When I heard that my 11 a.m. patient was ill and had to cancel her appointment, I took the hour to walk over to the coffee shop on the corner near our office. It was a gorgeous day with puffy clouds hovering over local snow-capped mountains, while here below, the 70-degree balminess exemplified the reason we live here– the best weather anywhere.
The coffee shop isn’t an everyday experience for me, so I reveled in the alone time to glance at the NYT headlines, and choose from among the newly shrunken pastries, which reflected the store’s stated dedication to a more modest calorie count. It was while glancing at the headlines in the health section that I noticed an article, “Mindful Eating.”
I immediately loved this topic – how better to introduce the idea of mindfulness than by taking one simple activity which we all do every day to survive – we have to eat. But what do we mean when we talk about mindfulness?
Mindfulness has been a buzzword in my field for the past 10 years or so. One of the people who initially introduced the public to the concept was Daniel Siegel, M.D., of UCLA, whose writing on attachment theory altered the way a generation of new parents think about how their babies learn to connect to the world around them. In his 2011 book, “Mindsight,” Siegel explains how mindfulness is a process of focusing on our own minds in a way which literally transforms our neurons.
Jon Kabat Zinn, M.D., a biomedical scientist, is among the first physicians to demonstrate the power of the mind in healing the body and staving off illness. He explains mindfulness as a way to rest in stillness—to stop doing and simply focus on being. He teaches the discipline of daily meditation, in which we simply focus on our breath, as the clearest path to becoming more mindful.
Most of us spend hours trapped in thoughts of the past or future and forget – literally – what is happening right now. Mindfulness trains us to luxuriate in what we are experiencing in the moment – showering, eating, making love, even driving in traffic.
Psychologists use the word “savoring” to describe the habit of stopping and taking a few moments to notice bodily sensations.
Take the example of my mini-pastry. I did an experiment.
First, I looked at the pastry and noticed its shape and contours, allowed my body-mind to fully appreciate its appearance. Next, it would have been delightful to smell it (but I was too embarrassed to sniff my food in a crowded cafe) and sense the sugary, buttery scent before touching it to my lips.
I finally let morsels of the treat fall on my taste buds, taking tiny bites … and then (this was really hard for me) put it down. Yes, put it down, feel the lingering effects of the taste in my mouth, and appreciated the piece that I had yet to eat.
In other words, I was really in the moment. By the time I was finished, my small treat took longer to eat than larger ones had in the past, but I can say that I actually experienced it in a way I rarely had before.
Living in the moment makes people happier—not just at the moment they are eating a raspberry thumbprint mini scone—but in a lasting way. Most negative thoughts concern the past or future. Anxiety, by its very nature, means thinking of the future. When you pull your mind into awareness of the present moment, worries about catastrophes melt away.
In her novel “Eat, Pray, Love,” Elizabeth Gilbert writes about a friend who sees a beautiful landscape and worries out loud, “Oh, I have to come back here some day!” We all need to remind ourselves that we are already here.
We live in a world that contributes to distraction, and that means that we are always doing something, allowing too little time to practice stillness and calm. Tie a string around your wrist or put your watch on upside down, and whenever you notice it, stop doing, and just focus on being … take just a few seconds, and you are guaranteed to notice a difference.