In the late 1800s, a scholar named Thomas William Rhys Davids translated the Buddhist concept of satias “mindfulness”. A more direct translation of sati is said to be “memory of the present moment”; nevertheless, the concept of mindfulness was born.
In the 1970s, John Kabat-Zinn saw an opportunity to separate meditation from its religious connotations, and defined mindfulness as “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, without judgement.” He went on to found the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, and developed the MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) program.
mindfulness, at its core, is truly just paying attention to the present moment; not allowing yourself to get caught up in judging the past or planning for the future.
There is a time and a place for reviewing past mistakes and looking ahead, but studies show the more we can stay present in our daily lives the happier we are.
Sounds great, but how do we get there? When you try to remain fully present in this moment, fully engaged in what is going on around you, you realize how easy it sounds and how difficult it really is. Here are some tools to help you find this state of present moment awareness.
Focus on your breath
Be aware of your breath as it moves in and out. As you notice your mind wandering, just bring it back to the breath, without judgement. Notice when you’re thinking, maybe even saying to yourself “thought”, and bring your attention back to the breath. This is typically done while sitting, either on a cushion on the floor or even in a chair. It’s also an easy way to bring yourself back into the present at any time during your day – just bring your awareness back to your breath.
Notice the world around you
Close your eyes and pay attention to the sounds, smells, the movement of life. So often we move through our days without engaging. This simple practice is especially effective if you are outside; the beauty of nature – and the sounds of civilization – have a way of pulling you back to the present moment.
Scan your body
Learn to slowly scan your body, focusing your awareness on each area and noticing any sensations that may arise, then moving along to the next area. I typically start with the toes on one foot, paying attention to each separate toe, then moving up to the foot, then the ankle, then the lower leg, knee, front and back of the thigh, then back down to the other foot and working your way up. Take your time, hurrying is the antithesis of mindfulness. I usually take at least 5-10 minutes for a quick body scan, and up to 30 minutes if I have the time. I recommend laying down for this practice; pick a time and a place where you’re not likely to fall asleep, such as your living room floor in the morning. Again, this is also something you can do at any time – standing in a long line at the bank? Do a quick body scan to keep yourself present.
Use yoga as a way to focus your awareness in your body and in the present moment. This is a particularly good practice for people who have difficulty sitting still for periods of time; the movement in a yoga practice can help keep the mind engaged. I recommend finding a class if you don’t already have a personal practice; a good teacher ensures that you are in correct alignment in the poses and can help you find adaptations as needed. Yoga can also prepare you for a more traditional meditation; by engaging the body in a movement practice, you “get your wiggles out” and are more able to sit quietly in contemplation for a period of time.
regardless of which practice you choose, the key is consistency.
Choosing to be more mindful, to be more present in your life, takes practice. A daily commitment is ideal, even if it’s short. If you’re just beginning, you could start with 5 minutes of breathwork every morning, and gradually work up to longer sessions. Check in throughout your day, find your breath, notice what’s happening around you, and ground yourself in the present moment. Let go of the past and the future. The more you make this shift, the easier it will become, and soon you’ll find yourself intentionally planning for the future and reviewing the past instead of being swept away by it.