Just about every magazine article on the topic of mindfulness says that it’s about being in the present moment. But if realizing the benefits of mindfulness was simply about reminding ourselves to pay attention to present-moment experience, then everything would be easy. You can almost hear the sceptical reader saying, “Well I already do that, so what’s the point?”
For a start, there’s our deeply embedded habit of our attention being disconnected from present-moment experience into automatic thoughts. Imagine that a baby’s born and the doctor says to the mother, “Congratulations, your baby is healthy in every way; there’s just one thing, for half of every day of his waking life his attention will be unintentionally distracted in thought, away from what’s he’s doing. Although medical science is still exploring why this happens and what we can do about it, it’s nothing to worry about, as most people don’t even notice that this is happening to them.”
When we practise mindfulness, we develop the awareness to notice, and the attention skills to disengage from our wandering mind when it’s not useful. A simple way to bring yourself back to the present when you notice your mind wandering, is to bring your attention to your body and senses. Like the phrase “come to your senses”, your body and senses are always in the present moment.
Another important skill is to clearly observe what’s going on in the moment. It’s the opposite of the phrase, “The lights are on but nobody’s at home”. With mindfulness, we’re calm and alert, settled and balanced, fully conscious and actively connected with our experience. Bringing an objective viewpoint is also about creating a bit of space, or separation, between who we are as the observer and our thoughts and emotions. In reality, the space is already there in the background of our experience and what we notice is the gap between thoughts, sounds and so on. Thoughts are mental content and emotions are feeling-based messages from a more primitive part of the brain that something needs attention. When we have no space or distance, it’s all too easy to get our identity tangled up in our thoughts and emotions. By observing clearly, we can see that thoughts and emotions arise, play out and pass away and they are not who we are.
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