Mindfulness in the New Year
By Leslie Carter Rawls, Board Certified Specialist and Mindfulness Teacher
Take away my trouble, take away my grief,
Take away my heartache, I go right to sleep.
—“Crazy Love,” Van Morrison
How many of us long for a magic formula to do what Van Morrison’s lover does for him in this song? But a full night of restful sleep for a conscientious lawyer? “Preposterous!” we chuckle. Our legal careers and our responsibilities weigh too heavily on our minds and bodies. Yet we yearn for respite from the worries, pain, and pressures of our careers and our lives. We grasp at myriad promises of comfort and relief, however fleeting: 20-year-old Scotch, a nicely-rolled joint, a new boat, a computer program, the right vacation....The promises seem endless and nearly all involve running away from the present, from the feelings of stress generated in our lifestyles. Mindfulness practice makes no such promises, but invites us into awareness of the present moment. Too often, our regrets and plans, our worries and hopes rip us away from enjoying the here and now. To live mindfully is to be present, in body and in mind, with every bit of pain and pleasure in our lives. The results of mindfulness include reduced stress, greater focus, and increased productivity, as well as a sense of stability, peace, and happiness.
So what is mindfulness? It is the practice of concentrating our awareness on the present, of being fully alive in this very moment. Elements of mindfulness are found in many other programs. For example, Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous encourage people to focus on the present by living one day at a time. Participants are also encouraged to be aware of situations that cause stress, fear, or suffering, and may lead to ingesting intoxicants. In mindfulness of consumption, we are aware that what we take in may lead us to negative behavior, including our “ingestion” of situations that encourage use or abuse of intoxicants. Mindfulness compels us to consider the effect of everything we consume, including television programs, books, films, magazines, and conversations.
Without mindfulness, we are easily distracted by the incessant internal chatter of our minds, the barrage of shallow advertising, the seduction of consumption. Mindfulness allows us to be aware of these things, but not caught by them. It allows us to touch the miracle of life instead of thirsting for things we hope will bring us happiness.
In daily life, we often focus on the past and the future rather than the present. Drinking a cup of coffee in the morning, our thoughts are on the motion due by the end of the day—we are barely conscious of the coffee. Wolfing down a sandwich at lunch, we relive our direct examination that morning. The sandwich is gone without our ever being fully aware we are eating. Driving, we realize that our thoughts were on a project and we passed the turn. We miss the present because we are reliving the past or dreaming about the future. In truth, the only way to take care of the past and the future is to take care of the present, to really be here. Mindfulness encourages us to be aware of each moment, instead of letting life go by while we make other plans.
The practice of mindfulness does not mean ignoring the lessons of the past or failing to plan for the future. Living deeply in the present includes thinking about the past and the future. To ignore the past is foolish; to not plan for the future is reckless. In mindfulness, however, one is not preoccupied by or daydreaming about the past and the future. Living in awareness, the mindfulness practitioner knows she is thinking about the past or planning for the future without becoming lost in the thoughts. It sounds simple, but how often are we swept away from the present when thinking of the past and the future? When swept away like this, we miss the present. We miss life.
A Mindfulness Exercise
This exercise involves an everyday act—driving. Focusing on one specific act can help us focus in everything else we do. We use the breath to bring awareness to the present moment. Do not alter your breathing. Simply be aware of each in breath and each out breath. Your breath should not be strained or audible, but relaxed in its natural pattern. Becoming aware of your breath brings your mind and body together in the present moment.
Are you gripping the wheel, figuring out how late you’ll be, glancing at the cross light, wondering if you should have taken the other lane? Forget it. You have stopped. Be grateful to the stoplight for a brief pause. You have no choice but to sit still and breathe.
Let go of the steering wheel. Allow your gaze to relax. Pay attention to your in breath and your out breath. If you get three or four full breaths sitting at the light, you will feel relaxed and refreshed. If you don’t quite get three breaths, you will look forward to the next stoplight for another chance. Here is a verse to help focus and relax at stoplights. (It’s useful other times, too.) You can use the longer version with a line for each in or out breath, or the shorter form with just a word for each.
Breathing in, I know I am breathing in.
Breathing out, I know I am breathing out.
Breathing in, I calm my body and mind.
Breathing out, I smile.
Breathing in, I dwell in the present moment.
Breathing out, I know it is a wonderful moment.
Present moment, wonderful moment.
The smile is simply a half smile to relax your face. The verses can be used anytime you want to bring your attention into the present. You can also bring mindfulness to other everyday acts, including walking, telephone calls, eating, and hugging. Life is made of moments. To live in mindfulness is to live in this moment—the only moment available to us.
Leslie is a sole practitioner in Charlotte, specializing in appellate practice. She is the former editor of The Mindfulness Bell, a journal about meditation and mindfulness practice in daily life, and has taught mindfulness in retreat centers, hospitals, prisons, churches, and yoga centers.
Filed Under: General News