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There has been a plethora of research on mindfulness in recent years. A simple PubMed search of “mindfulness" reveals over 5000 citations, with applications of mindfulness to areas of medicine such as oncology, chronic pain, eating disorders, obesity and depression/anxiety. Applications of mindfulness have also been studied in healthcare professionals to enhance their work experience. Mindfulness practices have been applied in our schools to cultivate mental well-being in our children. But what exactly is mindfulness? Yes, everybody says that it’s “good for us” but what are its practical implications for everyday life?
In today’s fast paced society, it seems as though everybody is constantly busy, not only working on the task at hand but constantly focusing on what is next and frantically “multi-tasking”. I say “multi-tasking” in quotations because there really is no such thing - we are simply switching between various tasks as fast as we can. In this way, only a fraction of our attention remains with the present task, a state of mind which may becomes detrimental to our performance. In fact, constantly thinking of the next item on our to-do list has been linked with burnout, a sense of emotional exhaustion, feeling a decreased satisfaction with life in general and it takes a massive toll on productivity.
Being fully present and engaged with one task at a time can do wonders for not only our productivity but for our mental health in general. I’ve experienced it myself - when I am distracted with different ideas and thoughts all at once that keep me from focusing on the work in front of me, I begin feeling scattered and lose my train of thought. On the other hand, being fully present in the moment can help us achieve a sense of flow.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has discussed the concept of “flow” at length. He says that when you are engaged in a task that is meaningful, you become completely absorbed. He goes on to say that the nervous system is not capable monitoring more than about 110 bits of information per second. Thus, when we achieve this state of complete absorption, we don’t have enough mental capacity to even think about our problems at home or a plethora of other thoughts that could be plaguing our minds. Some of the criteria he uses to describe the state of flow include: having an inner clarity of what needs to be done, knowing that the activity is doable and being completely involved in what we are doing. Flow, he says, is the secret to happiness.
Paulo Coelho says in The Alchemist, “If you concentrate always on the present, you’ll be a happy man. Life will be a party for you, a grand festival, because life is the moment we’re living now.” So how can we achieve present-moment awareness and a sense of flow in our day to day lives? Mindfulness meditation and drawing our attention back to the breath for just a few minutes a day is one of many strategies that can be easily utilized. But I would take it one step further than just focusing on our breath for 5 minutes per day. Meditation isn’t just a few minutes of focusing on your breathing; it's a way of life. Allow mindfulness and present moment awareness to permeate every aspect of your existence. We should continue learning from the past and planning for the future but simultaneously it becomes important to avoid ruminating over the past and anxiously thinking of the future by cultivating moment-to-moment awareness of our days. After all, life is just a succession of present moments. In discovering the magic of the present moment, we see that it is the only thing that has been there all along and it is eternal.