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With health matters, we overemphasize the tangible: the food on our plate, the abdominals we may or may not have, the pills in our cabinet. Conversations highlight exercise and diet. We applaud one another based on the qualities evident before our eyes. Because our habits align with these proclivities, mental well-being is inadvertently cast aside. The mind is forgotten beneath the things we can touch and see.
Consider a theatre play: our attention focuses upon centre stage. We attend to what we see acted out and forget all else. Yet, the happenings before our eyes constitute but part of the production. Centre stage manifests properly only when the pulleys, controls and lights behind the curtain operate without issue. Such is the case with mindfulness and our health matters that manifest in consequence. When mindfulness—the backstage operations—remains neglected, things fall apart.
Broadly, 'mindfulness' encompasses a heightening of awareness, mental processes, or attention through practice and observation. Simple, but far from easy; mindfulness is as elusive as it is forgettable. Think of your own behaviour. Does forgetfulness or focus better describe your habits? Are you ordinarily distracted? Excessively excitable? When was the last time you took time to reflect? Even as I write an article on mindfulness, I'm writing with an apple in one hand and my email account pulled up on another screen while a sports podcast plays dimly in the background ('Mindful' certainly does not describe my present bearing).
Notwithstanding, a shift towards mindfulness begins when we notice moments of its absence, like the one I have described above. Conceding first that you have room to grow towards a more mindful comportment must be the first concession. Forgoing this fundamental step could make mindfulness seem specious like a cheap trick of a self-help swindler.
Substandard attentiveness is nothing new. While time away from our smart phone is a rarity, technological hyper-connectivity is not the scapegoat for our wandering, untidy minds. French philosopher Blaise Pascal addressed this long ago in the 17th century: 'All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.' The issue stems from an aversion to stillness and an incessant hunger for stimulation, which has become increasingly attainable and immediate.
Just as a lack of attention is nothing new, the remedy—mindfulness—is correspondingly ancient. The most prevalent mindfulness practice is meditation, a word today that has become virtually synonymous with mindfulness. Meditation—sitting or walking quietly to notice your thoughts, to notice your surroundings, to notice your breath—cultivates mindfulness. One begets the other, which then reciprocates in turn: meditation increases mindfulness, and increased mindfulness precipitates an improved meditation routine.
The practice is old, though it is far from outdated. In exchange for some quiet, unperturbed minutes, popular apps such as Headspace or Ten Percent Happier offer guided meditation, daily reminders, and the promise of a clearer, calmer aspect. A practice as brief as five minutes per day can kindle a more tranquil, focused and healthy mind. At CUHK, Prof. Samuel Wong of the Division of Family Medicine and Primary Health Care, reiterates this; his research encompasses mindfulness-based mental health interventions.
But even without meditation, a more mindful approach to each individual moment can initiate a richer experience across domains. A sharpened awareness of our thoughts, distractions, and breath can remind us to notice the moment at hand and watch it evaporate, rather than languidly, unwittingly letting moments slip between our fingers like sand.
Our mental state is at once wholly familiar and eternally mysterious, a perpetually changing point of space, time, and thought. Each moment is unique and irreplicable, and yet we habitually fail to acknowledge this. What would your life look like if you observed the uniqueness of each passing moment, if you took stock of your mind amidst the unabating chatter of the world?
When we discuss health, rarely do we consider our ability to be present and mindful. Well-being and fitness is measured in kilograms and kilometres, rather than attention spans and quiet moments. The gravity attendant to each moment remains unrecognized because, too often, the notion of mindfulness is discussed with a cursory dismissal.
Sitting quietly, reflecting, listening, and breathing can tame our querulous moods and fragmented thoughts to intimate some semblance of tranquility. It can help us respond and react to stress and fear with a measured, cool analysis rather than erraticism. With doses paid in minutes rather than dollars, day to day transactions can be approached with more equanimity.
Today, rather than acting and reacting, try sitting quietly instead and doing absolutely nothing at all.