Living with intention means choosing how to live, purposefully. When we actively choose how to live our lives, we are much more likely to live a fulfilling, meaningful life. One approach that can help us to live with intention is mindfulness. Mindfulness is the art and practice of living in the present moment, deliberately. That is, being fully aware of our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours as well as the things that we take in with our senses moment to moment. For most of us, living in the past and the future is more common than living in the present. We obsess about past failures and regrets or imagine being happy in the future, rather than now. Or perhaps our thoughts of the future are fraught with anxiety and worries. In either case, when we are focused on the past or future, we are not living life, which can only be lived moment to moment in the present. A key ingredient of a mindfulness practice is the idea that thoughts and feelings are fleeting. We have thoughts and feelings but they do not define us. The real you is the one who says “oh, I’m having a thought.”
Mindfulness also embodies the idea of acceptance. This means being open to whatever is, without judgement or criticism; accepting what is without wishing it were something else. Mindfulness has its roots in Buddhism but has entered the mainstream in North American, in part through the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn who has studied mindfulness in the context of physical and mental illness for decades. He points out that the Chinese character for mindfulness includes two symbols meaning “presence” and “heart.” Thus, mindfulness is about presence of heart – being fully present, wholly, mind, body and heart.
Dr. Kabat-Zinn and many other researchers have shown that mindfulness can help with:
- Our physical bodies, including boosting our immune system, easing pain and improving function, improving fatigue, sleep quality, reducing blood pressure, improving symptoms associated with irritable bowel syndrome;
- Our mental well-being including improving outlook to become more optimistic and reducing stress;
- Improving symptoms of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress;
- The way our brains function to improve memory, concentration, empathy, and emotional regulation;
- Learning, attention and our ability to focus.
There are lots of good reasons to practice mindfulness but like everything else, it takes time, practice, and patience to reap the benefits. Many of the studies that have been done involve 30-45 minutes of practice daily for up to 8 weeks. However, it is possible to begin mindfulness with more informal, brief practices that are also helpful. Below are some ideas to begin.
Take a moment and just stop.
Tune into what is present for you in that moment. What can you hear, feel, or taste? Try tuning into one sense and staying with it for a few moments, allowing the sensation to just be there.
Try a walking meditation.
This is a slow, deliberate walk where you pay attention to the movement of your feet one step at a time. Notice the feeling as each foot touches the ground and the other as it lifts off again, over and over. Try this for just a couple of minutes and then build on that up to 5 or 10 minutes.
In any moment as you go through your day, just stop and focus on your breath for a few moments. Notice the sensation of breath moving into your body and then out of your body. Let go of thinking about what you were just doing or what you have to do next and just allow your attention to rest on the flow of breath. Begin with just one minute of breathing. Over time, you can build on that so that at first it is just one or two minutes but over time it can become 5, 10, or 15 minutes.
Mindfulness of Nature:
There is lots of research that tells us that being aware of our natural environment is good for us on many levels. Immersion in nature is restorative or healing physically, emotionally and mentally. Take a moment once, twice or more often in a day of something in nature. Perhaps it is the sky, a flower, a gentle breeze, and insect, the colour of grass or the leaves of a tree. Once you choose something, focus your attention on that one thing for a few moments. Allow yourself to look at it as if for the very first time, looking at the colour, texture, shape or movement or experiencing the sensations in your body that it evokes. Stay with the experience for as long as you are able and then offer some appreciation to yourself for allowing that experience to enter your day.
Stop what you are doing or thinking about for a moment. Notice one thing that is happening or that you are aware of for which you are grateful or that you appreciate. It could be the warmth of the sun, the sound of a bird, music, or a feeling a peace or ease somewhere in your body. Just notice that. Allow your attention to rest there for a few moments. Acknowledge the thing you are grateful for or that your appreciate to yourself or comment on it out loud. See if you can notice 5 things in a day for which you are grateful and appreciate.
Inevitably your mind will wander when you do these exercises. When you notice that you are no longer focused on the meditation, simply say to yourself “thinking” or “wandering” and bring your attention back to wherever you wanted your focus to be. Be very gentle with yourself. Remember the idea of acceptance and non- judgement. There is no right or wrong way to do these meditations.
If you find mindfulness meditations appealing there are many resources online, in books, and in our communities to teach you more. One resource is Jon Kabat Zinn’s book “Full catastrophe living”. It is available through most booksellers. Another resource is the website UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Centre.
Written by: Deborah McLeod, R.N., Ph.D. Clinician Scientist and Angela Morck, R.N., Ph.D. Mental Health