By Joel McNenny, LPC. LSC.
The other day I was sitting on a bench overlooking Sippo Lake. It was evening and the setting sun was reflected by the lake in a cascade of brilliant colors. Occasionally the silence was broken by a bird in song. It was beautiful. Only I was not really there at all.
Sure, physically I was sitting on that bench as picturesque as can be, but my mind was far, far away, reliving some painful events, going over them again and again. Along the way, I was editing them, changing the events more to my liking, saying things I wished I had said, mentally writing a script of what I wish had happened. The exercise left me feeling angry, frustrated and with an overwhelming sense of powerlessness.
I tried to be positive. “Forget the past.” “Let it go.” “Move on.” So I started thinking about the future, writing a script for it, but there were so many “what if’s.” What if the events of the past merely replayed in the future? What if I was not prepared? What if I was not good enough? What if I did not come up with the “what if” that actually is going to happen? I found myself feeling worried, anxious, afraid and above all powerless because I could not see the future and know exactly how to prepare for it.
I found myself cycling between a past I was powerless to change and a future I was powerless to control. Emotionally I found myself cycling through sadness worry and anger. But I knew a way out. I began to practice mindfulness.
Mindfulness is a practice that is, please pardon the cliché, sweeping the nation. In the February 3, 2014 edition of TIME magazine, the cover story declared our culture is in the midst of a “Mindful Revolution.” Well-knowns such as Goldie Hawn, Anderson Cooper, Dan Harris, and Congressman Tim Ryan have been touting the benefits of a mindfulness practice and they are backed up by a wealth of scientific validation. Mindfulness is being used to treat a large array of mental disorders; such as depression, addictions, and anxiety disorders. It is also being used with children exhibiting ADHD symptoms and by police departments, prisons, schools, corporations and even professional football teams.
As I was sitting on that bench, none of that really mattered. What mattered to me was my feelings and my feelings about my feelings, and I needed a way to allow those feelings but not become engulfed by them. I needed a way out of that cycle of uselessly reliving the past and worrying about an uncontrollable future. I needed a way to be in the present moment where I am empowered and where my mind is at peace.
Repositioning my body, I sat up a bit so that my back was off the back of the bench and my hips were slightly higher than my knees. I rested my hands on my thighs. I picked a spot of sun-reflected color on which to rest my gaze and turned my attention to my breath. As I breathed in, I became aware of breathing in and how my stomach expanded and as I breathed out, I was aware of my stomach compressing and the air leaving my nose. I repeated it again and again.
It took several minutes but eventually my mind became more and more focused on the process of breathing and it became far less busy. I could almost sense my brain sighing with relief. My mind relaxed, then my brain relaxed and then my whole body relaxed. I was in the moment and I was at peace.
It’s very difficult to describe the experience of mindfulness. I have read many descriptions and explanations and none of them explain it in the exact same way. Likewise, I would not describe it in the same way as anyone else. That is because mindfulness is experiential and no two people describe an experience in the exact same way.
Mindfulness is not about “going” anywhere. It is about bringing the mind and body together. Our minds are so often dancing around all over the place. I often ask my classes to imagine what it would look like if our heads actually went where our minds go. It would be like living in one of those carnival games where the plastic balls are flying around in a wind tunnel. Only instead of plastic balls, these would be heads!
Mindfulness reconnects our minds and bodies. It brings us into what could be argued is our true natural state: Now. This moment is where we truly are and when we live in that moment we are empowered and when we are empowered we are at peace.
Practicing mindfulness is about allowing the world to be just as it is. It is also about allowing ourselves to be just as we are. Usually we are constantly judging and many people if they are truly honest would admit they save their sternest judgment for themselves. Mindfulness takes us away from that habit. It allows us in the present moment to just be. And that is all.
With that, however, comes some powerful results that are continually being studied and validated. It is why people are saying that within the next few years, when it comes to a healthy lifestyle, there will be three overriding habits: healthy eating, quality exercise, and mindfulness meditation.