One of the commonly expressed regrets of people close to death is the wish that they’d paid more attention to their life as they were living it. They now recognize they spent far too much time rehashing the past and anticipating a future that often never materialized.
Where do you live? In other words, where does your mind spend most of its time? Do your thoughts tend to cling to events now past, or are they catapulted far beyond yesterday and today to somewhere in the nebulous future?
Not long ago while culling some bookshelves, I came across a journal of my favorite quotations. At the top of the list: a quote I discovered as a teenager that haunts me to this day:
May you live all the days of your life.” Jonathan Swift
I can still remember how perplexed I was when I initially read those words. Well, of course I’m going to live all the days of my life! What else could I do? Confession time: It’s taken me almost four decades to understand Swift’s wisdom, almost 40 years to recognize how seldom I truly live my precious, once-in-a-lifetime gift; because my mind and energy have typically been elsewhere in the realm-that-may-never-materialize, the next day, the future.
But there’s hope—for all of us–and it’s called “mindfulness.” Mindfulness” is actually a common English word that simply means, “paying attention.” While all religions have contemplative branches and practices similar to mindfulness, the roots of mindfulness can be traced back to Buddhist tradition.
Perhaps, more than anyone, it was Jon Kabat-Zinn, a molecular biologist with a Ph.D. from MIT in Boston, who translated this Eastern tradition into a concept accessible to the West. His Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction class (MBSR), first offered in 1979 at the University of Massachusetts, is considered the gold standard in mindfulness education. I completed this eight-week training in 2018 and I can attest to its depth, breadth and power.
Now when I teach mindfulness, I describe it as the practice of deliberately paying attention to the present moment, ideally in a spirit of curiosity, kindness and acceptance. It can be practiced informally, as when we focus our awareness on a particular moment or task; it can also be practiced formally for more extended periods of time, as with mindfulness meditation.
Whenever you bring awareness to your thoughts, emotions, or what you’re directly experiencing through your senses, you’re being mindful. In other words, whenever you recognize and accept whatever is currently going on around and within you, you’re practicing mindfulness.
Mindfulness is simple, challenging and profound: simple because any of us can access the present moment instantly anytime we choose; challenging because our nonstop minds are typically distracted with reviewing the past and imagining the future; profound because mindfulness empowers us to more fully live, appreciate and even come to accept, the amazing life we have only in this here and now.
Revered Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh described mindfulness this way:
Be there truly. Be there with 100% of yourself. In every moment of your daily life. That is the essence of true Buddhist meditation. That is why I like to define mindfulness as the energy that helps us to be there 100%. It is the energy of your true presence.”
If you’d like to learn how to “be there truly,” in your life, with “100% of yourself,” I invite you to consider some mindfulness coaching. As I said, while mindfulness is essentially simple, it’s also challenging and best learned and at least initially practiced with some regular support. I’d be honored to provide such support with both informal and formal mindfulness practices. I know of absolutely no better way of pulling yourself out of the past or future to more frequently experience your one and only present!