Mindfulness: The Many Benefits of Living in the Moment

Ben Thompson, Director of Psychological Counseling Services, Contributing Writer

There’s been a great deal of talk about mindfulness in recent years, much of it focused on how it can improve our physical and mental health and contribute to a general sense of well-being.  Studies have shown, for example, that the regular practice of mindfulness can reduce stress, lower blood pressure, improve sleep, and help to alleviate chronic pain.  Such a practice can also be an important element in the treatment of anxiety, depression, drug addiction, and eating disorders.

But what, exactly, is mindfulness and how can it be incorporated into one’s life?

Mindfulness is the intentional, accepting and non-judgmental focus of one’s attention on the emotions, thoughts, and sensations occurring in the present moment.  Inspired by teachings from the Far East, particularly Buddhism, the practice of mindfulness allows one to develop an observing mind that notices thoughts, feelings, and behaviors without becoming too attached to them. At the same time, one learns to gently but firmly redirect attention to the present moment (often to one’s breath)—again and again and again.  With regular practice, one is less likely to get swept up in life’s highs and lows, knowing that life is cyclical in nature and that we can never see the whole picture at any one moment. Rather than worrying about what has happened or what might happen, one learns to respond skillfully to whatever is happening right now.

According to Michael Baime, M.D., director of the Penn Program for Mindfulness at the University of Pennsylvania Health System, “When we are not paying attention to the present moment, we are literally absent from our own life.”  He suggests that we put aside a few minutes each day to do nothing but pay attention to how we are, perhaps noticing what is happening in our head and heart, the sensations in our body, the taste and texture of the food we are eating, or the feel of our feet touching the ground as we walk from one place to another.

The “Mindfulness Movement” has now entered the mainstream thanks to people like Jon Kabat-Zinn, the creator of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center.  His book, Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness, has been a worldwide best-seller.  Mindfulness programs can now be found in businesses, prisons, health care settings, and schools around the world.  Middlesex School, in Concord, Massachusetts, recently implemented a school-wide mindfulness program that includes a nine-week course for all freshmen, and three other courses open to both students and faculty. Similar programs are springing up in other schools throughout the country and two upcoming Independent School Health Association (ISHA) conferences will be addressing the issue of “putting mindfulness to work in independent schools.”

For those of you who are interested in exploring mindfulness meditation, consider setting aside 15 minutes and following the instructions below:

  1. Find a quiet and comfortable place. Sit in a chair or on the floor with your head, neck and back straight but not stiff.
  2. Try to bring your attention to the present moment.
  3. Become aware of your breathing, focusing on the sensation of air moving in and out of your body as you breathe. Feel your belly rise and fall, and notice the air as it enters your nostrils and leaves your mouth. Imagine “riding the waves” of your breath.
  4. Watch your thoughts as they come and go. When your mind wanders, just notice what is happening, without judgment, and bring your attention back to your breathing. This will happen often—sometimes in a seemingly unending manner—but try to understand that it’s all part of the process.
  5. As the time comes to a close, sit for a minute or two, becoming aware of where you are. Get up gradually and carry on with your day.

Having taken a mindfulness-based stress management course several years ago, I can attest to the fact that regular mindfulness practice leads to many positive physical and emotional benefits and can greatly improve one’s overall sense of happiness and well-being.  Give it a try!