Almost every presentation I give on the topic of mindfulness begins with this question:
Why do we need mindfulness?
It’s an important question. Just because we’re hearing about something EVERYWHERE doesn’t mean we should jump on the bandwagon!
I think when it comes to mindfulness, however, there are three very compelling reasons we NEED mindfulness.
1. We’re REALLY distracted.
Quick — answer these three questions:
- What are you doing right now?
- What are you thinking about right now?
- How are you feeling right now?
Now check your answers. Were your answers to numbers 1 and 2 the same?
If they weren’t — if your mind was somewhere else, thinking about something completely different than what you are doing right now, you’re not alone.
The research tells us we spend almost HALF of our time with a wandering mind, with our thoughts drifting away from our current task.
That means we are not present for half of every day! We are literally missing out on half of our life.
And the consequences of mind-wandering are not just careless mistakes and misplaced objects and lost productivity. This distraction impacts our happiness, our thriving.
Look at your answer to that third question. How are you feeling? Researchers tell us that we are happiest when what we are doing is what we are thinking about. In fact, Matthew Killingworth and Daniel Gilbert titled their famous study about our distracted minds “A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind.” You are better off, according to the data, if you do the dishes and think about doing the dishes, than if you do the dishes and think about being in Mexico. Even in January.
This research confirms what many religious and philosophical traditions have claimed for millennia: we experience our greatest joy when we are present and attentive. Happiness is HERE. Happiness is NOW.
The essence of mindfulness is present-moment awareness, which sounds really easy! But research (and, I would bet, your personal experience) reveals that it’s actually quite challenging. There is so much in our external environment to pull us away from the present moment — phones, emails, Netflix, squirrels! — and there are so many thoughts in our internal world that we spend much of our day on the train of thought without even realizing we ever boarded it.
With mindfulness, we practice returning to the present. Again and again and again. Because being present, like most other things in life, is a practice. We have to work at it, or we will continue to fall into our well-worn patterns of distraction and worry.
Bruce Lee once said,
“Under duress, we do not rise to our expectations. We fall to our level of training.”
With mindfulness, we train in attention and presence and kindness. We train in happiness.
2. We’re REALLY stressed out.
We’re so stressed out these days we’re singing about it on the radio.
The 2015 “Stress in America” survey conducted by the American Psychological Association says that our stress levels are increasing each year, with about a fourth of Americans reporting “extreme stress,” and a third saying that their stress has increased from the previous year. About four in five adults say they have at least one physical symptom of stress.
The report also found that mental health-related symptoms of stress are on the rise for Americans, with increasing self reports of depression, anxiety, anger, irritability, and sadness due to stress. We’re also sleeping less, eating poorly, snapping at others, and having trouble concentrating. And women, sorry to say, are reporting more stress than men.
We have a problem….
… and mindfulness can help.
The form of mindfulness that’s being promoted by doctors and therapists and educators and politicians and left-brain bloggers today is based primarily on mindfulness-based stress reduction, pioneered by Jon Kabat-Zinn and the University of Massachusetts Medical Center back in the late 1970s.
As you can probably guess from the name, the main focus of the program is reducing our stress. Over 30 years of research now solidly supports the claim that practicing mindfulness can significantly lower our levels of stress, depression, and anxiety. Brain imaging studies indicate that continued mindfulness practice can alter the way distressing emotions are processed in the brain. Additional studies have indicated that mindfulness meditation can lower blood pressure, strengthen the body’s immune system, and improve the quality of sleep, all of which impact, or are impacted by, our levels of stress.
Once again, the research supports the age-old wisdom: taking a deep breath is really good for you.
3. We’re not very good at managing our stress.
About 20% of Americans say they never engage in stress-management practices, and another 50% say they do them only a few times a month. And while those who DO engage in these practices often turn to healthy strategies like exercising or connecting with loved ones, many use potentially damaging coping mechanisms like shopping, eating, or excessive TV and Internet use.
I think part of the problem is that we’ve never really been taught how to work with our body’s stress response, in part because our so-called “fight or flight” response evolved over millennia to prepare us for threats that really don’t exist in the modern world. (When was the last time you were chased by a tiger?)
Our natural stress response is meant to be activated very infrequently, and only for short durations. It’s like the smoke detector in your home — you want it to be in top shape, and you want it to go off ONLY WHEN THERE’S AN ACTUAL FIRE. If it went off every time you made dinner or every time the heat kicked on, you’d be going crazy. You’d be continually on edge, wondering when the alarm would sound again.
But isn’t that kind of how we’re living today? On edge, jittery, constantly alert for the next alarm? When we experience every day as a crisis, we continually activate the body’s stress response, ultimately to the point that we don’t even realize how physically stressed and agitated we are, until we make some time for quiet and stillness (which we rarely ever do!)
With mindfulness, we learn physical exercises for soothing the body’s stress response — deep breaths, gentle movements, easeful postures — and cognitive strategies for meeting the demands of our lives. We can work with the body’s systems and responses, instead of being at their mercy.
Mindfulness cannot eliminate the stressors from our lives (for nothing can); what mindfulness does is give us a powerful set of techniques and practices that help us manage those stressors skillfully and creatively.
Are you ready to learn mindfulness practices to manage your stress and distraction?
If you’d like to learn more — about what mindfulness is, how you actually do it, and how it can help you be more calm and focused in your life — then check out my brand-new, FREE email course, Mindfulness 101!
Sign up today, and you’ll get a full week of mindfulness lessons from me delivered right to your inbox.
In Mindfulness 101, you’ll learn:
- how to meditate and access inner calm when you need it most
- how to work with all the chatter from your monkey mind… and not let it get the best of you
- the most common struggles beginning meditators face, and how to work with them
- the most common myths about mindfulness (like “mindfulness is about clearing your mind”), and why these myths are often the reason people don’t try mindfulness!
And did I mention it’s FREE?
If you’re stressed out… distracted… overwhelmed… and thinking that you’re not managing your stress as well as you could, then this FREE introduction to mindfulness is for you!
We’re distracted, we’re stressed out, and we generally don’t manage either one of those problems very well. Mindfulness can be a powerful part of the solution.
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