As I continue my positivity practice and learn more about the mind, one theme that comes up over and over again is mindfulness. Although I didn’t know it, I was introduced to it about 10 years ago in a yoga class and I loved it. I thought the concept of an exercise class ending with nap time was comical, but the practice of just thinking about the breath, letting go of everything else, and simply being was profoundly relaxing. I found it surprisingly calming and centering. When I did it in the middle of a stressful workday, it provided a stark contrast to the normal stresses of the office.
Through the years, I continued to practice yoga periodically, but not regularly. While confined to the hospital bed recovering from my skiing accident with nothing better to do, I purposefully used some breathing exercises I learned in yoga. I would imagine the prayers, well wishes and positive energy that people were sending me and visualize breathing them into each of the places in my body that were injured. A would take a few breaths and prayers into my left eye, a few into my brain, into my left ear, into each collapsed lung, my heart, my broken left arm, 3 broken ribs, broken sternum, and each of the 6 broken vertebrae. It took a while to get through all the injured places and although I’m not aware of any science to support it, I believe that it helped me heal. I learned later that this is a real thing: there are meditation breathing techniques like this specifically designed to heal the body.
As I healed and read about the brain, mindfulness was a consistent theme that arose repeatedly in my research. As it turns out, there is a ton of science about the benefits of mindfulness. Wanting to learn more, I started listening to podcasts (I recommend 10% Happier), reading books (I suggest Insight Meditation), and doing a 15 minute mindfulness practice each day. What I’ve learned is that mindfulness is a valuable practice that is complementary, if not the foundation upon which a positive mindset can flourish.
I’m guessing mindfulness experts would tell me that I’m only skin deep so far, and they are probably right, but here’s how I would describe what I’ve learned:
First, mindfulness is about being in the present moment – not lamenting about the past, or worrying about the future. Just be here now and be aware of what’s going on within your body, mind and around you.
Second, mindfulness is about being aware of your awareness. Sounds metaphysical, but it’s an interesting concept. What are you thinking about now? Why are you thinking about that? Is that useful? Are you being overly critical of yourself? Is that useful? Would thinking about something else serve you better? Being aware of what you are thinking is not as easy as you might expect.
Most of us haven’t considered that we don’t have to be captives of our wandering mind, going with whatever thoughts spring up in the moment. We have the ability to purposefully choose what we think about. Easy, right? Nope. Our minds wander and change tracks all the time. What if you could control what you are thinking about just like you control your right hand. Our hands grab things, but not unless our mind tells it to. So, what controls our mind? Who tells our brain what to think about? This is what we explore when we are being mindful. Put simply, a mindfulness practice is training the part of your brain that decides what you think about.
As I’ve implemented a daily practice of mindfulness, I see why they tell you to focus on your breath. It’s simple but diabolically difficult. Whoever came up with this concept was brilliant, but mean. They figured out that by asking us to focus on something so mundane, automatic and boring, that our minds couldn’t help but wander. It’s frustrating, but all you have to do is wait for your mind to wander, catch it and gently begin again. Do it over and over (and over). It reminds me of the super-computer in the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, that is annoyed by the simple tasks that it is asked to do because they are so far beneath its capability. Our mind is annoyed by this tiny task of focusing on the breath and decides on its own to go do something else.
Frustrating, but that seems to be the entire purpose of meditation. To train that part of the brain that tells the rest of your brain what to think. So if you think I’m no good at mindfulness because my mind wanders, it’s quite the opposite. In fact, you are great at mindfulness — every time your brain wanders off, the exercise is to recognize it, gently let go of the thought, and begin again. Every time you catch a wander, you are doing one brain bicep curl. Celebrate each curl.
As I continue my practice, I can see myself getting better at controlling what I’m thinking about. I am able to notice my mind wandering during the day and bring it back on task. It helps me be aware of my awareness and enables me to spend more time thinking about the things that I want to think about; things that move me toward my objectives. If you are trying to improve your positivity, start a mindfulness practice – it will lay the foundation for controlling your attitude in stressful situations.