Occasionally, I like to play a game with my youngest son. This is a game I pull out when we need a distraction, when his potty talk has hit its limit, or when we’re on a walk and he’s getting tired. I’ll say to him, “Let’s play: what do you hear?” Then I fall silent and let him start listening.
Almost immediately, he gets quiet and observes his surroundings. We start naming the sounds around us: birds chirping, dogs barking, a distant motorcycle, or the wind in the trees.
These sounds are around us all the time, but generally we tune them out or cover them up with our own noises: cellphones, podcasts, radio, Netflix, or the internal static of our own minds.
I don’t know about you, but I can attest to having a full mind. For most of my life I have prided myself on my multi-tasking skills, but lately I find these skills to be lagging. I am growing weary with the constant barrage of noise and clamor around me and within my own head. After a year of collective trauma due to a pandemic and more time spent online than ever before, I think most of us can attest to having full minds and perhaps racing thoughts.
It can be difficult to slow down and be aware of the present moment.
Mindfulness has taken the therapeutic world by storm over the last decade. The benefits are vast: from relaxation, to greater awareness, to focusing attention, to greater health and mental wellness. Yet, focusing on the present moment does not come easily or naturally in a culture permeated by noise. It takes intentionality.
For Mother’s Day, at my request, my family took me hiking for the day. We packed a picnic and ate on a rock outcropping, overlooking a river and waterfall. Next to our picnic spot, the evidence of a previous visitor remained: a perfectly stacked pile of rocks. It’s clear that in nature, rocks do not naturally end up in such an orderly formation. No, this was the work of an individual with intentionality and creativity.
In the same way, practicing mindfulness takes intentionality and creativity. It takes intentionality, because it’s always easier to pick up our phones and be entertained than it is to pay attention to and fully engage the world around us. There is no end to the distractions available at our fingertips. Choosing to focus our attention on the present moment almost always takes intentionality.
Mindfulness also utilizes creativity and curiosity. Our brains absolutely thrive on novelty. We are curious creatures who love learning. In the same way I played a game with my son, we can engage our curiosity and ask ourselves: what do I notice in this present moment? Using our senses helps us stay grounded to the present. What do I see? What do I hear? What do I smell? What do I feel?
Anxiety always takes our brains into future scenarios, but by practicing mindfulness we can bring ourselves back to the reality and safety of the present.
When we are fully engaged in the present, we can practice gratitude for what we have: right here, right now. What are the good and perfect gifts you’ve been given in this moment? Perhaps it’s the giggle of a child in the next room, the way the light is streaming in the window, or the comfort of a warm cup of coffee.
It’s in these moments as we slow down that we are most likely to notice the presence of Christ.
A moment of caution before I end. Truthfully, as much as you may try to focus, your brain will inevitably wander off down a rabbit trail of thought. This is only natural, and it does not make you a failure at practicing mindfulness. Especially these days with our multi-tasking, Instagram-scrolling, channel-flipping attention spans at an all-time low, don’t expect the practice of mindfulness to be an easy-won task. No, intentionality is the ticket. When you notice that your thinking has drifted, gently bring it back again. Like a new driver, your brain is being trained to stay on the road. The more you practice, the longer you can do it, and the better at it you will become.
If you’d like to practice mindfulness now, follow along with the below exercise:
Pause: Inhale deeply and slowly exhale. As discussed above, take a moment to pay attention to what is going on around you. Name what you’re touching, what you hear, what you see, and what you smell. For example: I can feel the sturdy wood chair beneath me, I can hear the ticking of the clock in the next room, etc.
Renew: Now that you’ve taken time to ground yourself in the present moment externally, let’s do the same internally. What is going on inside of you right now? What bodily sensations do you feel? What are you thinking? What emotions are you experiencing? Mindfulness is about focusing our attention on these items, but all without judgment. That last part is the most difficult of all. For instance, you may find that you’re feeling angry or embarrassed. Rather than judging yourself for feeling that way, simply name the emotion or thought for what it is and move on. It’s not good or bad, it just is.
Next: Take another deep inhale and exhale slowly. You just took time to look outward and inward. If you have the time, this may be a great moment to spend in prayer or to make a gratitude list. If you don’t have the time, you can move on with your day. Congratulations! You just took time to intentionally pause and practice mindfulness, and your body, mind, and soul thank you.
May you give yourself permission to slow down and be present in the life you lead.
Pause, Renew, Next!