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The Case For Mindfulness In All Our Busy Lives

Steven Topper LCPC

Over the past few years, we’ve seen a boom in the proliferation of mindfulness. Commodified to apps, businesses have attempted to harness the power of mindfulness to increase productivity. Within that proliferation has been a watering down of the tenets of mindfulness- which is frequently the case when ideas move into the mainstream. In an effort to reach more people, the ideas themselves become homogenized, more easily digestible. And while Headspace and Calm have helped many people find a bit more peace in their hectic worlds, there may be something deeper and richer that this practice could offer us. 

How often have you gotten to a destination- this could be a vacation, an event you’ve been planning for, a work project finally come to fruition, a 5k race- and only barely been able to experience it, in spite of all the time and energy preparing for it? This happens to so many of us, and often we find that instead of being in the experience, we are in our minds. We may go through workdays as though they’re pages in a book that we’ve read, but didn’t actually grasp and have to reread in order to comprehend. Our minds are somewhere else, and if we look closely, we may find that they continue to push us into the future.

The prefrontal cortex is one of the main brain structures that separates us from our primate cousins. In that part of our brain, we are able to do something unique and incredibly useful: predict and remember. We can plan for things that are happening six months from now or two weeks from now. This gives us a distinct advantage in the animal kingdom, yet today we may be pigeonholed by this process of prediction. As our world has become safer (no lions and tigers and bears to eat us as often), our brains continue to predict threats. After all, that’s what brains are designed to do! This can lead so many of us to planning for what’s next while life unfolds without our totally noticing it. Suddenly the threats become: What if this work presentation flops, what if this vacation doesn’t go according to plan, what if it rains on race day? This is where the practice of mindfulness comes in.

Mindfulness is paying attention, on purpose, to the numerous events that are unfolding right now. A bing on your phone, your eyes scanning these words, a slight sense of boredom or interest or uncertainty. Plans for the next hour, the next day. All of these occur in the here and now, which is the only place our bodies are capable of inhabiting. For many of us, meditation can allow us to come into the present moment more fully. Through breathing exercises, guided meditation, and mindful actions, we can begin noticing the constant stream of thinking our minds give us, without climbing into the stream and floating wherever our minds go. We can notice that while our minds are busy planning and predicting, our face feels a slight warm breeze of the summer air, and our hands experience the soft texture of our clothes, our blankets. We may hear birds singing, and the breeze shifting through the wind. We may taste the rich warmth of coffee, or feel the cool, slightly soft grass underneath our feet.

Like any skill, mindfulness takes a lot of time for practice. Our worlds are set up to move fast, to give us problems to solve, and to move onto the next problem. So when we practice slowing down, noticing the components of our experience in their entirety (and not just our steady stream of thinking), we are able to engage in our lives more richly and fully. We get to fully experience those big events, living them instead of planning for the next part of them to go just right. If you took time each morning to do a breathing exercise, five minutes, how might this impact the rest of your day? Common meditation exercises are body scans and paced breathing (triangle breathing is where we inhale for a certain number of seconds, hold our breath for a number of seconds, and exhale for a number of seconds, then begin again from the bottom). These can help us become more attuned to our experiences in the here and now. And we may begin to notice things we hadn’t before. 

Is it possible that life, in its infinite variability, could be about much more than racing against the clock to complete that next task? That there may be something richer for us than the next paycheck, the destination, the next goal or promotion or car or meal or the new shoes we’ve been looking at? Our minds tell us we will be complete when we acquire them, but then tomorrow there is something else out on the horizon. Is it possible that life knocks at our door while we’re so busy putting everything in just the right order so that we can go out and begin? I say yes, it is possible.

Consider these questions, letting the words touch your awareness one by one: What is all this for? All this effort and work, this reaching out, the pain and crying, this sorrow, the joy of sweet moments, these smiles and laughter and kisses and hugs – if not to stop a moment and realize oh yes, this is to be alive, today. And to say thank you, every once in a while. 

Talk to your therapist to learn more ways to increase mindfulness and gratitude. Contact Symmetry Counseling today to meet with one of our counselors in Chicago in-person or via online counseling.

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