Some of my most insightful conversations with my children occur when I have a captive audience. Long car rides, cross-country plane flights, or a shared ski lift are just a few examples. I was recently navigating rush hour traffic in Boston with my second grader in tow when he said, “Dad, do you know how to practice mindfulness?” I’m not sure whether I was more taken aback that he knew about mindfulness, or that he was thinking about mindfulness while en route to a sporting event. Maybe he recognized my frustration with the congested roads.
While I was aware of mindfulness, I wasn’t familiar with its practice. So, like any good parent, I turned the question back around to my son. “Maybe you could explain it to me.” He replied, “Mindfulness keeps you in the now. It helps prevent your mind from wandering off. It keeps you calm.”
Energized by our conversation and wanting to learn more, I reached out to Rana Chudnofsky, MEd, our mind-body specialist at PersonalMDs.
Brad: Rana, how would you describe mindfulness for those not familiar with its practice?
Rana: Mindfulness is 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. When an individual is practicing mindfulness, that person is focused on simply being in the moment. Focusing on the present helps one avoid racing thoughts. This is called the monkey brain, when a person’s mind constantly jumps from thought to thought, similar to a monkey jumping from branch to branch on a tree. By learning how to be in the moment, a person can get into a more relaxed state.
Mindfulness is not something you practice for twenty minutes every day. It is really more of a way of being, a way of conducting oneself in daily life. It encourages being present in the current moment, focusing on one task at a time. This can be difficult to achieve because our minds are so complex.
Brad: Is it safe to say that multitasking is the opposite of mindfulness?
Rana: Yes. If you’re always rushing through life doing many different things, it’s difficult to experience and appreciate what is around you at the present moment.
Brad: How does one practice mindfulness?
Rana: Mindfulness can come naturally, with extraordinary ease, in commonly encountered experiences. Awareness of the outdoors is one common example. What does the temperature feel like? Is there precipitation on your skin? Do you feel a breeze? What sound do the trees make as they sway in the wind?
You can practice mindfulness in any situation. Golfing is another great example. When you step onto the golf course, what does the freshly cut grass smell like? How does the club feel in your hand? Do you see the contours of the greens?
Today’s modern health clubs make it difficult to practice mindfulness. Music is playing, televisions are flashing images on their screens. But even with this commotion, one can be mindful. How are you positioning your body? Are your feet evenly balanced on the floor? What is the pace of your breathing?
Try practicing mindfulness at home. When speaking with a family member, really be present to what they are saying. This means no judgment, but an openness to what is being conveyed.
Being mindful is important for musicians and athletes too. Mindfulness stops the train of racing thoughts. If the musician is not present in the moment, the music will not sound beautiful. An athlete whose mind is not focused on the task at hand can have difficulty competing in their sport.
Mindfulness can contribute to healthy nutrition as well. When eating, do you savor the taste of each bite or do you rush through the meal? Those who eat more slowly with an awareness of flavors and textures tend to feel more satiated after a meal, compared with those who eat quickly and still feel hungry afterwards. Have you ever gone to a movie, purchased a bag of popcorn, and eaten the entire contents of the bag only to wonder how in the world did THAT happen? This is an example of not being mindful. Life happens, and sometimes the results are a real surprise.
Brad: Does mindfulness enhance our health?
Rana: Mindfulness can help many people but not everyone. Mindfulness is more of an adjunctive therapy. It may help reduce some physical symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression, but it does not alleviate all symptoms.
Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, was one of the first researchers to take the anecdotal claims about the benefits of mindfulness and meditation and test them in brain scans. She found that those who practice meditation over the long term have increased amounts of gray matter in the sensory areas of their brains.
This is logical because when you are mindful, you are paying closer attention to the present moment, to your environment, to your breathing, and to the sounds around you. It stands to reason that the senses will become enhanced for those who practice mindfulness.
Brad: Thank you for your time and for teaching us about mindfulness.
Rana: It’s my pleasure.
As a friendly reminder, Rana is available by appointment for all members of PersonalMDs who are interested in learning more about mindfulness and other forms of meditation. If you would like to meet with Rana, feel free to call our office or send an email and we would be happy to schedule a visit.
Wishing you a relaxing and mindful summer,
Brad Weiner, MD
This blog is for informational purposes only. It does not replace medical care from a licensed physician. Please contact your doctor if you have any questions or concerns.