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Being Mindful of the Present Moment

David Kearney, MD -- Seattle, WA

Recently, classes teaching mindfulness have received a great deal of attention in health care. This upsurge in interest has been fueled by multiple studies showing that becoming more mindful (being more aware of what is happening in your life, thoughts, and emotions in the present moment) results in lower stress and a greater sense of wellbeing.

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness has been defined in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine as: The awareness that emerges, by way of paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally, to the unfolding of experience moment by moment. When this definition is examined, a lot of information can be found about how mindfulness practice reduces feelings of stress.

First phrase... the awareness that emerges suggests that it is indeed possible to develop a greater understanding of ourselves, others, and life circumstances - and that this will occur naturally.

Second phrase... by way of paying attention reminds us that bringing attention to our experience helps us to grow. We begin to realize that our thoughts come and go throughout the day, and that these thoughts may or may not be true. Realizing that thoughts about oneself, others, or the future are not necessarily an accurate representation of reality can help to reduce feelings of stress. For example, the thought “I won’t be able to be happy because of my MS” can be seen as an idea or thought that may or may not be true.

Third phrase... on purpose means that it takes a conscious effort and personal motivation to help bring about a shift in perspective.

Fourth phrase... in the present moment refers to the ability to focus on what is happening in your life at this very instant. Getting distracted by thoughts of events that occurred in the past, or carried away by worries or ideas about the future, can stand in the way of living fully in the present moment. For example, research shows that ruminating (turning things over and over in your mind) is a key factor in the relapse of depression. Learning how to let go of these cycles of rumination is an important part of mindfulness.

Fifth phrase... nonjudgmentally refers to a non-critical, kind attitude toward experience. This nonjudgmental attitude means having openness to all experiences, including experiences we might not choose, such as painful thoughts or feelings. This is not to be confused with being passive. Rather, it is based on the observation that what is here… is here.

For example, if we are experiencing feelings of sadness or grief, judging yourself for having those feelings won’t help the situation. Although at times we can distract ourselves from unpleasant feelings by doing something else, in the long run personal growth is facilitated by ‘staying with’ a feeling and having an attitude of openness and nonjudgment. Staying with an experience and having an attitude of kindness and curiosity allows us to have greater insight into our values and motivations. What makes this process easier is learning to recognize and let go of added layers of self-criticism which promotes acceptance of oneself. When a person learns to regard oneself with less judgment, this often has the effect of spilling over to others, who are then viewed with less judgment.

Sixth phrase... unfolding of experience, moment by moment indicates that our thoughts, emotions, and life experiences are always in a state of flux. Our experiences can change gradually, and change may not be so obvious, or change can be quite abrupt and very obvious. Mindfulness practice helps a person to recognize the fact that experiences are changing or “unfolding”, and acceptance and recognition of change helps us to adopt a realistic mindset and openness to these new experiences.

Combining the above factors helps to bring about a shift in perspective, allows an increased focus on the moment, and often reduces identification with the inner dialogue we have in our minds. The shift in perspective is one of greeting life’s experience with an attitude of openness, friendliness, and with an eye toward gaining added understanding of what is going on. This shift can lead to an enhanced quality of life, decreased stress, better coping mechanisms, improved sleep, diminished risk of depression, and possible reduced need for pain medications.

How is mindfulness taught?

Mindfulness is usually taught through classes which teach mindfulness meditation. Meditation is a broad term used to describe exercises that develop skills in paying attention. An increasing number of VA facilities now offer mindfulness meditation programs, including a program called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, which has been shown in studies to increase mindfulness skills, decrease stress, and increase wellbeing. For more information contact your VA provider or visit your local VA education department.