don't do it just once a day; you do it multiple times throughout the day. Repetition helps calm and settle your mind while developing new brain circuits. Set a timer, if necessary, to remind you to practice in the beginning.. Remember to breathe throughout to enhance the power of the mindfulness exercise (click here for a 60 second breathing exercise). Before you know it, you will realize the power of this simple exercise and want more often and longer.


Simple Sensory Mindfulness Exercise


Stella, my mindfulness practice partner.

SIGHT

I see Stella. She is golden reddish, and her coat seems to sparkle as the light shines on her. She has her right paw tucked under her chin as she sleeps. I see her rib cage rising and falling as she inhales and exhales rhythmically. I see her black paw pads and then my eyes glide to her chocolate colored nose. I see her eyelashes. They are long and golden red. One of her ears is flipped over. I see the blood vessels through the translucent skin of her ear.


SMELL

Stella smells like fresh baked bread cooling in the shade. I like that smell. I lean over and kiss the top of her head. There is something ancient and comforting about that musty smell. Through the open window, the smell of freshly cut grass drifts in, the smell of summer.


HEARING

Just barely, I can hear Stella’s quiet breath. And then I hear Maya give a short quick bark in her sleep. The sound of cicadas comes through the window. It is the white noise sound of nature in the summer. In the distance there is the sound of a lawn mower.


TOUCH

I reach over and stroke Stella’s fur. It is warm, in places silky, in others coarse. Her ears are as smooth as fine velvet. I feel her paw pads. They are scratchy and rough, the result of many, many miles of walks.


TASTE

I put a little bit of doggy treat in my mouth. I made it for them - flour and oats and pumpkin and cinnamon. It tastes a little sweet from the pumpkin and the cinnamon, but it’s mostly bland. It is very hard, perfect for the strong teeth of a dog.


As I finish the sensory tour, I take a few slow deep breaths and allow my mind to settled in that mindful calmness.


The Raisin Exercise


A famous example in mindfulness circles is the Raisin Exercise. It is another simple exercise that anchors mental activity by focusing it, of all things, on a raisin.





As you can see, sensory mindfulness can be practiced with anything at all. All you need is a willingness to try and an attitude of gentle kindness towards yourself.


Happy mind training!




"Your mind is a powerful thing.

When you filter it with positive thoughts,

your life will start to change."

Buddha





Dr. Dana Watts

Clinical Psychologist

Helping Clients in the Greater Cleveland Area


440-895-1100


  1. https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2010/11/wandering-mind-not-a-happy-mind/

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