Health Beat: On Mindfulness

Published 7:48 pm Friday, August 31, 2018

We see this word, “mindfulness,” on television shows, in magazines, on the internet, in books, and of course in newspaper articles just like this one. On the surface, we tell ourselves that we sort of know what the concept refers to — paying attention and being aware. Because we think we know what it means, we tend to forgo expending effort into experiencing and knowing what mindfulness really is. In a sense, mindfulness is knowing that you know. It is experiencing reality without blinders. Unexamined experience basically boxes us into repeating the same ineffective behaviors that prohibit us from thinking in new, original and fresh ways.

Mindfulness is a state of being present, living in the moment. We believe we all do this, but when we reflect, we know that we multitask, we eat and read emails, we talk and in between thoughts, we text. We also talk on our cell phones while driving, or worse, text while driving. How many times during the day do you find yourself talking with someone and not looking them directly in the eyes? Why so? It is because our minds are on some other issue. We dilute our experience by doing this.

It is easy to be unmindful. Just keep doing what you do out of habit. Not everything we do is helpful or healthful for us. For example, when we eat and do so without being mindful, we overeat and gain weight and later feel bad. When we make decisions without being mindful, the consequences may come back to bite us. We may have to go back and redo everything the right way to move on. When we speak without mindfulness, we may harm relationships.

It takes effort to be mindful. It also takes intention, persistence, practice and a willingness to come back to the practice time after time. When we pray we are being mindful. When we meditate we are working on mindfulness. Regular exercise, be it walking, running, swimming or playing tennis are opportunities to practice mindfulness. To be mindful is to study our thoughts, emotions and feelings, though mindfulness does not exclude others, as each interaction we have is a source that can, if allowed, open the door to deeper mindfulness.

Are we always aware of the tone of our voice and how it may sound to the one on the receiving end? When stressed, it is easy to bark, snap at or become defensive toward others. When we want to be mindful, it is equated with having our finger on the pulse of our awareness, knowing that we want to respond to the facts and not respond from a place of past hurts or ill feeling.

So, how does one start to become mindful? Time alone, five or 10 minutes, sitting without distractions, in a quiet spot, watching thoughts come and go, without responding to them in the usual way, is step one. It is too easy to make excuses that we cannot find such time and because this is so, we must make time. Another obstacle is that it can feel like a waste of time, as too many of us already have too much to do. The reality is that when we move ahead mindfully, we get more done, we become more efficient with our time, and life becomes easier to prioritize.

If you decide to begin, do not be surprised by the sheer number of unrelated thoughts that traverse your mind. This is the usual state of our minds and therefore training the mind helps create space for greater and deeper experience. In this space, we can relax. We slow down enough to appreciate all that we have. We move forward from a position of strength guided by kindness. We get to know ourselves better and like what we see.

When the mind begins to wander, simply notice that it has wandered and bring the attention to the breath. Counting each in-breath to a count of 10 and repeating is one way of coming back to the present moment. Each time the mind comes off the breath, redirect the attention back to the breath. This sounds easy, but as mentioned before, it is a practice.

Do not expect major changes to occur immediately, though focusing on the breath can help bring a sense of calm to a difficult situation. I hope that this brief writing will act as a spark for readers to begin the practice of mindfulness. With time you and those around you will notice the difference.

John Inzerillo, MD, is a hematologist/oncologist with the Marion L. Shepard Cancer Center of Vidant Beaufort Hospital.