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Mindfulness - A Break For Your Multitasking Brain - by Dr. Marion Jacobs
When is the last time you stopped and really smelled the roses? Not recently, if you're a chronic multi-tasker, as so many people are today. Life is too hurried for roses. Modern living demands keeping as many balls in the air at once as possible. Electronic technology compounds the problem, addicting us to instant information and communication.
It's easy to mistake this rush to overload for productivity. But UCLA researcher Dr. Russell Poldrack cautions that multi-tasking has its pitfalls. "We have to be aware that there is a cost to the way that our society is changing, that humans are not built to work this way. We're really built to focus. And when we sort of force ourselves to multitask, we're driving ourselves to perhaps be less efficient in the long run even though it sometimes feels like we're being more efficient."
This article describes a very different kind of productivity. It's called Mindfulness, a mental skill that once learned, lets you to relate to your entire world in a way that not only enhances true productivity, but makes you happier doing it.
Training in Mindfulness can benefit many aspects of living. It sharpens your attention, concentration and ability to focus. That means you can use it to help interrupt unproductive mental chatter and move more effectively towards your goals. Mindfulness offers other rewards as well. To take just one example, once you learn how to switch into the Mindfulness mode of thinking, any time you choose you have at your command a refreshing way to take a break from the mental pressures that preoccupy so much of our waking lives. Using Mindfulness just for fun lets us reclaim what children do naturally, see the world through fresh eyes and delight in the wonder of things.
As is true in acquiring any skill - riding a bike, driving a car, communicating effectively, learning how to be Mindful takes practice. I can say from personal experience though, that the learning process is both interesting and rewarding. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Here is how it works. When being Mindful, you intentionally shift your mental focus away from whatever had been going on in your mind and instead observe one single, here-and-now event. The event can be anything, for example, a picture on the wall, a tree on the path where you're walking, people coming and going on the street outside your office. You can even do Mindfulness by observing a feeling. But for starters it's best to practice Mindfulness by shifting your attention to an external event, something occurring in your environment as opposed to something coming from inside you.
Start with a simple external event, say observing a tree. As experiencing Mindfulness becomes increasingly familiar, pick more complex, but still external, events. Once you are adept at achieving a state of Mindfulness with external events, then you can practice focusing on and dealing with internal feelings. When you are practicing this new form of concentrated attention, if your mind wanders, don�t worry, just gently redirect your attention back to what you are focused on.
The first step in becoming Mindful is always careful observation. As you observe the event you selected, be it pleasant, neutral, or uncomfortable, do not try to change anything. That is very important. During Mindfulness, you do not analyze, solve problems, make decisions, or plan action. You simply stay in the present moment and observe the event.
Next, as you observe the event, silently describe to yourself in words exactly what you are observing. Keep your attention completely focused on what you are observing and describing in the moment. Using all your senses, participate actively, giving yourself as rich and detailed a description of the experience as possible. Include what the event causes you to see, hear, feel, smell, or taste. Note any other sensations it generates in your body. Concentrate. Do this for two to three minutes at first, longer if you wish. As you become more practiced at it, you can lengthen the time you spend being Mindful.
Just as important as what you do during mindfulness is what you do not do. Do not elaborate on what you are observing and describing. If you are watching a bird in flight, do not go beyond describing it and spin off into thinking how the bird is so free, you feel like a prisoner in your marriage, you wish you could soar like that, and- No! Just stick with what you see, hear, and experience in the moment-details of the bird and the sky-the thrill you experience seeing it fly-the warm wind blowing through your hair and across your arms. That is as far as you go when you are being Mindful. You do not let your mind wander into associating what you are seeing now with past memories, or thoughts about the future. If that happens, which it sometimes will, don't get upset with yourself, just gently redirect your attention back to the present event.
Finally, in the practice of Mindfulness, do not judge whether what you are observing and describing is ultimately good or bad. Being judgmental is not part of being Mindful. Judging can be appropriate if you are problem solving or planning some action. Mindfulness however, is only about observing and describing. You do not judge anything or try to change anything. With Mindfulness, the idea is to stick with what you are observing and experience it as it is. If what you are observing feels pleasant, that's easy. If it is unpleasant, you learn to tolerate a negative event while still only observing and describing it. Learning to be Mindful even when you are dealing with personal feelings that are creating problems for you has important implications for learning to handle those feelings more productively.
To sum up, the following are guidelines for what to do when you want to practice Mindfulness:
Observe only one event at a time.
Concentrate. Keep your attention focused on the event.
Describe the event to yourself in detail.
Actively participate. Use all your senses to observe and describe.
Do not elaborate on the event by associating it with other thoughts.
If your mind wanders, simply guide it back to the present event.
Do not judge the event as good or bad. Just observe and describe it.
I hope I've interested you enough to want to learn more about the many benefits of Mindfulness. I explain in much more detail how to do it in my book and on my CD, Take-Charge Living: How To Recast Your Role in Life�One Scene At A Time. Another detailed description can be found in a book titled Depressed & Anxious, by Dr. Thomas Marra.
Marion K. Jacobs, Ph.D. is a Clinical Psychologist in Laguna Beach, California, Adjunct Professor at UCLA and self-help expert.