Wherever you happen to be sitting right now, take about a minute or two to notice the physical sensations of your body pressing against the seat/cushion/floor underneath you. If you’re standing, try to notice the physical sensations of your feet pressing against the floor. While you’re at it, see if you can identify the contours of your body touching the seat or floor by feeling the sensations that are present there – rather than by simply thinking about them. This exercise of attention is referred to as mindfulness and has become tremendously popular in recent years – and for very good reasons. Mindfulness is the ability to pay attention to whatever is happening in the present moment. Unbeknownst to us, our attention is involuntarily trained throughout our lives to focus predominantly on the future and/or the past.
Our attention is involuntarily trained throughout our lives to focus predominantly on the future and/or the past.
Naturally and unfortunately, this habit leaves few mental resources for noticing what’s happening right now, in the present moment. And many of us know what it’s like to not be “fully present” or “fully there” during a particular activity or task (though we commonly realize this only after the fact). For example, a father of two young boys recently confided to me: “Often, when I’m playing with my children, I notice that my attention is not on them. Insstead it is on some project or task that I need to finish tomorrow or the day after. I wish I could be more present to enjoy the experience of being with my children”. This tendency, for our attention to be swept away or “taken hostage” by our thoughts, is a learned habit sometimes referred to as “mindlessness”. It is the opposite of mindfulness. Our worries and concerns also function by “hijacking” our attention, sometimes afflicting us with excessive amounts of suffering and distress. Luckily, mindfulness can train our attention to engage more frequently and fully with the present moment via practice. In this way we learn valuable lessons about how our minds work in the process. Like other learnable skills, such as playing piano or riding a bicycle, mindfulness practice grows stronger the more you repeat it. As seen in the brief exercise that opened this article, mindfulness is trained by placing one’s attention on a particular object, such as the breath, a part of the body, an external object, etc. We return to this object if we notice that our attention has drifted to something else. A traditional and highly effective way to develop mindfulness practice is through meditation. Much of the scientific research in this area is based on – or on a derivative of – this method. Numerous studies now show that people who practice mindfulness experience an intriguing range of benefits, both physical and psychological. Chief among these are: reduced stress and inflammation, lower blood pressure, increased lifespan and immune system function, enhanced concentration and focus, greater pain tolerance, improved interpersonal relationships, and many more. Mindfulness helps us know ourselves better too, and has been linked with increases in self-knowledge in at least one study. Given these impressive findings, it is no wonder that mindfulness practice is increasingly being considered a key component to living a fuller, richer, and happier life.  In subsequent articles in this series, I will provide a brief history of mindfulness, a deeper exploration of its effects on our minds and bodies, and detailed mindfulness practice instructions that anyone can try.