Become mindful of the moment

by Deborah Metzger

The Courier News and Home News Tribune, October 5th, 2010

The practice of mindfulness can improve physical, emotional and mental health. Though this claim isn’t brand new, it is one that Americans should listen to.

Research supports the claims that mindfulness helps with such challenges as anxiety disorders, depression, relationship issues, sleep problems, eating disorders and stress management. And the benefits don’t stop there: recent research shows that meditation and mindfulness actually change our brains, behaviors, emotions — even our immune systems.

So, the practice of mindfulness and its observed benefits are not new. What is new, however, is that we now have the technology to measure physiological effects of mindfulness on the brain and physical changes.

Mindfulness is the practice of being more fully aware of the present moment, without judgment, rather than dwelling in the past or projecting into the future.

The idea of mindfulness is ancient, with origins in Eastern philosophy and Buddhism. However, it is important to note that there are no necessary religious components — anyone with any beliefs can enjoy the benefits of mindfulness.

Mindfulness and meditation go hand-in-hand. However, you don’t have to be sitting on a cushion with your legs crossed and eyes closed to practice mindfulness. Mindfulness means focusing on the present moment and quieting your inner dialogue.

Right now, what are you thinking about? Maybe all the chores to do at home, a stressful situation at work, financial concerns, what you want for dinner? What would happen if I asked you to focus on your breath for a moment?

Just bring all of your attention to the breath going in and out. You will be present in this very moment and all those other stresses fall away.

Don’t be mistaken — it is not about ignoring problems, pushing aside worries or keeping yourself from feeling things or taking action. Mindfulness helps you keep things in perspective and solve problems without being sucked into negative behavior patterns that hurt your health.

Here’s a great example: You have family coming over for dinner tonight and your toddler just accidentally knocked over the cake you made for dessert. It is everywhere and you now have no dessert to serve.

Most people would probably freak out — yell at their child, hastily clean it up, perhaps missing spots or forgetting to do other things on their list and fret about what they will now do for dessert.

Your blood pressure rises, you get frazzled and your mind is scattered, preventing you from being able to focus and do anything else that needs to be done before your guests arrive.

All that creates is an upset child, an upset and stressed-out adult, and no solution to the missing dessert.

However, after allowing yourself to feel the initial “Oh no!” reaction, if you take a deep breath and focus on the situation, you might be able to see that what’s done is done, and freaking out about it won’t fix it.

You could calmly figure out a solution — whatever that solution might be. Your blood pressure won’t rise (or rise only slightly, then return to equilibrium), you will be able to continue to prepare for your guests, and the child won’t be as upset as he or she would have been had you yelled at him or her.

That pause for mindfulness allows you to manage a situation like this in a more productive way. We each have wisdom inside, and we can learn to trust that we can figure out how to respond to our life stresses in the most skillful ways. We can avoid the “automatic pilot” reaction when our buttons get pushed.

Sure, I make it sound easy enough, but just try it! So many of us are thinking about things that happened today, yesterday or last week, or even thinking of the groceries we need to pick up, the errands that need to be run, the things we need to do over the weekend.

We get so wrapped up in these thought patterns that we give ourselves very little time to be in the moment. However, being in the present moment is important — not only to our minds, but also to our health.

Stress stats

The United States Centers for Disease Control claims that 85 percent to 90 percent of all illness and disease is caused by stress. According to the American Institute of Stress, an estimated 75 percent to 90 percent of all visits to primary care physicians are for stress-related conditions.

Those are outrageous statistics that show what a stressed-out bunch we are and what that is doing to our bodies. The results are seen in the lives that are being changed.

Mindfulness isn’t a “magic bullet” — a solution to every single problem that every single person has, but it’s a tool that we can use to step in the right direction, and is a practice that is available to everyone.

Reading about mindfulness once won’t give us the deep understanding of the powerful tool it is, allowing us to use it in real life situations. Once we learn about mindfulness, we need to use it, practice it.

Deborah Metzger is the founder of Princeton Center for Yoga & Health