Portrait: Riley Mccarthy; Landscapes: Nancy Boksenbaum
Whether you thrived during the holidays and enjoyed all the moments or you merely survived—checking the boxes and feeling frazzled—chances are you’re looking for a way to reset from the busy season.
We’ve all heard about mindfulness, a form of meditation, and how it can help us be more in touch with the present moment. But what does that mean exactly? Clinical psychologist and mindfulness/meditation expert Dr. Nancy Boksenbaum brings a fresh perspective.
“I often think that ‘mindfulness’ is a misnomer. Instead, if I were renaming the movement, I would call it ‘sensefulness,’ ” she explains. “Mindfulness helps you break the trance of being on autopilot by inviting you to experience life more fully through your five senses.”
While it sounds simple, the practice provides major benefits. Research has shown that, over time, practicing mindfulness can increase the cortical thickness of the brain’s prefrontal lobe, the area responsible for executive function. In turn, it can help us to create self-awareness, compassion and empathy, and reduce stress and anxiety.
Dr. Nancy, who teaches mindfulness at Greenwich Point, the Perrot Library and to businesses, recommends starting with just three minutes a day five times a week and increasing to twelve minutes a day over time. Here, she shares key tips and practices to help you pause and begin again.
1 Take a mindful moment.
It doesn’t have to take long —even a minute or two is beneficial. “The everyday moments that we typically go through on autopilot can be used to downshift from pressured to present,” says Dr. Nancy. You can follow this practice throughout the day, as you’re pouring your coffee or steeping tea, waiting in the school pick-up line, brushing your teeth or rinsing conditioner out of your hair. Take a moment to bring attention to how your body feels, unclench your jaw, relax the shoulders and belly. Feel where your body meets the chair (if you’re sitting) and where your feet meet the ground. Take a long, slow, deep breath. And begin again.
2 Simply listen—when non-action is the best action.
Practicing mindfulness during non-stressful times develops the skills we need during crunch times. For example, helping you to pause during a tense conversation with your partner and then have a constructive conversation instead of an argument. Tune in to the sounds around you, welcoming them whether they’re from nature or manmade noises. If your mind wanders, gently return your attention to your experience of listening. Simply listen. Pass no judgment. There are no good or bad sounds. Only sounds. Take a long, slow, deep breath. For an enhanced sensory experience, try spending time in nature where the senses naturally awaken. Take a walk at Tod’s Point or the Pinetum; leave the airpods at home and listen to the birds, feel the cold breeze. (Dr. Nancy takes a walk at the Point most mornings to recalibrate and open the senses.)
3 It’s OK to have thoughts.
A key reason people say they can’t meditate is because they think too much. But mindfulness is not about clearing out all thought;
it’s about turning your attention to something else for a moment. Researchers at University of Miami have shown that 50 percent of the time people’s minds are hijacked. They’re lost in a loop, pulled into the past by regret or pushed into the future by worries, problem-solving, etc. Many of us are tired and wired from too much screen time.
Practice shifting your attention to your breath, and how it moves in and out of your body. Bring your attention to your right hand. Feel the sensations of the hand. Then move your attention to your left. Each time you shift your attention from your thoughts to what you want to focus on, you build your mindfulness muscle, even if you find your mind drifting.
“The moment you notice that your mind has wandered is the moment you become mindful,” says Nancy.
4 Befriend your breath.
We take about 17,000 breaths every day, so that means many opportunities to focus attention on the breath. One breathing exercise Nancy recommends involves a counting mantra.
“Mantras are especially useful during times of higher stress,” she says. “They break the trance your mind is in by giving it a competing thought or word.” Take a few breaths and tune into the sensation of breathing, feeling the breath at the tip of the nose, in the chest, in the belly. When you’re ready, begin to silently count your inhale and exhale. Breathe in, count 1, breathe out, count 2; breathe in, count 3 and breathe out, count 4. Continue you until you reach 10. Try a few rounds.
5 Help for habit building.
To help mindfulness stick, try habit stacking. Pick an existing daily habit such as brushing your teeth, walking your dog or making coffee and “stack” your new mindfulness practice with the existing one. Dr. Nancy offers a seven-day mindfulness course on the Kajabi app, called Catch Your Breath. She will also be hosting a class at Perrot Library on January 9. For self-care tips and mindfulness help, follow her Instagram @withdrnancy.