One thing I know for sure, mindfulness has changed my life. The research on the benefits of mindfulness is abundant, but also in its infancy. For so many of us who practice mindfulness, we do not need scientific proof of its benefits, we live it everyday. Before I write yet another article about the many benefits of living mindfully, let me tell you what mindfulness is not.
Mindfulness Does Not Clear Your Head of Thoughts.
While it might be nice to walk around with no thoughts in our heads all day long, simply breathing the air and just being, most practitioners of mindfulness, even those practicing for many years, will tell you that they still have plenty of thoughts. That is what our minds are meant to do. In fact, recent studies have found that on average, we have between 60,000 to 80,000 thoughts per day. That’s an average of 2,500 – 3,300 thoughts per hour. Studies have also shown that at least half of those thoughts are negative or stressful.
Although mindfulness does not eliminate our thoughts, it can reduce the number of thoughts we have and improve the quality of those thoughts. The magic of mindfulness is that it gives us more control over where we place our attention. Do I want to notice the beautiful trees outside my window? Do I want to listen to my child’s story with my full attention? Or, do I want to get lost in some worrisome thought about the future? As I often say to my students, mindfulness helps put us in the driver’s seat and allows us to develop our own ability to steer our attention where we want it to go, away from our thoughts about events that already happened or might never happen at all, and toward what is happening right in front of us.
Mindfulness Does Not Mean Always Being Present in Each Moment
People often ask me, “How can we always live in the present moment? Don’t we need to plan, analyze and daydream?” The answer is, “Yes, we do.” However, most people do not decide when to think about these things. Instead, our minds usually wander uncontrollably, like a puppy on a walk pulling us in all different directions despite our desire to walk straight ahead. Similarly, the untrained mind will take us in all different directions - back in time over and over again to an unpleasant incident, or into the future into all kinds of worrisome scenarios that we imagine could happen one day.
As we practice mindfulness and develop our “mental muscle” to place our attention where we want it, we can choose when we want to plan or organize or analyze or daydream, and when we want to focus on what is happening right now. Maybe we want to enjoy the beauty around us, instead of spending our walk thinking about how we wish we hadn’t yelled at our children this morning. Or, maybe we want to lay our heads down on the pillow at night and think about how warm and comfortable we are, rather than thinking about all that we have to do tomorrow. Mindfulness training gives us the incredible power to steer our minds in the direction we want it to go and in the direction that is healthy and helpful.
Mindfulness also lightens the weight of all those heavy thoughts and takes away their power. Our minds are powerful and can throw our bodies into a Fight or Flight response, causing the release of stress hormones, increasing our heart rate and causing us to experience all the physical signs of our survival mode. Even though I still have many thoughts that take me away from the present moment, mindfulness training helps me to simply notice those thoughts without giving them any power. I can see my thoughts for what they are - just thoughts. Like a movie playing in my head, I can sit back and watch thoughts go by knowing that they are not real and they are not happening. Or, I can choose to place my attention elsewhere.
Mindfulness Does Not Make Us Happy All the Time
Ask my husband or my children and they will tell you that I am not happy all the time. Like everyone else, I experience the ups and downs of life. They will also tell you that I am much happier than the pre-mindful me, and I am much better at letting things go. Negative thoughts and emotions just don’t’ seem to stick around like they used to. Mindfulness gives me the ability to see my thoughts from a distance and recognize that they are not reality. It allows me to feel my emotions and let them move through me more easily. When I don’t allow those thoughts to fester, and I don’t’ take them so personally, I can more easily let them go or make a choice not to replay them over and over again.
Mindfulness also gives us the incredible ability to pause, to take a moment to stop and notice where our minds are leading us and make a conscious choice not to go down that path. For me, the power to pause comes in handy every day. It helps me pause and respond in a calmer and wiser way to my children, it helps me stay relaxed when someone cuts me off on the road, it helps me pause before reacting to a rude remark so that I can respond in a way that is helpful and not hurtful.
Mindfulness not only teaches us the power to stop and redirect our thoughts, it also helps us reduce the number of negative thoughts we have by creating more positive ones. When we stop to be more present in our day, we find that where we are right now is not so bad, not so stressful, and, in fact, usually quite pleasant.
I am writing right now in my home office, in a comfortable chair with my adorable dog cuddled up by my feet. The sun is shining outside my window. My children are safe at school. And, I can take a moment to simply breathe and be grateful for this moment. Not bad. Enjoying short moments of awareness like this throughout my day, helps me cultivate more positive thoughts and more joyful moments. Those moments make up my days and those days make up my life.