Most people reading this have heard the phrase “stop and smell the roses” but how many times have any of us actually stopped to appreciate a flower? If you have, then you’ve already practiced mindfulness. When you stop your journey to appreciate something immediately in front of you, you are being “in the present.” Instead of worrying about a test you are getting back this afternoon or considering how you’d like to spend your weekend, you focus your attention on what is going on around you right now. Spring is the perfect season for exploring this aspect of mindfulness. It seems everywhere you look there are signs of life and renewal, all inviting you to stop and appreciate the beauty surrounding you. But being in the present isn’t just about flowers and nature. You can also take a moment to savor that bagel you had for breakfast, feel your feet as you walk, or even relish the graphics in Titanfall.
One way to practice being in the moment is through mindful breathing. Set aside a few minutes and sit in a quiet place. Allow yourself to settle into wherever you have chosen, then direct the spotlight of your attention on your breath. Try to feel the air as it enters and exits your body. Be curious about your whole body as you inhale and exhale – the rise and fall of your chest, the feel of the air in your nose and throat, the sounds of your breath. Inevitably, your attention will wander from your breath to other thoughts or feelings. When this happens, gently acknowledge that your mind has wandered and refocus on your breathing. This refocusing process is at the heart of this meditation. As you become skilled at refocusing your attention away from your thoughts and back on your breath, you may find that you are better able to refocus your attention away from your worries, fears, regret, or pain.
It is not uncommon to feel frustrated when you start the practice of mindful breathing. You may sit and try to focus on your physical experience of breathing, only to find that you can’t seem to stop thinking about an upcoming final. This is perfectly fine. In fact, the second important aspect of mindfulness is being nonjudgmental. As those worries about your test force their way into your attention, do not judge yourself for not being able to control your thoughts. The goal is not to control your thinking. Instead, the focus is on choosing how we respond to those thoughts and feelings that unconsciously, and without our control, pop into our head. We often negatively judge ourselves for the thoughts or feelings that we have, and do everything we can to escape or avoid the negative feelings. A mindful approach is to accept that we cannot control what comes into our mind, but we can control how we respond to those thoughts or feelings.
The exercise of mindful breathing helps us work the mental muscles that allows us to be more directive in choosing where to focus our attention. As we go through our daily lives, and experience the ups and downs that comes with being a human being, mindfulness helps us to become more aware of what we are internally experiencing, accept what we find, and choose how we relate to the world around and within us. For more information about mindfulness, you are welcome to attend the mindfulness workshops being held at the Counseling Center at 6pm every Wednesday evening (through 5/14). The counseling center web page also has links to additional readings, blogs, and apps that can help you get started in your own journey.