Growth is living. We all evolve from our life experiences but how do we turn those experiences into positive change? How do we avoid the anxiety that living inevitably creates? How do we focus on the good, learn from the bad, and move forward productively? IF what George Lucas says is true – “Always remember; your focus is your reality”, how do we create a better reality for the future?
In his book “The Light in the Heart”, Roy T. Bennet offers this advice: “Focus on your strengths, not your weaknesses. Focus on your character, not your reputation. Focus on your blessings, not your misfortunes.” Great advice but exactly how do we do that?
Socrates believed “The secret of change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new.” Mindfulness is defined as the state of active, open attention on the present, maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, sensations, and environment in the absolute present. Many believe it to be the first step towards what Socrates termed “building the new”.
A recent study conducted by Georgetown University as a clinical trial for the National Institutes of Health involved eighty-nine patients and yielded some interesting results on how what is our focus can determine what our future becomes. It also afforded insights into better living of the present. Testing and scientifically proving the reported benefits of mindfulness meditation, including longer attention span, pain management, support overcoming addiction, and lowered blood pressure, has been a challenge, even though people have been practicing the technique for thousands of years.
“Many prior tests of meditation-based therapies have compared a meditation group to an untreated control group. Because participants in such studies are not ‘blinded’—they know if they are getting treatment or not—they are likely to be influenced by the placebo effect and other forms of expectancy bias,” a press release regarding this clinical trial stated. It was believed that the way the study was designed eliminated any participant bias toward a particular treatment being tested.
Currently, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness diagnosed in the United States, and affect 40 million adults, or 18 percent of the country’s population. A person who suffers from anxiety will often focus on future prospects and become overwhelmed with fear that everything will turn out badly. These feelings can restrict a person’s ability to work, maintain relationships, or leave the house. The condition also may come with side effects that resemble health disorders, such as sweating, shaking, increased heart rate, bowel issues, and hyperventilation. “Mindfulness meditation training is a relatively inexpensive and low-stigma treatment approach, and these findings strengthen the case that it can improve resilience to stress,” said lead author Elizabeth A. Hoge, MD.
A 2013 article in Psychology Today offered six quick mindfulness exercises anyone can do. First, take two mindful bites. Instead of attempting to do mindful eating all the time, try mindful eating for the first two bites of any meal or snack. For the first two bites of any meal or snack you eat, pay attention to the sensory experiences – the texture, taste, smell, and appearance of the food, and the sounds when you bite into your food. Pay attention to your sensory experience in an experiential rather than evaluative way and do not concentrate on the actual flavor.
Secondly, pay attention to what one breath feels like. After all, breathing is one of the most essential parts of our day. Feel the sensations of one breath flowing into and out from your body. Notice the sensations in your nostrils, your shoulders, your rib cage, your belly etc. Next, take a mindful moment to give your brain a break instead of checking your email. Look out a window and notice the grass or leaves. Check out your environment rather than that inbox full of emails.
The fourth exercise is to be mindful of the air around you, the air touching your skin. Pay attention to the feeling of air on your skin for 10-60 seconds. This is best done when wearing short sleeves or with some skin exposed but if you are wearing long sleeve, roll them up just above the wrists. When you do this, you are experiencing the air in an experiential processing mode as opposed to evaluative “judging” mode, which is our usual default. Remember, this mindfulness exercise is about experiencing, not judging.
Next, look at your body from top to toe, noticing any sensations of discomfort or tension. Attempt to soften any sensations of discomfort. Next, scan your body for any sensations of comfort or ease. Focus on the sensations of comfort and ease. Don’t spend a great deal of time on this but do recognize both the negative and the positive.
Lastly, consider something you do every day, some action that you do each and every single day. Perhaps it is opening a newspaper or brushing your hair. Consider that action and focus on it. Maybe it will be that first sip of coffee in the morning. Whatever it is, focus on it mindfully and be in that moment. When you are doing that, you aren’t worrying about that busy schedule that will hit you as you walk out the door. By turning your focus to the delightful smell of your cup and anticipating that taste of coffee or by concentrating on how the bristles of your brush are massaging your scalp as you brush your hair, your body will relax and your anxiety level will drop.
According to researchers at the Mayo Clinic, Mindfulness is the act of being intensely aware of what you’re sensing and feeling at every moment — without interpretation or judgment. Spending too much time planning, problem-solving, daydreaming, or thinking negative or random thoughts can be draining. It can also make you more likely to experience stress, anxiety and symptoms of depression. Practicing mindfulness exercises, on the other hand, can help you direct your attention away from this kind of thinking and engage with the world around you. More importantly, you will turn your focus on yourself in a positive non-narcissistic manner, reconnecting with your essence and nurturing yourself.