Why Bother With Mindfulness?


North Korea launching nuclear missiles, white nationalist rally at University of Virginia. By the time I’ve read morning news and watched MSNBC, I’m feeling completely frazzled.  Not a good way to begin the work day. MyLittleBird has written frequently about mindfulness, but lest we forget its power to help us focus on the present, we’re reposting Alexa Mergen’s story of August, 2015.  

WITHIN OUR MORNINGS, there are moments as expansive as giant soap bubbles we could step into and inhabit. This is mindfulness: that intentional “stepping into” the current of right now, with curiosity, without judgment.

Why bother with mindfulness? After all, by the time the sun comes up there are cats to feed, coffee to brew, news feeds to read and cereal to chew.

Mindfulness, as defined by the American Psychological Association, is moment-to-moment awareness of one’s experience without judgment. Noticing what’s happening in our mind and body, as it’s happening, appears to offer a host of benefits from greater relationship satisfaction to increased focus, strengthened immune system and a more functional memory.

Even better, the cat can eat, the coffee can pour and the cereal can be crunched. Routine activities provide the perfect home base for practicing mindfulness.

Reading the news, on the other hand, will have to wait. But after a few mindfulness moments, when you do turn to headlines, chances are you’ll feel more focused. A mindful morning increases the likelihood of continued mindfulness throughout the day.

How do we measure a moment?

Moments are by definition moving forward. To be mindful, we want to pause them, hold them up like a glass paperweight to the light. The surest measure of a moment is the breath. Yogis say that each person’s breath is as unique as her fingerprint. A Swiss study found exhaled compounds in breath can in fact serve as a “breathprint.”

The first step to mindfulness, then, is to breathe. If you’re reading this, that’s already happening. So read on.

Use the breath to measure a moment. On the inhalation, say to yourself “mo-.” On the exhalation, continue with “-ment.” The inhalation, “mo,” might offer a sense of expansion. The exhalation, “ment,” might provide a sense of slowing or anchoring.

Close the eyes now and continue for three more conscious breaths, marking, with attention, a moment in time.

With eyes open again, notice that this process is experiential. There’s no right or wrong way, no goal, prize or destination.

Try it again. Three more conscious breaths, saying the syllables “mo-ment.” Or dropping that, allow the breath to happen without the idea of a word at all.

Next, consider your morning routine. Look for activities that you do pretty much every day. I always have a mug of coffee, home-brewed from Open City grounds, or a cup of Celadon Pearl green tea from leaves shipped by Red Blossom Tea Company in San Francisco. Sometimes I sit in the living room; other times I’m on the go, and the beverage comes along in a kleankanteen travel mug.

The green tea is fussy. After reaching a boil, the water in the kettle needs to cool. Here’s where I can breathe, six or eight full cycles of inhalation and exhalation, standing in the kitchen, until it’s time to steep the leaves.

The coffee brews for four minutes. The timer on the kitchen stove provides a one-minute warning after three minutes. Beep! That last minute is when I close my eyes and follow my breath in and out of the body, being still for just 60 seconds.

In Buddhism, the sound of a bell, be it a doorbell or the “tink” of an incoming text message, can be used as a bell of mindfulness, a reminder that we are alive right now.

Out the door already? Waiting for a traffic signal is a classic mindfulness tool. Renowned teacher Thich Nhat Hanh writes small poems called gathas for enriching daily moments with mindfulness, including one for driving a car.

Before starting the car,
I know where I am going.
The car and I are one.
If the car goes fast, I go fast.

Walking the dog means a significant wait for me at the traffic signal at Connecticut Avenue and Devonshire Place NW. That’s where I can stop and breathe. One of my students practices mindfulness on Metrorail sitting amid fellow commuters.

Having mapped a place in your morning routine to apply mindfulness, know that you can do it. Keep it simple. Mindfulness is not meditation. It requires no special cushion or technique. It’s about being with what is happening without holding sway over it through analysis or control. And it takes only a moment, a moment defined by you, by your breath, by your life.

Mindfulness practice is private, intimate and transformative. Ever present, the breath is like a good friend who always picks up the phone when she sees your number appear.

I leave you with my own start-the-day gatha.

This morning
breath travels in
and breath travels out,
an unmeasurable moment fathomed.

Let me know how it goes!

—Alexa Mergen
Writer, editor and yoga teacher Alexa Mergen grew up in and often visits Washington, D.C. She lives in Ely, Nevada. 

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