by Scott Marshall

The great Buddhist master Thich Naht Hahn once explained to a dear friend that there are two reasons to wash the dishes after a meal. The first is to have clean dishes. The second is to wash the dishes.

What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is simply the act of paying attention to your surroundings and your body. Sounds easy, right? It actually is easy for a brief period. The difficulty is in maintaining a state of mindfulness throughout your day.

A fundamental principle of mindfulness is the effort to be present in the moment that is Now. Why is that important? There is a litany of potential answers to that question and clichés we use as reminders to “Stop and smell the roses,” take time to recharge your batteries, decompress, and relax. These are all things that we know we need. Sitting by the beach and listening to the waves roll in feels good. We can let go during these periods and truly find ourselves enjoying the present moment. What about the time in between these respites of peace?

The stress that makes us need these things is everywhere: our relationships, work life and the news. We are constantly pummeled by things that induce a stress response. Yet, we often endure these things daily while waiting for time to decompress. What if you could have the ability to decompress on command? Mindfulness meditation offers that capability, and it is easier than you think to incorporate into your daily life.

Being Present
Mindfulness is about living in the present moment. Two very disruptive forces interfere with our ability to be present. These are worry about the future and regret or remorse about the past. When we allow these things to enter our minds, they take us away from the present. We may understand this, but keeping the past and future out of our present is complex.

Why be present? Because in the present, there is no worry, doubt, regret or stress. If you can imagine yourself sitting by the beach, focusing on your breathing and the beautiful surroundings, you will know this is true. During these times, there is no yesterday, no tomorrow, only now. Finding the ability to bring yourself wholly into the now at will and using it daily will change your life in amazing ways.

Benefits of Mindfulness
Perhaps 30 years ago, mindfulness was a relatively “fringe” idea practiced by new-age gurus and people with a somewhat different outlook on life. Since then, meditation mindfulness has taken hold of mainstream pop culture to decompress from the stress of everyday life. New studies have shown that mindfulness has tremendous health benefits.

According to the American Psychological Association, mindfulness has the following empirically supported benefits:

  • Reduced rumination and depression
  • Stress reduction
  • Boosts to working memory
  • Focus
  • Less emotional reactivity
  • More cognitive flexibility
  • Relationship satisfaction
There are physical benefits as well. Stress can damage your body. Studies have shown that those who meditate regularly and often have lower blood pressure and lower amounts of lipid peroxide in their blood. This compound hardens arteries and can cause atherosclerosis. Meditation boosts your immune system and improves brain function.

How to Begin – Just Meditate!
Mastering mindfulness is like mastering the piano. You don’t expect to play Rachmaninoff after a week of practice. You can’t expect to master mindfulness in the same period, but you can start and notice a difference. So, how do you practice? Mediation. A daily meditation mindfulness practice will give you the tools to bring mindfulness into your everyday life.

Mindfulness meditation is a state of being wherein you focus on your surroundings. Start by focusing on your breathing, which allows you to anchor yourself in the present moment. There is no more pure way of being present than attention to inhalation and exhalation. Once you have focused on your breath, think of your body. Feel your toes, feet, legs, hips, abdomen, and so on, taking your time with each body part. Doing so will help ground you in the present.

Start small. Begin by sitting in silence for 5-10 minutes, first thing every morning and every night before bed. If your mind wanders in the beginning, let it. Try to envision yourself sitting on the bank of a river and let the thoughts that enter your mind be leaves floating by. As your practice deepens, you will notice fewer and fewer leaves.

Once you feel comfortable meditating, you can bring this spirit of mindfulness with you as you live your life. You can meditate as you walk, cook, clean, etc.

Conducting this practice daily should produce immediate benefits. In the morning, it will set the tone for your day, and in the evening, it will set the tone for your sleep. Daily practice will help you develop the habit and ability to summon calm feelings at any moment over time. It’s easy to think of meditation mindfulness as something you do alone or in complete silence at the beginning or end of your day, but there are many more ways to incorporate mindfulness into your daily routine. Once you have done so, mindfulness will ultimately reduce stress in all aspects of your life.

Remember: when you are truly mindful, the purpose of doing the dishes is simply to do the dishes.