Monday, February 10, 2014

Losing Ourselves to the Age of Distraction: How Mindfulness Can Help

“Mindfulness,” the latest buzzword has recently hit Time Magazine. The word is everywhere; you can’t get away from it.  It’s an adverb (mindful eating, walking, working, parenting), a clothing line, a magazine, and even a tea brand.  The trend has officially gone mainstream.  More and more people are gravitating toward the pull of this ancient wisdom.  Not because it’s the latest fad, but because it’s a means of coping in an overly stimulating, competitive, and demanding society.  Distraction is the leading condition of our age.  And as the Time’s article states, “there are no signs of things slowing down; to the contrary, they’re getting stronger.”  

We’re running on fumes, desperately searching for ways to manage the daily onslaught.  We’ve reached a state of urgency, recognizing our need to slow down is not only necessary to thrive, but to survive!  Stress is the leading risk factor for most degenerative diseases. Mindfulness is a practical, indispensable tool to reclaiming our inner peace and learning how to distress. Most importantly it’s available to everyone without cost or added time.

What is Mindfulness: The simple act of bringing awareness to what is happening in the moment and giving ones full attention to it – without judgment. It’s so simple, yet so profound - life changing profound. One can work mindfully, parent mindfully and learn mindfully.  One can exercise, eat mindfully, think mindfully and live mindfully. It’s transforming.   

When we bring our attention to our inner selves, our minds and bodies (our thoughts, emotions and physical sensations), we become our own witness.  Watching without judgment or expectations is the key to mindful awareness.  The minute we judge a thought, we become involved in it, we become part of the story and we can no longer be the objective observer.

Witnessing our thoughts objectively creates an opportunity for change.  We cannot change a thought if we’re unaware of the thought, likewise, we cannot change a thought if we identify with it.  For example, “I am sad,” is different than, “I feel sad.”  The former creates an identity around sadness. A feeling can be fleeting, an identity more permanent. Paying attention to what and how we talk to ourselves is the first, critical step in a mindfulness practice. The next step is doing something with it.

Our brain is 3-5x more sensitive to negative information than positive.  This was helpful in evolution – “that snake is poisonous” is more vital to survival than “that flower smells beautiful.”  Today we don’t have as many everyday threats but our brains are still wired to pay more attention to the negative than the positive.   When we intentionally pay attention to the positive, the neural pathways associated with positive memories are strengthened.  The more frequently we access those pathways the more we’ll use them, lessening our focus on the negative.  Bringing mindful awareness to our negative thought patterns allows us to change and redirect our thinking.
Attention is like a muscle.  As with any muscle, it is strengthened with exercise.  Our brains have the ability to adapt and rewire – this neuroplasticity gives evidence to the science behind mindfulness practices. 

Imagine if we cultivate mindfulness in youngsters when their brain is still developing? 

Today, more than ever, our kids are in dire need of slowing down.  They were born in the height of distraction not knowing a time when we couldn’t access information instantaneously or when phones weren’t an extension of extremities.

As a kids’/teens’ mindfulness and yoga instructor, I provide easy age-appropriate mindfulness practices to add to their toolbox.  They love learning different tricks and finding their inner space.  In fact, in the hour of endless class-time fun, their favorite part is relaxation.  It’s their safe time to reconnect with themselves in stillness and silence. This adds to the growing evidence that kids crave and need to slow down.

The best, most effective way kids learn is through modeling. Because I teach mindfulness for a living, it would stand to reason that these mindfulness practices are a daily part of our family routine. Of course, that’s always my intention but more often than I’d like I find myself asking, “Did I really just say that to my kid? Yes, I did just lose my temper and yell.  Loud!”  But I generally recognize my blunder and I’m (usually) forgiving and gentle enough to remind myself that the next minute holds another opportunity, a chance to do it better, a teaching moment for my daughters and myself. 

This leads me to the popular catch phrase “mindful parenting.”  Stay tuned for the next blog posts where I’ll be discussing easy and practical ‘mindful parenting’ strategies.

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