Mindfulness Meditation: Reducing Anxiety by Focusing on the Present Moment
I’m going on my very first cruise in April, and I’m a little worried about the incidental expenses. I’ve heard horror stories from other recent college grads (read: other folks like me who count their pocket change) who’ve gotten huge bills on their final day for alcohol, food, and other services they’d assumed would be free on their (supposedly) all-inclusive vacation.
And last night, appropriately, I dreamed that it cost twenty-five cents to walk through any and all doorways on our cruise ship. I’d walk into the restroom, and I’d be forced to shell out a quarter. I’d walk out, and it would cost another quarter! Quarters for entering and exiting restaurants; quarters for the pleasure of visiting the ice machine or the game room. I needed rolls of quarters in my pockets at all times.
The dream prompted me to think back to the anxiety management class I’d taken in graduate school. It was a semester-long course where we practiced many CBT (cognitive-behavioral therapy) techniques, including a technique called mindfulness meditation. Put simply, mindfulness is the state of being aware of your surroundings and living in the moment instead of thinking about what just happened or what’s about to happen. It tends to have a calming effect (and I can vouch for this personally) if you’re prone to worrying about the past or the future. You focus on experiences that we tend to overlook day in and day out – the ins and outs of your breath, the way your feet feel as they’re touching the floor, or the quiet hum of the electric lights above you. Things that nobody would ever notice if they weren’t paying attention.
During one class activity, we were each handed a single raisin to eat. First, we had to feel the raisin in our hands. Then, we were instructed to lift it to our lips slowly and then feel the texture of the raisin in our mouths – but without chewing. Then, we concentrated on the taste of the raisin. And (what felt like) a century later, we were finally told to chew it – slowly – and then swallow it. With practice, they told us, this type of mindful eating can bring your awareness into the present during all three meals of the day. Getting into the present moment, they told us, can help you to discard bothersome thoughts & worries.
One week in class, we were presented with a fairly difficult challenge. Sure, it’s easy to sit down at an anxiety management class meeting and practice mindfulness when you’re eating a raisin at a snail’s pace with others who are receptive to the idea of slowing down. But what about when you’re outside of that classroom, darting back and forth between class and your dorm room? How can you be mindful then? Or when you’re competing with every other driver in Insert-Your-City-Here during your morning rush-hour commute? How can you focus on the slow inhale and exhale of your breath? Or when you’re trying to quickly whip up some dinner for you and your hungry family after work? What then? How could you possibly focus on the present moment?
Our challenge was to choose a particular activity that we routinely perform several times per day, and use that opportunity to practice mindfulness – to briefly pause and realize that we are breathing, that we are alive, and that we are capable of mindfully disentangling ourselves out of the schema of stress that we’ve all woven for ourselves. We could take this pause at a moment of our choosing – whenever we’d look at a clock, for example, or whenever we’d sit down to eat a meal. One of my classmates decided to practice mindfulness while washing the dishes. Yet another student resolved to practice becoming aware of the present moment when he brushed his teeth in the morning & at night. My overzealous self, for some reason still unknown to me, chose the act of walking through a doorway.
Yes, walking through a doorway.
Do you know how many doorways are out there!?
I never realized how many doorways existed before I attempted this near impossible feat. Seriously! Doorways! They’re everywhere. And I’d never bothered to notice them much before….obviously. If I had, I probably wouldn’t have chosen them for this activity.
I left class that day, through a doorway, and focused on my breath. I left the Student Center & exhaled deeply as I pushed open the door that led me outside to a bus. And this bus, like all buses, had a door. And going through that doorway, I thought of the present moment. And leaving the bus through that same door, I exhaled. And entering my apartment building, I focused on my breath.
Already, I was exhausted and sick of trying to remember to be there – to be mindful, to be alert, to be consciously walking through each doorway I encountered. I walked through the doorway into my apartment and gave up on this mindfulness mess. It was too difficult, I thought.
But nothing makes a thrifty young college grad more aware of doorways – in dreams, at least – then a price tag. So, ever since last night’s (expensive!) dream about cruises and quarters, I’ve been noticing doorways more and more. So, I’ve decided that I’m going to give this doorway mindfulness thing another shot. I was inspired not only by my doorway dream, but also by Barbara Kipfer’s 201 Little Buddhist Reminders for Everyday Life, a book I found myself paging through at the bookstore this weekend. The book contains 201 gathas, or short poems, that can be memorized and mentally recited while performing an otherwise mundane task. They’re designed to pull you out of the dizzying mess of your overactive brain and into the present moment. Opening the curtains in the morning? Kipfer encourages you to fully realize that you’re alive, breathing, and welcoming a new day. Preparing coffee or tea? Sit and do nothing but breathe and drink your beverage. These short sayings seem to have tremendous potential to help me, a chronic worrier, to reduce my time spent worrying and to help me to focus on the present.
Kipfer didn’t write a gatha about walking through doorways, but I’m going to cook up a few words for the occasion. For the next two weeks, I’ll be conducting a personal experiment: I want to see if I can become aware of my breath, exhale slowly, and focus on the present moment as I pass through every (okay, almost every) doorway at home and at work. The gatha that I’ll construct for the walking-through-a-doorway occasion will include my favorite line from The Algebra Nightmare, one of my favorite poems by Al Zolynas. The poem details a dream about a horrifyingly nonsensical math equation that finally dissolves into non-importance by the end of the poem:
“…all systems begin and end in silence, nothing
needs solving, nothing is a problem…”
And from doorway to doorway, it’s true: when you focus on the present moment, nothing needs solving. Everything simply is as it is. Nothing is a problem — not the past, not the future, and not even mathematics.
Beretsky, S. (2009). Mindfulness Meditation: Reducing Anxiety by Focusing on the Present Moment. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 26, 2015, from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2009/01/11/mindfulness-meditation-reducing-anxiety-by-focusing-on-the-present-moment/