Sitting on the floor in a circle with ten other people, each of us with a raisin in our mouths, and for the next five minutes we are to do nothing but focus on the raisin, its feel, texture, size, shape. We can roll it on our tongue, nibble it between our teeth, move it from front to back, do anything but chew it up and swallow it. So what's going on here, raisin engineers testing a new product?
No, actually it's a mindfulness workshop and our assignment is to do nothing but focus on this raisin and experience it in all its nuances, pushing all other thoughts (including how silly we look and feel) from our minds.
So what exactly is mindfulness and how does it work against anxiety. Mindfulness is simply the practice of focusing on what's going on right now, shutting out all thoughts of past or future or anything else that might be happening in the present outside of ourselves. It's "being in the moment" as it's so popularly put in today's therapy or self-help practices. Just go online and look at all the books, CDs, blogs, workshops that are available and you'll see what I mean. And it takes practice as it's the nature of the mind to jump around from one thought to another. It's remembering to remember.
Here's how it's an antidote to anxiety. Remember that whereas fear is the presence of an immediate threat in the environment, anxiety is future-based, the imagination of some threat without any evidence or likelihood of its existence. It's the WhatIfMonster (see an earlier post on The Attack of the WhatIfMonster).
Mindfulness is staying in the present, this very minute, dealing with what's going on right now and breaking things down into small, do-able parts. It's how we got through our tours in Vietnam and why the theme of AA is "One day at a time." Otherwise, the future can become overwhelming, terrifying and hopeless.
Here's an example: A couple of months ago my wife and I were rollerblading along one of the paved bike trails around Tucson when a cyclist coming toward us said there was a five foot rattlesnake on the trail about a mile ahead. So we had to decide, do we turn around or keep going? Well, we decided to keep going, thinking we'll keep our eyes open (a five foot snake should be pretty visible) and if it's still there then we'll turn around or wait for it to move on--I sure won't try to jump over it; I'm not 18 anymore. As it turned out, we never saw the snake as it was gone and we went on, still on the lookout. This is being in the moment, otherwise the WhatIfMonster would have gotten over on us.
Mindfulness also makes us less stressed and more efficient. We hear about how it's important to multi-task, people priding themselves on their multi-tasking ability. The reality is it's less efficient as part of our mind is on the next task rather than totally on the immediate one at hand. Sometimes we have no choice and have to deal with several things at once but whenever possible it's best to stay totally focused on one task at a time. And doing so, our stress and anxiety level is going to lower.
Multi-tasking is also one of the reasons we misplace things such as our car keys or sunglasses, because our thoughts are some place else when we set them down. And then we find them the next day in the garage and wonder how they got there.
So here's how mindfulness made time expand and extended my vacation: We look forward to vacation but then when it finally arrives we can find ourselves start projecting ahead to it ending. Then when it does it seems to have passed so quickly. Right? By focusing on and being aware of what's happening right now--I'm on a boogie board in the California surf with my granddaughters waiting to catch the next wave, showing them how to read and catch a wave, the warm sun on my back, salt on my skin, the smell of the ocean, the roar of crashing waves, the rush of riding a wave into the beach. And I can't think of anything I'd rather be doing right now--the moments that make up time become fuller, more intense and richer. Multiply these mindful moments over the course of the vacation and the time will seem to have passed more slowly and didn't just fly by, even though it was still exactly the same number of hours and days. But don't take my word for it, try it for yourself and you'll see what I mean. Now if I can just remember where I put my sunglasses.
Next Time: MEDITATION
Caveat--You might not want to practice mindfulness while having a root canal.