Do you ever wonder how much time you spend being in the moment? By this, I mean fully engaged in the very thing you are doing, without your mind wandering in the past or future. I first started thinking about mindfulness when I realized that I was hardly ever in the present moment. Whether I was ruminating about an event in the past, going over my to-do list, or projecting into the future, I left no time to be fully aware of the now.
Unfortunately, once I started talking to friends, family and my patients about being present, I realized that most of us spend most of the time outside "the moment". Our minds seem to spontaneously rush through time. That is, unless we are fully occupied in a crisis situation. For instance, when I was a resident in internal medicine, I would often take care of very sick patients in the intensive care unit. In this environment, I had no trouble being in the moment at all times. The same is true when I am on mommy duty alone with my two toddlers. When I am not faced with a crisis, however, I found that in the background, my mind would often go over the past or project into the future, making judgments, creating fears, or setting goals. I believe that an appropriate dose of this kind of thinking is productive, because it involves self-awareness, reflection and propels us to continue working on ourselves. It helps us grow and contribute to our relationships and our environment in positive ways. However, oftentimes, these thoughts can become intrusive and counterproductive, leading us to negative thought patterns and feelings. How can we train our mind to stay in the moment, as it does during a time of crisis?
Reading books that address mindfulness and awareness by Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ekhart Tolle and Pema Chodron helped me find ways in which to start practicing presence and acceptance. My journey has been one of transformation, and I would love to share with you what worked.
I know that habits aren't easy to change. Here are five realistic steps you can take right now to be more mindful in your everyday life.
1. Put your phone on airplane mode
If you're engaged in an activity that requires your full attention, going off the grid is an easy way to make yourself available to the present. Switch your phone on airplane mode while you are seeing a friend or spending time with your family. It's much easier to focus on the moment when your phone isn't alerting you to a new email every few minutes.
2. Connect with nature
Our ears and minds are hard at work all day long - whether this is at work or at home with kids. When you have a moment to listen to nature and feel the wind rush against your ears, don't block it out with headphones. A recent study found that listening to the sounds of nature rather than music or being in silence decreases muscle tension and even reduces heart rate and stress. Take a walk in the nature, a park, or on the beach, and be one with your beautiful environment. Listen to the sounds of nature, look around and be fully present in your surroundings.
3. Get more sleep
You can't be present if you are exhausted. Make it a priority to get eight hours of sleep every night. Trust me, you will feel the difference. Studies have found that getting eight hours of sleep per night strengthens the immune system. In mouse models, chronic sleep deprivation led to impaired learning and memory, while human studies linked sleep deprivation to weight gain and anxiety. Besides, we know from experience that when we get more sleep, we are more efficient, we communicate better, eat healthier, have more energy and think more clearly. Try setting a bedtime alert on your mobile device calendar and do your best to meet it each night.
Even if you can only sit in silence for a minute before thoughts about your to-do list start to emerge, try to commit to a daily meditation. You can start slowly, by sitting in silence for five minutes in the beginning, and working your way up to 15-20 minutes. The harder time you have sitting still, in awareness, the more you are likely in need of meditation. There are many benefits of meditation, including improved symptoms of anxiety, depression and pain and improved sleep quality. If we practice stillness and awareness, we gain perspective, we embrace the sense of calm and start to let go of judgment. Imagine a world where we are all more accepting, and less judgmental of ourselves and others!
5. Eat slowly and mindfully
How often do you really taste your food and allow your taste buds to bathe in the beautiful flavors created by nature? Take the time to truly experience your meals, rather than eating too quickly and absent-mindedly. Eat until your stomach is 2/3 or 3/4 full. Remember, the food you eat is the information you choose to give to your body about your environment. Your body will respond, and different pathways will be activated, depending on what you eat. Stay away from foods that cause inflammation. Eat natural food, and avoid processed food, simple carbohydrates, and large portions. Some foods that have been linked to improving brain function include anti-oxidant rich foods, blueberries, a modest amount of caffeine and even dark chocolate.
Practice being aware in each moment by engaging your senses. Your to-do list will still be there when it's over!