Do you remember being in school, stuck in the classroom listening to the teacher drone on and yearning for recess? Perhaps you started gazing out the window, watching the birds fly by and planning your next recess adventure…when suddenly the teacher’s voice cut through your daydreaming: “Pay attention!” At that moment, you realized that several minutes had passed, and you had missed something important.
If you are like most people, you often find your mind wandering. This is even more true today, when multiple demands and the constant flow of information from social media compete for your attention. There are times when we need to let our minds float free, and other times when we need to stay in the present moment. When we pay attention to what is happening right now, we receive valuable information, from our environment around us and from the inside; our emotional and physical state have important things to tell us.
That’s what mindfulness, or staying in the present moment, is all about: paying attention to what is happening RIGHT NOW.
Last week’s blog post was about what it truly means to stay present. This article discusses what to pay attention to.
Pay Attention to Your Body
We have forgotten that our bodies have important things to tell us. At any given moment, we are responding to what is happening not only in our thoughts, but in our actual bodies as well. Our body tells us:
- if we are stressed
- if we are experiencing intense emotions
- if we have energy or need to rest
- if we are sick
- and more.
Do you ever notice you are grinding your teeth, clenching your fists, or otherwise “gripping” tightly with a part of your body? This is a sign of tension. Begin to notice when you tighten and ask: Where do I feel this? What is the cause? What action do I need to take?
Do you ever feel fidgety, or notice yourself tapping your feet/fingers? This is your body’s way of telling you that you want to “escape.” Again, notice when this happens and ask: What is making me uncomfortable? Why is this difficult for me? What do I want to escape from?
Pay Attention to Your Emotions
Many of us have been taught that emotions are not valid sources of information and they are not to be trusted. Many cultures also believe that only certain emotions such as happiness are OK, while other so-called negative emotions such as anger are not OK and need to be ignored or squashed. If this is so, why do certain emotions keep coming up over and over? The key is to acknowledge the emotion and then to figure out what it is telling you. Emotions are neither positive or negative; they just are. It’s what we do with them that counts. Emotions are our body’s response to an event, and they are designed to give us valuable information.
If you are feeling joyful, what is the source? You have been given a life gift; celebrate!
- If you are feeling angry, investigate. What line has been crossed, and what needs to be protected?
- If you are feeling afraid, listen carefully; there is often a good reason for it and your body is alerting you to potential danger. Ask: what is the source of fear? Is it inside or outside? What do I need to do?
Two important things to note about emotions. First, pushing them down/ignoring them causes stress. If the underlying issue is not addressed, it can lead to chronic issues including ones that adversely affect your health. Second, reacting instantaneously to your emotions can cause harm (example – lashing out in anger by yelling at a loved one). Take the time you need to investigate the source so that you can take effective action.
Pay Attention to Your Surroundings
This seems like a no-brainer, right? it’s harder than it seems, and we miss out when we tune out. Check out these scenarios:
- How often have you been driving your car and suddenly realized that you drove several blocks (or even miles) without remembering any of it?
- Have you ever been out for a walk and spent the entire time with your nose buried in your phone? What kinds of things might you have missed?
- Have you ever tuned out at a work meeting, or during dinner when your son is telling you all about his basketball game, and realized you missed important information?
When we are physically somewhere but mentally somewhere else, we miss out on:
- potentially dangerous situations
- gifts of wonder and beauty, such as a gorgeous sunset or a brilliant flower in our neighbor’s yard
- hearing what someone important is sharing with us
- our own physical presence in that moment
Pay Attention to Your Intent
To stay present, decide what you want or need to experience. Get intentional. If you are going for a walk, set an intention to notice the beauty of the day, the neighborhood happenings, or anything else that you want to get out of the walk. There is no right or wrong — you get to decide. If you are working on a project, set the intention to minimize distractions and notice when you get off-track. If you do wander (and you will) take a mini-break to recharge and come back when you are ready. Decide if the moment calls for laser-sharp focus, or outward awareness of what is going on around you. Check in with your emotions and body from time to time. They will tell you what you need to pay attention to as well.
Bringing It All Together
Being present takes practice, so be patient with yourself. Notice the times when you are present in the moment, and notice when you wander. Your brain needs “work breaks” just like your muscles, so give it a rest when you experience brain fatigue.
Stay present with your attention and see what opens up for you!