By Jody Ellis-Knapp
Originally published in Body Sense magazine, Spring/Summer 2006.
The American Dream. This phrase draws people to our country by the thousands. The idea that greatness can be achieved, even when starting with nothing, is the touchstone of our Western culture. We live in a society where great value is placed on the external, somewhat elusive notion of “success.”
This can sometimes make life seem like a big competition — a race to the finish line of achievement, with the focus on who has the nicest car, the best career, the most perfect body, and so on. We spend our time seeking that end goal, striving toward the future, always looking for tomorrow, and restlessly just getting through today.
How many of us stop to take a breath in the moment and just enjoy the getting there? It’s so easy to get caught up in our very fast-paced lives, when what we really need to do is slow down for a minute and learn to find peace in the here and now. I know I am guilty of this all the time. I am a fairly avid runner and usually say I only enjoy my runs when they are over. I focus on my time, mileage, and pace, seldom thinking about much more than getting it over with and not really finding value in the sheer movement of my body. In daily life, it seems like I am always seeking to accomplish and complete my endeavors so I can move on to the next thing, constantly keeping one step ahead of myself.
The Buddhist practice of mindfulness is one that is well-known to many people. Simply put, it consists of putting the idea of enjoying the moment into everyday life. By focusing on the small, even trivial facets of our daily activities, we gain more personal satisfaction and don’t lose ourselves to tomorrow. Studies have shown a correlation between enjoying the moment and stress reduction, as well as increased creativity in the workplace and a lower risk of burnout. Simple meditation and relaxation techniques have been shown to decrease symptoms of various health conditions as well, and there are indicators that mindfulness can increase longevity.
While we know there are many positive reasons to focus more on the moment, and the idea sounds like a good one, putting it into practice is another thing entirely. How are we supposed to make time to slow down when all around us people are passing us by? But it doesn’t take any special methods to find one’s mindfulness. There are simple tactics available that will help us learn to concentrate on finding satisfaction in all the little things we do each day. By implementing some of these easy tips, we can find peace and fulfillment in the time spent on seemingly mundane things.
Most of us already know that exercise is invigorating and an absolute requirement for good health. But during exercise, are you really feeling it, or just looking for that end result? Close your eyes for a moment during your workout. Breathe in and out, feeling the expansion of your lungs. Feel the power and pull of your muscles as you lift that weight or do that sit-up. Actually thinking about your body and its function while you are exercising will help you embrace the moment and find satisfaction in the workout itself, not simply seeking to finish it and get on with things. Try taking a completely different road with your exercise regimen. For example, if you run, walk instead. If you go to a Pilates class, switch it out with yoga. If you like intense, advanced yoga classes, go to the beginner’s class on occasion and slow down. Slowing down and not rushing to complete things is a key to finding yourself in the moment and enjoying it.
Next to slowing down, making ourselves be still on occasion is probably one of the more difficult tasks we can accomplish. I always feel guilty if I sit down for too long, and when I do sit for a minute, my mind can’t seem to stop. I keep thinking about all the things I should be doing. But in finding our way toward living in the moment, we have to learn stillness. Sit down on the couch or lie on the bed. No television, no radio, no phone, no Blackberry, no computer. Tune out the forces of the outside world and tune in to yourself for a minute. Close your eyes and breathe calmly. Try to think only of the feeling of your closed eyes and your breathing. Block out what you need to do later, and focus on the sensations of sinking into the couch — the relaxation of your muscles and the silence around you. Try to let it envelope you. Start small, five minutes a day. Work yourself up to 20- or 30-minute increments. Yes, you have time for it. In giving ourselves those moments of stillness, we not only become more in tune with our bodies and minds, we become more open to existing in the here and now.
Focus and Feel
Often, we are so preoccupied with the future, we not only don’t “feel” what we are doing, we don’t even remember it. Remember what you had for dinner last night? What you wore to work three days ago? What the weather was like last week? Sure, these are all little, unimportant things. But noticing those little things and focusing more on them brings us back into the present, rather than putting one’s focus on just seeking completion of our goals.
Take time to feel the little things. Enjoy the sensation of the warm water running over your hands when you wash them, the scent of clean laundry as you take it from the dryer, the warmth of the sun as you step out into your day. Make sure you experience everything you do, from your daily shower to your evening meal. Just taking the time to actually focus on what you are doing, rather than the end result, will give you satisfaction and enjoyment and will reflect itself in other areas of your life. You will see yourself begin to focus and feel not just at home, but at work too.
It’s been called “the best medicine,” and its benefits cannot be denied. Recent research from Loma Linda University in California indicates that laughter lowers blood pressure and reduces stress levels, as well as increases muscle flexion and bolsters the immune system. Finding time to laugh is imperative when it comes to mindfulness. Laughing heightens our awareness of being alive, because we physically cannot resist the sensation and enjoyment laughter brings. The next time you feel the urge to chuckle, let it roll into a big belly laugh. Your eyes will squint, your mouth will stretch, and every muscle will seize in joy. You will feel your blood vessels expand and your face flush. Let yourself experience it and revel in it. Don’t try to stifle it or hide it. Laugh loud, long, and often. Start looking for reasons to laugh, looking for all those little moments in the day that are worth a touch of humor. It’s good for your health and will make you so aware of everything around you, you will not be able to prevent yourself from being completely in tune with the present.
If we spend all our time worrying about what we need to accomplish tomorrow, and stress over what we did wrong in the past, we don’t give ourselves time for today. As difficult as it may seem to break from the constrictions placed on us by societal expectations and our own drive to succeed, learning to live in the moment will actually bring more satisfaction and the potential for greater long-term success. Mindfulness will help you learn to love what is right about your life, rather than obsessing over how things should be better. So stop for a minute, and look around. Enjoy today. Live in it. Savor it. Tomorrow will come with or without our reaching for it, and the years will go by faster than we know.
I went for a run the other day. Halfway through, I turned the timer off on my watch. I closed my eyes and felt the wind in my hair, the breeze against my legs, and the power of my body as it worked its way up a hill. When I started to go back down the hill, I left my careful pace behind and let myself fly. I let go of my concerns over distance or improving my time. Running full force down that hill, I embraced the here and now, fully in it, fully alive. Living life — isn’t that what it is intended for?
Jody Ellis-Knapp is an Alaska-based freelance writer. She’s also written for Consciousness, Common Swords ezine, Adoption Today, and Balance magazine.