by Ann S. Williams, PhD, RN, CDE
This column is Part 4 of my series on stress management and mindfulness. In the first column, I defined stress as a reaction to a change or strain and discussed a few basic ideas about stress. In the second column, I defined mindfulness as awareness of the present moment, and I described simple mindfulness meditation. In the third column, I described how to use mindfulness to decrease your reaction in particularly stressful moments. If you have not read those columns, you can find them on the Internet: www.nfb.org and click on Publications or by contacting the Voice editorial office. This column is the fourth, the last of this current series. It covers a way to practice mindfulness while doing everyday activity.
Mindfulness describes a state of mind difficult for most people to achieve. In the last column, I described how, when people watch their flow of thoughts, most discover the mind moving rapidly from one thought to another, like a playful puppy in constant motion. Learning mindfulness involves bringing the mind back to some detail of the present moment, acknowledging it, and accepting it. Practicing this in regular times of meditation and in times of stress can help you keep your focus more and more in the present moment.
Another way to practice mindfulness is to pay close attention to your perceptions, as you do simple, everyday activities. Many people who do this regularly report they sense profound changes in the quality of their lives. The good feelings and happiness they experience day to day are greatly increased, and their negative reactions to stressful times are greatly decreased.
So how can a person begin to practice mindfulness in everyday activity? A very simple technique is to slow down an ordinary, common activity, and pay attention to the small experiences that make it up. Choose something you do often, and do it very slowly, noticing your sensations in each small step of the activity.
For example, think of sipping tea. A person sipping tea in the usual way may be aware of holding the cup, smelling the aroma before the first sip, and the taste of the first sip. The experience of drinking the rest of the tea may blend into one single experience that has to do with noticing the decreasing amount of tea in the cup.
Taking a sip from a cup of tea with mindfulness, however, is quite different. It begins with noticing the cup of tea in front of you. What is the shape of the cup? Is it tall or short, wide or narrow, thick-walled or thin-walled? Does it have a handle? What is the color of the cup? What is the color of the tea in the cup? What do those colors look like next to each other? Do you see steam rising from the cup?
As you touch the cup, you have a different experience of it. What texture is the surface of the cup? If it has a handle, is the handle warm or cool? Is that different from the temperature of the body of the cup? What is your reaction to touching the cup—do you like the feeling in your fingers, dislike it, or feel indifferent to it? Notice your feeling, and accept it, and continue to pay attention to each moment of experience.
As you lift the cup, notice the sense of fullness or heaviness. Also notice that as you slowly bring the cup toward your face, the scent of the tea becomes quite noticeable. What is that scent like? Is it sweet, pungent, or spicy? Do you notice a dominant scent and other weaker scents? Does the scent evoke an emotional reaction? And does the color of the tea look different as you bring it closer?
As you touch your lips to the edge of the cup, you will feel a temperature and a texture. What are these feelings? Can you feel steam rising from the tea on your face? If you inhale air through your mouth over the surface of the tea, without tipping the cup far enough to receive tea in your mouth yet, you will notice a faint taste of the tea. What is this flavor? Is it exactly like the scent, or a little different? And as you look into the cup up close now, what do you see? Do you notice small currents in the liquid? Are there fragments of tea leaves on the bottom of the cup?
With the first sip, notice the small movement of your wrist that allows the tea to flow into your mouth. Notice the slight shift in the weight of the cup. Notice the temperature of the tea as it enters your mouth and your perception of the flavor as the tea moves from the front of your mouth to the back.
Now, slowly lower the cup to the table. Notice the movement of your hand and arm. Notice the decrease in scent as the cup moves away from your face. Notice the shifting of the weight of the cup to the table as you set it down. Also, notice the aftertaste of the tea in your mouth. Is it the same as or different from the flavor that you noticed when you had tea in your mouth? Do you like the aftertaste or not? Whatever your sensations and reactions are, simply notice them, and accept them.
At this point, you may have spent about five to ten minutes taking your first sip of tea. Many people find that the satisfaction of a sip of tea is greatly increased by such an activity, but others may have a more negative feeling about this practice. Whatever your feeling is, simply notice it and accept it. You may choose to continue to drink the cup of tea slowly and mindfully, or you may simply go back to your usual way of drinking tea.
The tea is only an example. Any activity of daily life can be practiced with mindfulness. Someone might sweep a floor, wash a dish, pat a dog, eat a raisin, or do any number of other ordinary activities, slowly and mindfully. When beginning mindfulness, it often helps to do the same activity repeatedly for a while, perhaps daily, or several times a week.
To decrease stress and increase happiness, add the practice of mindfulness in everyday activity to regular meditation. People who do this often notice they start to experience a simple but profound shift in the ways their mind works. They may react to the small stresses of everyday life in quite different, less upsetting ways. And when major stresses come along, they are able to recover equilibrium much more quickly. As we noted in the beginning of this series, for people with diabetes, managing their reaction to stress is an important step to remaining both emotionally and physically healthy.