How is your body positioned at this moment? How are your arms and legs situated? Are your shoulders slouched? Is your head bent over?
Regardless of the answers, you just practiced mindfulness simply by becoming aware of the present moment. We often go through a whole day without checking in with our bodies. Our minds are constantly jumping from one thought to the next without a break. We rarely allow our minds to rest for even a few minutes in a day.
However, being mindful does not mean having a completely blank mind. Mindfulness is purely being in the moment. It is not thinking of the past or the future but being aware of what is currently happening. This is the essence of meditation, one of the most common ways to practice mindfulness. Lighting incense, lining your room with crystals, or adopting a certain religion isn’t necessary for meditation. It can be practiced anywhere, anytime.
I have been meditating on and off for a few years now. I do not consider myself anywhere near proficient but have harnessed techniques that I implement at school. A great benefit is being fully present during a lecture. Everyone has thoughts that cross their mind in class. “I wonder if anyone has texted me.” “I wonder what is happening anywhere else in the world other than this classroom.” The skill of being more observant of my thoughts helps me recognize that my thoughts have wandered, and I am able to bring my focus back to the task at hand. An important part of this practice is not constant focus, but consciously bringing your attention back once it has wandered. This can be applied in the clinic, while studying, or even during conversations and interactions with others.
I can also recognize when I am having negative or self-deprecating thoughts in stressful situations. I can acknowledge the thought, understand it does not define me and let it go. Another important aspect of mindfulness is to not judge your thoughts. Believing or avoiding your thoughts can be detrimental. Instead, acknowledge them as fleeting objects of the mind.
In addition, it is shown that meditation can lower cortisol levels. A mindfulness practice can also help reduce the risk of suicide. Any type of mindfulness practice can be a helpful tool for prevention.
There are many ways to practice mindfulness, so there is a type for everyone. A good way to begin is with meditation apps such as Headspace, Calm or Oak. Yoga is also a popular way to practice mindfulness.
My personal favorite is focusing on your breathing for one or two minutes. Here’s how you do it: Close your eyes and mentally scan your body from head to toe. Note how you are physically positioned. Don’t change it, just observe it. Now, with your eyes still closed, focus on the rhythm of your breathing. Feel the air flow in and out of your lungs. Feel your abdomen softly rise and fall. Try not to control your breathing, but allow it to occur naturally. Continue this for the next minute. Your mind may wander to something else which is normal. Once you have acknowledged the thought, gently bring your attention back to the rhythm of your breathing.
How’d that feel? For some, it might be easy, for others quite difficult. The consistent focus isn’t the practice of mindfulness, it’s the recognition of the mind wandering and coming back that is the practice. Mindfulness is like a muscle you train. The more you train it, the stronger it becomes. This is challenging for most type-A personalities, a common trait of dental students. We continuously have conversations with ourselves throughout the day via our thoughts. We cannot be fully present in the moment until we quiet the mind and allow it to rest for a moment. Our families, friends, future patients and, most importantly, ourselves will benefit from just a few minutes of a restful mind each day.
~Gerard Scannell, Louisiana ’21