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Pause. Renew. Next.

Tag: mindfulness

Mind Full or Mindful?

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

a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations,

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!

Wandering Thoughts and Focused Attention

Where do your thoughts wander?

It’s been a long day at work, and you are relieved to be in the car driving home. As you pull into the driveway and park your car, you realize that you have no recollection of the last 15 minutes of your commute. Were you driving on autopilot?

On Sunday morning, you find yourself sitting in the church pew, twenty minutes into the pastor’s sermon. He just made his third sermon point, but looking down, you discover that you never wrote down his second point. Instead, you were thinking about what you were going to have for lunch.

Maybe you find yourself cuddled up on the couch, reading a book before bed. Your mind wanders, and when you come back to the book, you realize that you’ve been scanning and re-scanning the same paragraph for some time.

Sound familiar? Our minds love to wander. Often it feels like work to make them sustain attention. In a world of faster and faster technology, our brains are being trained how to work more quickly, multitask more efficiently, and sustain attention for smaller and smaller amounts of time. It seems we are losing the art of deep focus.

The Gift of Focus

Interestingly, there is a growing body of neuroscience research to support the importance of focused attention. Concentrating or focusing deeply is a practice that is incredibly healthy and helpful. You could almost think of it as fertilizer for the brain. Focused attention is a key part of mindfulness, and thankfully because of neuroplasticity, we can train ourselves to get better and better at it.

In fact, you have much more control over your own attention than you think you do. Try this:

  • Bring your focus upward, until you find a focal point on the ceiling. Stare at it for 10 seconds.
  • Now bring your attention downward, to your feet. Take note of them: Are you wearing socks or shoes? What color are they?
  • Now bring your attention to your breath. Focus on how you are filling your lungs slowly and then gently exhaling. Do you see your chest rising and falling?

Our minds are always paying attention to something. It just so happens that much of the time, what we are paying attention to isn’t what is currently unfolding in front of us. Curt Thompson, MD, and author of The Soul of Shame, encourages his readers to “pay attention to what you’re paying attention to.” Where do your thoughts drift when your mind is operating on autopilot?

How can you increase your ability to sustain attention?

There are many mental health benefits to increasing the ability to sustain focus and attention, and there are a myriad of practical ways to practice increasing this capacity. To test your own attention span, try this exercise:

Focus on an object in the room, any object will do. Now, try to focus only on that object for one minute. Whenever you notice your attention drifting, try to bring it back to focusing on the object. (Pause your reading and really try it!)

Did you try it? Now, be honest: how many seconds did it take for your thoughts to drift? Was it 5, 10, or 15 seconds? If you made it to 30, you’re doing pretty well for a first try!

This exercise is not made to emphasize how bad you are at focusing, rather it’s to practice increasing your ability to bring your thoughts back into focus. Our thoughts and attention like to drift, but being able to bring them back is the key. Over time you will notice that you are able to focus for longer and longer spans of time without your thoughts drifting.

Personally, I find that focusing on objects is difficult. For me, focusing on music, or choosing a word or phrase to focus on comes much more easily. Isn’t it interesting then, that Scripture often mentions meditating on God’s Word? The idea of meditating on God’s Word is repeated often throughout the Psalms.

Choosing a phrase of Scripture on which to focus and meditate is an incredible way to not only train your brain, but to feed your spiritual life as well. For more ideas on creative ways to meditate on Scripture, listen to my PRN Podcast episode about this subject.

A screenshot of John Eldredge’s Pause app, a great way to begin practicing rest and meditation

Pause, Renew, Next idea: I have recently found a Scriptural meditation app that I feel captures not only the heart of this blog post’s intent, but also is in line with the whole Pause, Renew, Next concept. I have found it helpful myself, and would love to pass it on to you. John Eldredge’s Pause app, is a free, easy way to schedule in a moment to pause and reflect during your busy day. It has one, three, five, and ten minute options, and walks the listener through meditative prayer and Scripture readings. If you’re needing an easy way to begin practicing focused attention from a Scriptural perspective, the Pause app may be a great place to start.

May you find peace and joy as you take moments to focus deeply and allow your mind and body to rest and renew.

Pause, Renew, Next!

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