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I am at the computer with a mug of coffee when my husband leaves for work. He kisses the top of my head and I say a quick "bye" over my shoulder as I scan the headlines, the weather forecast, the e-mails that have multiplied overnight like mold spores. It's not until I look out the window and see him climbing into the car that I realize what's missing. And what's missing is me -- my attention, my presence, my here-and-now connection with the love of my life. "Wait!" I yell, and he looks up and smiles. I run out in my bathrobe, throw my arms around him, kiss his mouth and cheek. "Good-bye!" I say, and he laughs and kisses me back. "Good-bye."
It's the condition of modern life: hurrying, multitasking and, ironically, making connections so constantly that we don't realize how disconnected we've become. I watch people text-messaging during their dinner dates. What are they doing? Setting up the next dinner date? Is there a perfect future pie-in-the-sky dinner date that it's all leading up to? I don't think so.
"We need to slow down and pay attention to what we're experiencing, while we're experiencing it," says Chris Germer, PhD, a clinical psychologist and author of The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion. However frantic or distracted you may feel, remind yourself that this is it, in that corny Life-Is-Not-a-Dress-Rehearsal way. You're playing Candy Land with your kids; you're eating breakfast with your husband; you're walking home through the summer twilight; you're washing dishes at the sink. Your life is really only a series of these very moments, and to hurtle through them on autopilot means you're in danger of missing the whole thing.
The practice of keeping your focus on the present moment -- which, of course, is where your life is actually happening -- is often referred to as "mindfulness." Although its roots are in Buddhist philosophy and formal meditation, mindfulness has recently become popular among a growing number of therapists and doctors. Hundreds of studies suggest that its effects, both emotional and psychological, are significant and far reaching: from increased immune function and improved memory to steadier moods, greater concentration, and pain tolerance, says clinical psychologist Paul Fulton, EdD, president of the Institute for Meditation and Psychotherapy. Mindfulness has been used to treat conditions ranging from insomnia and depression to ADD and compulsive eating, and it has been shown to fight the detrimental effects of stress, anxiety, and aging. "Recent studies show that for some, mindfulness can be as effective as medication in dealing with depression and anxiety," explains Susan Pollak, EdD, a Boston-area psychologist who teaches mindfulness to Harvard medical students. "It really speaks to the power of the mind and body to truly, deeply heal itself."
So what's the catch? Nothing, except that mindfulness is a practice that requires, well, practice. But don't worry. You don't need to meditate deeply while your patchouli-scented mind drains itself of all thought. You don't need to contort yourself into a lotus position while the plinky-planky music plays, or smile serenely while someone rear-ends you on the freeway. And you don't need to be perfectly enlightened. You just need to pay attention. Get started, this moment, with our seven-step plan.
Be Here, Now
If you're zipping along through life -- its daily tasks and troubles -- to get to the next thing, ask yourself what that next thing is. Tomorrow's daily tasks and troubles? Next year's? Death? "Your life is happening right now," says Fulton. "It's sorting the laundry, looking for your keys, getting the kids to school. You need to really be there for the day-to-day activities."
This doesn't mean that taking out the trash has to turn into a Japanese tea ceremony. But paying attention while you do it might actually offer you unexpected pleasures: the stillness of the night air on your skin, the stars in the sky. Or practice in the shower. Enjoy the warm water playing off your body and inhale the fragrance of your shampoo (note to self: invest in better-smelling shampoo). As Pollak puts it, "Ask yourself, 'How can I be delighted? How can I reframe the present moment so I feel a sense of joy or gratitude?'" Quit waiting for the good part and seize the moment -- this one.
Do Less, Get More Done
Engage fully in what you're doing while you're doing it -- regardless of what it is. "Multitasking doesn't make anything go faster, but it can make things more confusing," explains Fulton. "Science suggests that your brain is actually alternating between two things rather than paying attention to either." Pollak echoes this: "We think more is more. We've become an attention deficient nation, even though the research on multitasking shows that we're less efficient because we're so distracted."
I try to remember this when my mind is racing while I'm putting my children to bed. Making mental to-do lists while reading Harry Potter means I'm not doing either with my full attention. The to-do lists will wait but this moment of sleepy snuggling won't.
You know that feeling of eating potato chips -- when you've got a mouthful of them but your hand is already back in the bag? This is an apt metaphor for the inclination to hurry into the future, but it's also a wonderful moment to practice slowing down.
"Who is running after you?" my Czech grandmother used to ask at the dinner table as I inhaled my borscht and kreplach. Try approaching meals with greater intention, suggests Paul Keinarth, MD, a family physician in Austin and cofounder of the Stress Reduction Clinic there. Take a conscious forkful and chew consciously, really savoring it. "This helps you eat more slowly, so you eat less and enjoy your meal more," Dr. Keinarth explains. Once you master the mindful meal, you can start trying the technique in other parts of your life.
Take a Deep Breath
Literally. Students of both yoga and meditation learn to focus on the breath as it passes in and out of their nostrils, on the oxygen flowing in and out of their lungs, as a way of returning to mindfulness. Breathing deeply can reduce your blood pressure, give you more energy-boosting oxygen, connect you to your body, and relax you.
It's true that most women don't have the luxury of finding 10 minutes of silence, much less the time to go on a meditation retreat. But there is always time to take a deep breath. Fulton goes a step further: "Close your eyes and take three natural breaths while allowing your attention to rest on the experience of breathing. Interrupt that cascade of thinking, planning, ruminating. Just return to yourself, to the moment, however briefly."
You know how you can't be bothered to kiss your husband hello because you're too busy writing "How was your day?" on his Facebook wall? Exactly. Soren Gordhamer tracks the problem of technology and connection in his book Wisdom 2.0, calling the pressure to accomplish more -- and more quickly -- "the productivity trap."
In our culture of instant messaging and "I need it yesterday!" it can be hard to remember to focus on the journey as well as the destination. "To be mindful in the 21st century is to swim against the current," says Fulton. "We're saying no to the need for things to be faster, more, and different." And Pollak says, referencing all our high-tech gadgets, "We've become like Pavlovian dogs: They beep and we respond immediately. But it's hard to be present at the dinner table if your BlackBerry is calling you."
Make rules for yourself about cell phone or BlackBerry use and stick with them, whether it's not texting people during your kid's soccer game or not taking calls during your family's weekly game of Scrabble. Technology is great for helping us stay in touch with far-away loved ones. But for the near and dear who are actually near? Be with them when you can.
Pay Attention to the Bell of Mindfulness
It's easy to stop and smell the roses when you've got plenty of time to kill. But try it when you're frantic, late, or bored. These moments can become what Thich Nhat Hanh, the famous Buddhist peace activist, refers to as a "mindfulness bell" -- not just the literal ringing of the temple bells that call Zen monks to awareness, but any and every experience that reminds you to return to the present and pay attention. Let your very frustration or boredom be what calls you back.
"You feel like you've got to just race through the difficult stuff," Fulton says. "But the difficult stuff is an invitation to be present." The next time you find yourself stuck in a traffic jam or a huge line at the bank, breathe deeply and smile. Your heart is beating and you're alive on the planet -- gifts that are easy to take for granted when you're thinking only, "Shoot me."
For Dr. Keinarth, in his workaday life, the bell of mindfulness comes between patients: "Every time I wash my hands, I try to bring myself back into my body, into the moment. It's kind of a stopping place, a fresh start." He calls this kind of mental break a "mini-vacation" -- which is not to compare clean hands to Club Med, of course. "It's not a week off," Dr. Keinarth laughs. "But it's a moment of rest in your day."
Let Yourself Be Happy
Sometimes all we can hear is the loud drumbeat of dissatisfaction, even if the rest of our life offers a constant and beautiful melody. If you're always wanting what you don't have, always wishing for more or different or anywhere but here, it's time to take stock. Easier said than done, of course, given the recent financial crisis. I practically have a crick in my neck from coveting my neighbor's new cherry kitchen cabinets. But I was struck by a study that showed that, after six or so months, people who won lotteries returned to the same level of approximate happiness they'd enjoyed (or didn't) before. That is, the money didn't make them happy, their internal sense of happiness did.
So if you're still reeling from the effects of the recession, this may be the perfect time to hone your attitude of gratitude. It will remind you of what you do have -- and that it's likely all you need. What we seek is here already, right under our noses, in our experience of day-to-day living. As Pollak puts it, "Mindfulness is a way to get back to what matters: human contact, meaningful relationships, living kindly, consideration, and gratitude."
Which means that when I hear my husband's tires crunch on the gravel, I turn off the faucet and dry my hands on a towel (maybe not especially mindful of the water and my fingers and the rough cotton, but, oh well). "Daddy's home!" I yell to the kids. And I don't care if I sound like June Cleaver when I tell you that we rush to the door and smother him with kisses. He's home, we're all here, and I'm so grateful.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, March 2010.