Do you ever notice that your mind is on autopilot and that your thoughts have a tendency to run wherever they want even if you don’t want them to? Most of us human beings spend a significant amount of time either focusing on events from the past or worrying about the future which is one reason why so many of us suffer from symptoms of anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions. We find ourselves living in our automatic thoughts which are often misidentified to us as reality. This can take the form of having a negative view of self and the world even if this view is not accurate and we often miss out on the true reality of what is actually happening in the here and now because today is the future event we have always been focusing on.
So how do we manage these automatic thoughts and emotions so that we are able to heal, transform, and find peacefulness within ourselves? The answer is simple however it is one of the most difficult skills we can develop: mindfulness. According to John Kabat-Zinn, the author of Wherever You Go There You Are (1994), mindfulness is being able to “pay attention on purpose and with intention to the present moment without any judgment.” In other words, mindfulness equates to having awareness of our thoughts, feelings, and senses without having an agenda. Having awareness is to know as well as to not know and requires us to work with things as they are instead of trying to change or fix them.
One exercise that promotes this awareness is conducting a body scan: take a moment to notice what feelings and sensations you are currently experiencing starting in your toes, calves, knees, thighs, hips, abdomen, chest, shoulders, neck, cheeks, eyes, and scalp. Then notice what types of thoughts you are having as you try to focus on your body and allow yourself to just sit there for a few seconds and focus on your breathing. If any judgmental thoughts or worries come into your mind, allow yourself to let them go and bring your attention back to your body.
Another exercise that promotes mindfulness involves the simple act of eating an apple. Using all five of your senses, notice what the apple looks like (color, shape, size, etc.); how does it feel against your fingers as well as when you take a bite and chew it? Does it smell like anything? What sound does it make when you bite into it? What does it taste like? This sounds easy however the challenge comes in when you notice what other thoughts pop into your mind and being able to let go of them and just be in the moment.
Once these skills are developed, we can apply them to situations and events that cause us to feel stressed, depressed, or anxious so that we feel more at peace and satisfied. The more we are able to intentionally check in with ourselves without having expectations or judgments, the better our ability will be to manage the balancing act between our thoughts and feelings. In short, the goal of mindfulness is to shift our focus from doing to being; after all we are called human beings for a reason.