Mindfulness is the foundational skill necessary for achieving peace and a sense of engagement with life. It is essential for psychological health for us to cultivate and develop a basic practice of mindfulness. Otherwise, we tend to get lost in our thoughts, our minds bouncing from one thought to the next while the reality of what's actually happening in our lives roars by.
What exactly is mindfulness? Quite simply, it means being present in each moment of your life as it happens. For example, in this moment you are reading this blogpost, this sentence. Whatever you may plan to do in a few minutes when you're done reading this post is a thought about an imagined future. Whatever you were doing before you started reading is a memory of a moment that is past. Mindfulness is being right here, right now.
One of the best ways to bring your awareness into this moment is to bring your focus to your breath. We are always breathing, of course. But how often do we stop and just notice the sensation of breathing?
Take a deep breath in.
Feel the oxygen fill up your lungs, nourishing your blood, flowing through your body, keeping you alive.
The breath of life. Literally.
Now let it go, and feel the air as it leaves your body and goes back out into the world.
Breathing in, know that you are breathing in.
Breathing out, know that you are breathing out.
This is your life; it is happening right now.
Mindfulness and meditation are not religious activities, although meditation can certainly be combined with prayer for those so inclined. It makes no difference whether you have a belief in God or not. Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh and Catholic Bishop John Keating each provide valuable tools for anyone wishing to cultivate more mindfulness.
Father Keating teaches us to simply watch our thoughts. A powerful metaphor he uses is that our consciousness is like a river, and our thoughts are like boats on that river. We can’t stop the flow of boats - thoughts will flow through our minds all the time - but we can choose whether or not we board the boats. Sometimes we are sitting at the edge of the river, calmly watching the boats pass. We are serene and peaceful, present in the moment. And then, before we even know what’s happening, we are on a boat, trying to steer and control the boat. We’ve been caught in the grip of a thought and the boat suddenly seems like our reality. We are lost in a thought, perhaps imagining some future event or regretting some past action we wish had played out differently. We are no longer on the shore, no longer present in the moment.
When we notice we’re on a boat (in a thought), our challenge is not to steer or control the boat in any particular direction. Our goal is to gently get off the boat and bring ourselves back to the shore. We don’t judge ourselves or the boat, we just come back to shore “as gently as a feather falling onto a pile of cotton.” We get out of the thought. We come back to the shore, where we are again living in the present moment.
Thich Naht Hanh teaches us to bring our awareness to our breath, our body. Through our breath we can come back to Father Keating’s shore. He offers a simple meditation that I use frequently throughout my day. This can be done anytime, anywhere.
Very gently bring your awareness to your breath, and as you breathe silently say:
Breathing in, I calm my body.
Breathing out, I smile.
You can even shorten this and just silently say “Calm” on your in-breath and “Smile” on your out-breath.
I do this often, bringing myself gently back into the moment anytime I notice myself caught up in my thoughts. You can do this simple meditation anywhere. Try it silently at work, while in line at the store, or even while in conversation if you find yourself in your mind thinking instead of listening to the other person.
You may want to practice this today. See what happens if you simply bring your awareness back to your breath anytime you notice yourself distracted by thoughts. Set an intention to be present in the moments of today as they happen. Engage with your life, be in it while it happens. And when you get caught up in thinking, come back to your breath, ever so gently bringing yourself back to Father Keating’s shore.