Mindfulness Is Paying Attention to the Present

Recently, as I was simultaneously getting ready for work, taking the trash out, reading e-mail, and cutting a bagel, I sliced my finger — a good, deep cut. It stopped me in my tracks. Do I need stitches? What am I doing? I know better than this. And the funny thing is, I was rushing to get to a meeting at Physician Health Services at the MMS to give a talk on mindfulness!

So before I talk about mindfulness, I’d like to offer some musings on the opposite: mindlessness.

Mindlessness is taking action without active thought. It is not paying attention. It arises from the human tendency to operate on autopilot. When tasks and behavior patterns become automatic, we tend to perform them with decreased awareness. Throw in a little multitasking to the autopilot behavior, and we are now at risk of compromising the very things we are trying to accomplish.

If you have ever been unable to recall something you just read, or driven past your exit on the highway, or forgotten a name within seconds of hearing it, you have experienced mindlessness. When our attention is divided, we are at greater risk of making errors. Case in point: my sliced finger.

Mindfulness, then, means being attentive and conscious about what’s happening at any given moment. It’s the art of being present.

Mindfulness is developed through the repeated, intentional regulation of attention through a practice called meditation. Mindfulness meditation helps train the mind to wake up when it gets lost in habitual thinking, planning, and doing. By becoming aware of what’s occurring within and around us, we can begin to untangle ourselves from mental preoccupation.

Research suggests that the brain actually changes in response to mindfulness training. With the aid of MRI imaging, researchers can now see that areas of the brain related to fear, anxiety, self-regulation, memory, immunity, and even aging change based on how we direct our attention. Over time, the practice of mindfulness meditation changes the neural patterns that regulate how we perceive and respond to situations that are difficult or stressful.

When we are mindful, all of our activities (e.g., eating, listening to music, engaging with others) become more robust and satisfying, simply because we are more fully there.

Mindfulness enhances focus, concentration, productivity, and creativity. Studies also suggest mindfulness-associated improvements in blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and immune function, along with reduced headache and back pain.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, mindfulness allows us to experience physical and emotional discomfort at the level of sensation and to notice how it changes. By practicing in this way, we discover that the difficulty lies in our reaction or resistance to what’s happening.

Learning more about this practice can make a positive impact on a physician’s life and work, increasing awareness and attention during patient interactions. v

Tara Healey is lead mindfulness with Harvard Pilgrim Health Care. She has a master’s degree in health education and more than 20 years of experience in organizational development. This article first appeared in Vital Signs, a publication of the Mass. Medical Society.