Many of us spend the majority of our days living outside of our bodies. We are lost in thought — thoughts about what happened in the past and thoughts of endless to do lists for the future. With our minds living in the past and the future, we do not spend much time living in the present.
Thoughts about the past usually evoke emotions of shame, guilt, and regret. We think, I should have done this, I should have said that, and I wish had not done this and that. Similarly, thoughts of the future often involve worry and fear: I hope this happens, I hope that does not happen, I wonder what I will do if it happens. What if? What if?
There is not much reason to be lost in these thoughts because we cannot control the events of the past or the future anyway. We can plan for the future, but to attain these goals we need to ACT on them in the present. Really, the only thing we can change is our reaction to the present moment. The present is all we have.
This idea of focusing on the present moment is the foundation of the practice of mindful awareness, or mindfulness. According to the Mindful Awareness Research Center, “Mindful awareness can be defined as paying attention to present moment experiences with openness, curiosity, and a willingness to be with what is. It is an excellent antidote to the stresses of modern times. It invites us to stop, breathe, observe, and connect with one’s inner experience.”
More simply, mindfulness can “be defined as ‘moment-by-moment awareness’” (Davis, 198).
This “moment-by-moment” awareness has significant emotional and physical health benefits, as more and more research is showing. In an article published in the APA journal Psychotherapy, the benefits of mindfulness were listed to include:
- Regulation of emotions
- Reduced anger and anxiety
- More adaptive response to stressful situations
- Increased information processing speed
- Increased immune function
- And enhanced ability to feel empathy and compassion
All of these skills directly impact our ability to reach our goals. If we can react to the present situation with grace and equanimity, we are more likely to act and problem-solve our way into the solutions that improve our health, friendships, relationships, learning, and careers.
How do we obtain this present-moment awareness?
The practice of mindfulness involves many different tools and methods. One of the primary instruments to cultivating a state of mindfulness is cultivating awareness of the body. The body is the gateway through which we interact with the world around us — we feel through its senses and act through its motions. When we focus on the body, such as focusing on the breath and the senses, we begin to cultivate our mind’s awareness of our interaction with our environment. In fact, the mindful attention to body sensations is the junction “right at the mind-body interface,” as Catherine Kerr explains in her presentation.
In addition to cultivating awareness of the body, another way of connecting to the body is by expressing gratitude for the body. In the moment that we express gratitude for a body part, our mind focuses its attention on that part. More importantly, the attention is focused without judgment, because in the moment of gratitude, there is no judgment of good, bad, ugly, pretty. Expressing gratitude for a body part enables us to connect with that part in a way of loving-kindness and pure attention. This attention enables us to send healing energy, and it also sharpens our mind’s ability to focus — a skill needed in all areas of life.
As an artist and book designer interested in mindfulness and well-being, one of my recent projects focused on the intention of providing an experience of mindfulness through a book. The book was not meant to teach about mindfulness but rather to act as an experience and a meditation in itself. The book, Thank You, Me, meant for ages 4–8 and their caregivers, expresses gratitude for senses and body parts. In the 5–10 minutes that it takes to read the book out loud, it was my hope that the book would act as a meditation to focus the reader’s awareness on the body and express gratitude for it without judgment.
The book by no means acts as any substitute for formal mindfulness practice. As just one additional centimeter to the many-thousand-foot iceberg of mindful awareness practice, the book is meant to add to an existing routine and to encourage the reader to learn more about mindful awareness techniques. It is my hope that the experience of reading the book can provide children and parents with an opportunity to connect with their bodies, for at least the brief time it takes to read this book.
(Originally published on Medium.com. Read more of Elena’s Medium stories here.)