I sit at my desk and stare at my computer screen. Although my eyes are fixed on the screen, I’m not really looking at anything. Even when my eyes move along the words, I’m not really taking in their meaning. I feel the restlessness creep through my legs and feet. My shoulders get heavy and slump forward.
These are my cues that I’ve slipped out of the moment. I’m no longer engaged.
In a matter of seconds, my mind will fixate on something that happened yesterday or last year. I’ll pull up my calendar and peruse upcoming appointments. Before you know it, I’ll pick up my phone and browse social media for no reason at all, telling myself I just need a break.
We all know that’s not the case. What I need to stop these telltale signs is not a “break.” I need to pull myself back to the moment in front of me. What I need is mindfulness.
Understanding your body, behaviors and mind is key to knowing when to reach for mindfulness skills. Mindfulness is a state of mind; however, it’s not a natural one. Even for those of us who practice it daily, mindfulness takes effort, awareness and intentionality.
I was first introduced to mindfulness as a graduate student working to become a Marriage and Family Therapist. The ability to stay present in the moment, remain curious, withhold judgment and let go of my own preoccupations was vital to being an effective therapist. I know what cues to look for that indicate I am slipping out of the present. When they start, I can instantly and discreetly take action. These activities are simple, and I can do most of them without anyone else even noticing.
While mindfulness might be new to you, there are four easy exercises you can try to learn to stay present in the moment.
Mindfulness Exercise #1 – Taking In the Moment
Bring yourself back into the present moment by focusing on your surroundings. I am fortunate to have several large windows in front of my desk. To prevent my mind from drifting from the present, I look out each window, starting with the upper left corner and working my eyes slowly back and forth until I reach the bottom right corner.
Then I move to the next window, watching the leaves move in the wind, noticing how different the grass looks in the sunlight and shade. After only a minute, I can already imagine the grass beneath my feet. At this point, I can feel my body return to the present, and I can focus once again. This works well even if you do not have a window in front of you. Try focusing on something on your desk or walls. Study it slowly and thoroughly, seeing it in a way you never have before.
Mindfulness Exercise #2 – Tension Release
The intent behind this exercise is to create awareness of the feelings in your body and to release any tension you may be holding onto that’s distracting you. I take a deep breath in, hold it and squeeze every muscle I can – clenching my jaw, squeezing my fists and pressing my toes into the ground. Then, with a slow breath out, I release the tension and feel my body start to relax. I continue to breathe in deep, and with every breath out, I release more and more tension from top to bottom. By the tenth breath, my body is relaxed and my mind can easily return to what’s in front of me without taking a “break” that is more distracting than helpful.
Mindfulness Exercise #3 – Walking Meditation
Gentle physical activity can help you refocus your attention. Meditating at the same time can help you gain new perspective and mental clarity. For projects that will take most of my day, I incorporate small, silent walks as often as I need them, with the intention of noticing my surroundings, feeling my feet on the ground and stretching my legs. After the first couple walks, I find that I need fewer and fewer because my mind is so attuned to what I’m doing.
Mindfulness Exercise #4 – Mindful Music
One of the simplest actions you can take is listening to music. I listen to music often to help me be mindful – not music that I love or even music with words. I listen to instrumental music that I’ve never heard before and don’t recognize in any capacity. The newness and unfamiliarity of the sounds keeps my brain active and focused. If I get pulled out for more than a few seconds, I close my eyes and tap my foot to the beat as long as I need to in order for my body and mind to return to the moment at hand.
Using these simple exercises, you can see that mindfulness doesn’t have to be a time-consuming, costly practice that interrupts your colleagues. What it does require is patience, awareness and commitment.
Even after practicing mindfulness for several years, sometimes I still make the decision to remain outside of the present, so have patience with yourself and do what works for you.
If you’re experiencing any of the signs of losing sight of the present moment that I described, I encourage you to test out these mindfulness practices to get back on track!