Mindfulness and the Ongoing Journey to Refocus the Wandering Mind
In session, when I introduce the concept of mindfulness to a student, I usually get a skeptical stare that says, “I’ve been waiting for hours for another student to pack up so that we can finally go on this hike. I’m angry at my mom for the last letter she sent. I spent all day yesterday trying to make fire from sticks and stones to no avail. I can’t talk to my friends right now. I’m the only one who can complete my chores on time. All I want to do is scream at the group, and you’re asking me to pause and be mindful?!” And my response is always: Yes—try it out and see what you notice.
I understand the skepticism, and have experienced it myself. I didn’t trust the mindfulness craze advertised in the media to improve your health, well-being, and maybe even get you a raise. I didn’t understand how being still and reflective could contribute to managing my anxiety, stress, and racing thoughts.
Despite the fact that mindfulness and meditation have been supporting the emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual well-being of practitioners for over 2,500 years, I needed to quell my skepticism through diving into the latest literature by neuroscience researchers and psychiatric doctors like Daniel Seigel, Stephen Porges and Bessel van der Kolk. These guys, among many other psychologists and researchers, have dedicated much of their careers to understanding and putting into words why cultivating intentional awareness supports healing on a neurobiological level.
It was the science behind it that finally pushed this cynic to try mindfulness out. And guess what? The positive impacts on my wellness and interpersonal relationships have led me to embrace it whole-heartedly. While I do not claim to be an expert in mindfulness or meditation, I will share what is helpful to me and why I believe mindfulness is integral for making positive change.
I’ve learned through courses, study, and practice that meditation is a way to cultivate mindful awareness. Something I didn’t realize when I first started meditating, is that, while the act of sitting in calm stillness for a chunk of time each day brings clarity and peace of mind, the purpose of this practice goes beyond the meditation cushion. The discipline of consistently bringing awareness from my thoughts back to my breath builds the muscle memory to do this throughout the day.
Why is this helpful? Because my untrained mind runs wild with ruminations that don’t support my well-being. Without mindfulness, I struggle to fall asleep at night, as I run through the list of things I wish I’d accomplished or need to do tomorrow. Instead of focusing solely on a phone conversation with a friend, I am checking email or scrolling while listening. I walk into a room and instantly forget why, because my attention is too scattered to recognize my present experience. The more I deepen my mindfulness practice, the more I notice the quality of my life improve as I become more present with what I’m doing. My mind doesn’t wander as much because I’ve begun rewiring my brain to attend to the present moment, rather than the mindless chatter it’s used to. I feel more connected in conversation, because I am focusing on what my loved ones are sharing with me, instead of the distraction of a screen. I am choosing, one moment at a time, to tend to what is valuable and important to me.
There are many different approaches to mindfulness, from its original Buddhist roots to myriad Western adaptations. Westernized interpretations of “mindfulness” are often individualized and promoted as a tool for productivity. While there are surely benefits in practice that involves slowing down and being still, I subscribe to an understanding of mindfulness that is more collective than individual. This quote sums up why I see expansive potential in cultivating mindfulness practice:
Changing the world begins with the very personal process of changing yourself; the only place you can begin is where you are and the only time you can begin is always now. --Gary Zukav
At Evoke, we focus on helping students and parents develop a stronger Self—one that aligns with who and how they want to be in the world. Intentional awareness, or mindfulness, is a critical part of making sense of past behaviors (both skillful and unskillful) and how to respond in the present with actions that support healthy relationships.
Engaging with this meaningful work is an act of mindfulness in and of itself. We, as therapists and staff at Evoke, do this work too, with the belief that if we are all able to make progress toward acting in ways that align with our values, our work will not just support those involved with Evoke, but will extend to the greater family systems, communities and society beyond. We will never be able to control how others operate, but with practice, we can control how we act and contribute to positive change. This is where it begins.
My practice is not perfect and never will be. Most weeks, I leave the field questioning if I was pushing an agenda with students, or if I showed up in authentic connection with them. My mind wanders often during meditation. Some days I can’t find the motivation to meditate, and I might go through an entire day without bringing attention to my actions. This is all part of being human and what makes practice so important—that every time I return to my breath during meditation, notice my present experience or evaluate if my actions align with my values, I am cultivating a practice of awareness and intention.
Lastly, I offer a few practices that could be helpful:
- If you don’t already have a meditation practice, start with five minutes a day. Focus on your breath, and when your mind wanders, gently bring your attention back to the sensation of breath. This builds the muscle of noticing, and focusing your attention with intention.
- See if you can catch yourself in the midst of your daily activities and take a few seconds to pause, breathe, and smile. Notice if this brings about any shift in your present experience.
- Take three deep breaths, allowing the inhale to be longer than the exhale (this allows your nervous system to reset and feel safe in the present moment).
- Ground into the present moment by noticing what you see, smell, taste, feel, and hear, taking time to identify and experience each sensation.
As I tell my students, try it out and see what you notice.
Suggested readings on this topic:
Mindsight by Daniel Siegel
Parenting from the Inside Out by Daniel Siegel
Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach
The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk
McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality by Robert Purser
The Wisdom of a Meaningful Life by John Bruna