Recently, the oldest news show on television, 60 Minutes, did a segment on mindfulness and how it applies to the 21st century. While 60 Minutes is usually a conservative program that covers topics such as war, hunger, and other world crises from a western perspective, Anderson Cooper divulged in the interview that he always feels like he’s “someplace else” and doesn’t know how to live in the moment. This is why in the age of technology and distraction, the importance of mindfulness and other ancient practices such as yoga and meditation are coming to the forefront of our consciousness once more.
In a nutshell, being mindful simply means being in the present moment instead of looking to the future or back on the past. When used as a therapeutic technique, it involves calmly checking in on the state of your mind and body and accepting whatever feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations come to the surface. When these feelings and sensations come up and you accept them, the body is readily able to let go of anything negative that it was holding on to which makes room for a more positive state of being.
Experts say that the reason we are moving to embrace more non-western wellness techniques is because of our cultural fixation on the “work hard, play hard” paradigm that has us in a constant state of fight-or-flight, which is our stress response. When we overwork our bodies on a daily basis and get stuck in the work, eat, sleep, repeat routine eventually our bodies put up the white flag and surrender to illness and chronic fatigue. When this occurs, we look to the experts in western medicine to remedy these ailments and forget to fix why it is occurring in the first place. This is where non-western techniques come out to play and force us to take a minute to stop and breathe (literally). These techniques prove to be a lot more helpful at remedying our sympathetic dominant bodies than any prescription in the world.
So how do we become more mindful in our daily lives? As the 60 Minutes segment suggests, one way to be more mindful is to step away from our technological gadgets for a few minutes when there is down time. While technology has done a lot to advance the human race in the 21st century, it has certainly not made us more mindful. If anything, technology proves to be quite the opposite and has us in a state of distraction. One time I was so immersed in a game of Candy Crush on my phone that I missed my stop on the train! Not very mindful if you ask me. By putting away our phones and laptops and taking a few minutes to check in with our breath and be mindful of the state the body is in, we can learn a lot about how we are feeling and what we need in the current moment.
Additionally, deep breathing helps counteract the effects of the stress response and returns us to parasympathetic mode in which our body can rest and be in homeostasis, which is what our bodies are constantly striving towards. The reason that our bodies strive towards homeostasis is that when our body temperature, pH, and glucose levels are in check, our bodies can function properly and fight against the stresses of everyday life without getting ill. For example, when we get the flu, it is a sign that our bodies are not in homeostasis. Our body temperatures are higher than normal and our bodies are more acidic when we have the flu, which makes us feel sick. This is why it is important to help our bodies achieve homeostasis, and practicing mindfulness techniques help our bodies do just that by lowering our stress levels.
While deep-breathing techniques used in meditation can help our bodies achieve homeostasis, sometimes it can be difficult to jump into a meditation practice when we are so used to being on the go. Sitting in stillness can prove to be one of the hardest things to master, which is why it is called a practice. If you are not ready to jump into mediation, yoga can be another great way to relieve stress and practice being mindful. Practicing yoga forces you to bring attention to your breathing and helps you stay connected with your body. I often leave yoga class feeling light and elated, like all the stress of my day is left on the mat and I feel ready to take on my next task. One of the great things about yoga is you can literally do it anywhere! If you don’t want to join a studio, there are hundreds of free yoga videos on the Internet that you can follow along with in the comfort of your own home.
Acupuncture and Qigong are two other non-western medical techniques that are currently on the rise in the U.S. Both of these techniques have their roots in Traditional Chinese Medicine and have different practical applications, however the main goal of both techniques is to increase the flow of “qi” or life energy that is believed to have healing powers throughout the body. Acupuncture is used to penetrate the meridian of the body part that is experiencing pain in order to encourage the movement of qi, since the pain is experienced due to a blockage of qi. Healing is accomplished when the practitioner sticks several needles into the meridians that correspond to the injured body part in question so that blood flow is increased to that area to remove the blockages. Qigong, on the other hand, balances qi by aligning the body, breath, and mind through a combination of meditation, flowing movement, and rhythmic breathing that flows down to the core of the body. When qi balance is achieved, the body is better able to heal itself of disease.
With the new year upon us, make it a goal to be more mindful during your day to day activities and try out some of the above techniques. I invite you to let go of the past and stop dreaming of the future so that you can relish in the current moment and all it has to offer. Life can offer an abundance of happiness, energy, creativity, and freedom we just have to be mindful enough to take advantage of its offerings.