“Pay attention!” If, like myself and many others, you heard that often from a frustrated parent when you were a child, being told to pay attention can be an anxiety-provoking experience, even as an adult.
However, this blog aims to flip the script in your head, just a little bit, and give you a new way of looking at attention and how important it is.
At its core, mindfulness is simply paying attention. Paying attention to what is happening, paying attention to how you feel, paying attention to what you are experiencing, to your emotions, to your food, to your children, your spouse, or your job.
The possibilities are endless, and almost anything that you pay attention to will improve. Even physical and emotional health, sometimes even when you aren’t specifically attending to health.
Let’s look at how this works and see the correlation between mindfulness and the health benefits.
Mindfulness Improves Mental and Physical Health
The intentional, formal practice of mindfulness has been studied many times. Most studies look at effects on mental health, such as anxiety, depression, and stress. Check out this study for more insight.
Practicing mindfulness has been shown to have positive effects on both mental and physical health. In addition to having less stress, anxiety, and depression, people who practice mindfulness have less pain, lower blood pressure and less bodily tension, as well as fewer physical symptoms of disease.
How Mindfulness Improves Your Health
Mindfulness gives you permission to recognize what you are feeling. Simply recognizing what you are feeling is a powerful first step toward making good changes.
For example, when I recognize that my shoulders feel tight and my stomach is tense, I then also realize that my laptop is at the wrong height and I am feeling the effects of poor posture.
Or maybe that’s not it, and the root of the tension is that I am afraid people won’t like what I’m writing. Regardless of what it is that I learn by paying attention to what I’m feeling, I now have a better foundation from which to begin to make changes.
These changes will help, whether that is moving my laptop to a better position or reminding myself that I am writing to make a difference and not to make people like me.
Mindfulness is often used for stress management. When you experience less stress, your body is more relaxed. When you are more relaxed, you will have less bodily tension and pain, and blood pressure will drop. My latest article Dean Ornish Lifestyle Program focuses on this topic a lot.
This starts a cascade of good things. Your kidneys and heart don’t have to work as hard; endorphins aren’t used up trying to control the pain (which means your mood will improve even more), and digestion gets better and you are better nourished.
Paying attention to what you are eating often leads to eating better quality food and eating less. Instead of mindlessly eating Twinkies™, you discover that they taste like cardboard and that you prefer the Larabar Kid™ Chocolate Brownie. – (Wildly delicious! It’s a personal favorite. 😉 )
Sometimes, when you begin to pay attention, you will discover that you have been blocking out physical pain, so it may temporarily get worse because you begin to allow yourself to feel it.
This is especially true for chronic pain, where blocking out the awareness of pain becomes a survival/coping skill.
Having lived with low to mid-grade chronic pain for well over a decade, I can tell you that paying attention to what hurts is worth it.
As I learned to notice the tension in my muscles, I learned how to do stretches that targeted the muscles that were tight. I discovered that a powerful anti-inflammatory combination of fish oil, curcumin, and vitamin D3 made a big difference in how much pain I have. If I had continued to just block out the pain, I would not have learned how to deal with the root causes of the pain.
Mindfulness is a great practice for managing chronic pain, among other conditions. Let’s look at how to get started.
How Do I Start Practicing Mindfulness?
Lest you think practicing mindfulness means sitting cross-legged by a waterfall, saying “om”…. Well, let’s just say that there are better ways to start!
Read a book. A real book with physical paper pages. The concentration and focus required to read a physical book trains your brain in mindfulness through the act of paying attention for sustained periods of time.
Thirty to forty minutes at a time is recommended for the most benefit. Best of all, reading is fun and informative, and—unlike some of the more esoteric mindfulness practices—is easy to begin and doesn’t feel like doing nothing.
Marvel at a bird’s ability to fly, how their wings flap in and out, how the feathers glisten in the sun.
Listen to the squirrels chattering. Feel the texture of bark on a tree. Enjoy the softness of moss on a rock. Pay attention to how your body feels; the tension in your back decreasing, the muscles stretching and contracting as you walk, the jiggly feeling of laughter in your belly.
Keep a journal. Write out the things that bother you, what’s happening and how it makes you feel. Chronicle your frustrations and questions. Also write about the things that mean the most, the things that sometimes make you sit down and catch your breath with wonder and gratitude.
Journaling is about recognizing what you are thinking and feeling, not about trying to change it.
Do an electronics fast. This could be as short as several hours or long as several weeks (although the longer fasts may not be practical depending on your business and family demands).
We often use media, music, and entertainment to distract ourselves, and fasting from all electronics can be a very effective way to make yourself pay attention to what you are feeling.
The fast can be combined with a guided retreat, so that you are also learning better ways of being and not just abstaining from the normal coping tools.
Sit quietly for 10 minutes. Don’t set expectations for what has to happen. Simply pay attention to what you are feeling. When you notice muscle tension, allow those muscles to relax.
Eat mindfully. Pay attention to the taste, texture, and smell. Notice when you start feeling full and continue to pay attention to what you are feeling after the meal.
(This has big health benefits, because you can begin to learn what foods make you feel your best and you are less likely too overeat.)
Run or walk or pedal while listening to music. The regular rhythm of bodily movement combines with the effects of music on the brain to encourage calmness and relaxation.
Exercise also requires discipline and focus, which is a core concept of mindfulness.
Spend time in prayer. Include both thankfulness and petition. We are made for connection with “someone or something greater than ourselves” (Martin Seligman) and prayer is a key expression of this connection.
Even secular psychology is beginning to recognize the human need for the divine.
Can a Christian Practice Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is often associated with forms of meditation practiced in several non-Christian religions. If that were all that mindfulness is, Christians would not want to practice mindfulness.
But mindfulness is simply paying attention. Attentiveness is both a natural outflow and an intentional discipline of Christianity.
Every time Jesus said, “Verily I say unto you”, that essentially means, “Pay attention. This is important.” And the phrase shows up at least 25 times in the gospels, indicating that paying attention to the words of Jesus is an important part of being one of his followers.
This video gives a short introduction to biblical meditation and mindfulness.
Philippians 4:8, with its listing of things to think on (focus on or pay attention to) is basically a command to meditate. “Think on these things.” This is an invitation to enter a place of peace and calmness, to deliberately focus our minds on what is good and pure and honest.
I’m not advocating taking up a non-Christian form of meditation, of which there are many, but I do believe that there is biblical reason to practice mindfulness and paying attention to goodness and beauty.
For a beautiful introduction to biblical mindfulness (what I like to think of as practicing Philippians 4:8) find a quiet place and get comfortable, then listen to this “Love Letter from God” and allow the beauty to sink in as you practice paying attention to what God says.
Paying Attention to Paying Attention
Mindfulness may not have been the first thing you think about when looking for ways to improve your health. But the evidence is conclusive; paying attention is good for your body, mind, and soul. It doesn’t get much better than that.
How are you going to pay attention this week? Do you think there is a connection between mindfulness and health benefits? Do you have some additional tips and techniques to share? Be Well!