When was the last time you stopped and smelled the roses? Saw them bask in the sun? Touched their velvety petals? Listened to them ripple in the wind? Taste doesn’t really apply here, but you get the idea. While we New Englanders recover from another round of snow and remain somewhat cooped up, we could use this opportunity to slow down and savor what’s going on around us.
In this day and age, we are exposed to so many different experiences. Our global cultural invites us to stroll down a city street and sip Italian coffee, slurp Thai noodles for lunch, and enjoy American fare for dinner. Social media allows us to see what everyone else is doing at any given moment. We can stream any kind of music with the click of a mouse. We live in a beautifully integrated–albeit sometimes distracting–world. While we may be exposed to all sorts of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures, we do not always purposefully savor or even acknowledge them. We often just go through the motions.
Practicing mindfulness is one way to cultivate a more engaged and improved quality of life. Mindfulness is calling attention to the present and acknowledging whatever you are experiencing at any given moment. Mindfulness awareness practices (MAPs) entail focusing on both internal and external experiences occurring now. When you practice mindfulness, you are fully engaged in the now without judging or criticizing. You accept your whole range of feelings without analyzing whether they may be “right” or “wrong.” You are not reliving what happened yesterday or anxiously awaiting tomorrow. Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program launched at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in 1979, sums up meditation as “paying attention in a systematic way” and mindfulness as “presence of heart.”
Numerous studies have shown the effectiveness of mindfulness practices on improved quality of life as well as reductions in stress, anxiety, and depression. For example, a 2014 randomized controlled trial published in Cancer assessed the effects of MAPS and stress among younger breast cancer survivors. The study showed significant reductions in perceived stress and some reductions in depressive symptoms and inflammation among participants in the experimental group. While psychological and behavioral measures were not maintained three months post intervention, this six-week study demonstrated the positive short-term effects of mindfulness practices. Another 2014 study investigated the link between a MAP intervention and improved mood and attention among adults with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The researchers found that MAP increased sustained attention and improved mood and quality of life of patients and controls in the intervention group.
Mindfulness practices can benefit anyone, regardless of age, sex, or health status. Practicing mindfulness can improve immunity, stress management, learning, emotional regulation, focus, empathy, compassion, anxiety, stress, and eating habits. And it’s something you can start doing right this moment!
While you can certainly cultivate mindfulness by meditating, Kabat-Zinn emphasizes that at its core, mindfulness is “about living your life as if it really mattered, moment by moment by moment by moment.”
The Greater Good Science Center (GGSC) at University of California, Berkeley offers some simple tips for getting started with mindfulness practice:
- Tune in to your breathing, especially during stressful or emotional times
- Take time to become aware of what you’re sensing at any given moment (the sights, sounds, smells, etc.)
- Remember that your thoughts and emotions are impermanent and do not characterize who you are. Free yourself from habits of negative thinking.
- Turn your attention inward to your body’s physical sensation: how your feet feel against the ground and how water trickles when you wash your hands.
- Try a body scan, a guided meditation in which you focus your attention along your whole body, from the top of your head to the tip of your toes.
*Adapted from the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley
So next time you see a rose, or a snowflake, or even a stop sign, give it a long look. Take in the sights, sounds, smells, textures, and tastes around you. Live your life moment by moment by moment.