Accidentally Mindful


horses grazing in meadow with fog and a tree

The tip of his muzzle twitched and swirled around several blades of grass at a time. Then his lips pulled back to reveal his incisors. Bite and pull. Slowly, one hoof tilted, lifted and then landed gently as he moved forward at the pace of a sloth. I sat there, mesmerized by the simple act of watching the horse graze. I was 12, and though I’d certainly been exposed to more engaging forms of entertainment, I was enjoying one of the most interesting, intriguing moments of my young life.

It would be years before I could appreciate how special that morning was — before I could appreciate the amount of time and energy it takes to re-achieve a state of mind like that when you are trying. At the time, it was just a nice morning.

But now, I realize that I had entered a state of mindfulness. It wouldn’t be until my early 20s that
I would be formally introduced to the concept of meditation, and even longer before I realized you can bring a state of mindfulness to any activity.

The Mindfulness Concept
What is this concept of mindfulness? Do you really need to meditate to achieve a mindful state of awareness? What benefits, if any, do we gain from it?

Mindfulness is the concept of paying attention to your body and surroundings at any given moment; your mind is wholly committed to the present moment as if the future and past do not and will never exist. It can be achieved while you participate in almost any activity.

Meditation is just one popular way of learning how to be mindful. The most common form of meditation involves sitting, with the eyes barely open or closed, paying attention to your breath for short episodes of 10 to 30 minutes. During your meditation, certain thoughts will flit in and out of your mind — “Did I turn off the stove?” and “Don’t forget to pick up the kids at 3 p.m. today.” Sometimes the thoughts are much heavier, such as, “I wonder if I need to get help for Mom, she can’t even get up the stairs anymore.”

Enter mindfulness, the tool that takes us away from these thoughts and back into the present moment. Every time a thought comes up during meditation, we are to notice it and refocus our attention on the present moment.

Helen Vantine, cofounder of the Atlanta Mindfulness Institute, teaches mindfulnes-based stress relief (MBSR) courses. Vantine describes mindfulness as a tool akin to weights at a gym. Every time you lift a weight, your muscle gets stronger. Every time you notice a thought and bring your attention back to the present moment, your brain gets better at being mindful. In addition to Vantine’s mindfulness classes, there are many traditions (such as the Shambhala, Zen and Transcendental meditation) with centers in Atlanta that host inexpensive or free classes that teach you how to meditate.

Of course, sitting on a pillow for hours on end isn’t ideal for everyone. Just as I found mindfulness through watching a horse graze, you have probably already experienced a mindful state accidentally. Maybe it was while you were vacuuming, listening intently to the hum of the machine. Perhaps it was while exercising or commuting to work.

While you were in this “zone,” it was as if nothing else existed — there was no future or past. You felt no anxiety, no depression, no fear. Maybe you didn’t feel anything. Most likely you felt deeply satisfied, elated even. Bottom line: if you are doing something, you can always do it mindfully.

Benefits of Living Mindfully
That’s good news for all of us because the health benefits of living mindfully — in ways both seen and unseen — are many. Eating mindfully, for example, can lead to a shrinking waistline as you consciously consider what foods enter your body. Additionally, mindfulness has been proven to alleviate diabetes-related conditions and even manage chronic pain. The American Association of Diabetes Educators studied diabetic veterans and found those who engaged in mindfulness techniques improved their glucose levels and decreased their diabetes-related problems by 41 percent.

And what of the unseen? According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, an analysis of 47 studies on mindfulness found a strong correlation to the reduction of depression and anxiety among individuals who engaged in mindfulness techniques.

Finally, there is a Chinese proverb often repeated in reference to mindfulness: “Be careful of your thoughts, for your thoughts become your words. Be careful of your words, for your words become your actions. Be careful of your actions, for your actions become your habits. Be careful of your habits, for your habits become your character. Be careful of your character, for your character becomes your destiny.”

Should this proverb hold true, you just might see the entirety of your life positively   affected by living mindfully.

Atlanta Mindfulness Institute
Transcendental Meditation