The Importance of Mindfulness
Michael Mongno, Ph.D.
Simply put, mindfulness is the practice of calmly, patiently noticing what is happening in the present moment—singularly attending to the here and now. What limits our being in the present are the cursory thoughts that can become a constant backdrop, interfering with our ability to engage with anything.
Our minds are prone to distraction and diversion, especially if something in the present moment makes us uncomfortable. When we want something we’re not getting, or when we want to avoid something unpleasant, we create a narrative—a rational story we tell ourselves—that permits us to move out of the present and feel more comfortable.
Usually, however, that narrative actually undermines our peace of mind, because it doesn’t allow new information or insights that might make our life easier. So we don’t actually feel better, just continually lost in thought, psychically drained, or even more emotionally triggered.
So how can we control those errant thoughts? That’s where mindfulness comes to the rescue.
Mindfulness dates back 2,500 years. It’s rooted in Buddhism, as a way to alleviate suffering. It is an antidote to being swept up in thoughts and feelings, as it forces the mind to focus on only one thing—what’s happening now, in the present, not the past or future.
Most suffering comes from constantly thinking about how we want reality to be different than it is, from evaluating or judging our current situation versus what we want (or think we want). And since reality is always changing, we’re constantly chasing after something that, even when we find it, can only exist temporarily—especially if we don’t stop long enough to really take it in and be nourished by it.
Although it’s hard to control the mind, which is why we meditate, we do have more control over our thoughts than we realize. For the most part, our minds are our own, and it’s up to us to create our thoughts as we see fit. For instance, we can create productive thoughts that offer fulfillment, joy, and peace, or create negative or fearful thoughts (typically focused on anxiety about the future), which cause us suffering in some way.
Clearing the Mind
Mindfulness meditation is a great tool for clearing, centering, and stabilizing the mind. In the sitting aspect of this practice, the breath is often used as a means of focus. The moment-by-moment experience of breathing, with all its nuances, usually escapes our attention. Noticing our breathing means feeling the sensation of the breath passing right inside the nostrils, the flow through the sinuses, the gentle filling of the lungs and rising of the chest, the pausing for a moment and then the easy letting go, following the flow of the breath outward to pause and begin again.
Unfortunately, it’s easy to drift from mindfulness to “more or less mindfulness”: the awareness of a parallel stream of thought happening right outside our range of awareness. When that happens, our mind is pulled in two directions and also down into the emotions that accompany most thinking. (The mind tends to go where there’s the most emotional weight.)
This creates an inner tension, a mental loop that must be constantly interrupted to bring our mind back to focus on the present moment. We do this by remembering our intention and redirecting our attention to the breath with a simple internal phrase, like Thinking. If we find ourselves continually lost in thought, the phrase might be more direct, like That can wait for later or Now that’s an interesting thought.
Another important use of mindfulness is in our everyday living. When we slow down to truly notice, moment to moment, our being and doing, it’s as though time slows down. We notice where we are, what’s around us, and how we’re moving through the world. We might even notice how we’re breathing or what’s going on in our minds.
Most accidents happen from doing something mindlessly because we get ahead of ourselves and lose our present-moment awareness. We lose our ground, our balance, our hold on the knife, our footing on the last step of the stool. We lose control of how we’re driving or the words we’re using. Simply put, we lose our focus on what we’re actually doing. And if we’re not here and now, it’s as though we’re somewhere else (there and then), which is really nowhere at all.
Ironically, it’s hard to feel true fulfillment or joy unless you’re totally present to take in what you’re doing, to let it register and nourish you or bring you pleasure. When your intention is to be mindful, you find yourself in the flow of life.
Even at this moment, you might try it as you take your next breath, or bite, or whatever activity is next in your day. There is power in the present. When you’re free of the tyranny of the past and anxiety about the future, you’re truly open to life and what it’s always offering.
Michael Mongno, Ph.D., counsels individuals and couples. His office is located near Lincoln Center, at 100 W. 67th St., Ste. #2NE. For more information, call 212-799-0001 or visit PresentCenteredTherapies.com.