Mindfulness is a buzzword that’s been on everybody’s lips for a few years now, but it’s not unusual to have only a hazy idea of what it means. Learning what mindfulness is and how to practice it in your daily life can help greatly as you attempt to improve your focus and concentration.

Being in the right-now

The simplest definition of mindfulness is “keeping your consciousness focused on the present moment.” At first, that might not sound very difficult or worthwhile, but stop and think about how we normally live our lives. Have you ever driven all the way across town only to realize that you have absolutely no recollection of the trip? Have you ever eaten a whole meal without really tasting your food? Have you caught yourself three minutes into a conversation with your spouse realizing that you haven’t heard a word they’ve said? Such experiences are completely normal, because one of the downsides to human reason and consciousness is that our minds very easily occupy the past and the future while struggling with the present. After all, the future is practically eternal and the past consists of decades of lived experience, while the present is a mere speck of time which is gone before we’ve taken it in. In fact, the past and future are so much easier to contemplate, and thus so seductive, that we greatly prefer planning, reflecting, reviewing, worrying, imagining, reliving, and dreading to simply being “present in the present.”

“All of humanity’s problems,” wrote scientist Blaise Pascal, “stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” If you’ve ever tried it, you understand just how uncomfortable it can be. Most of us, when confronted with down time—in the checkout line, the waiting room, the train—whip out our cell phones to give us some kind of distraction from living in the present moment.


To be clear, projecting into the future and reflecting on the past are not inherently bad. They’re exclusively human abilities which give us a huge leg up over other species. Using your cell phone during an idle moment to check work email or play a mind-exercise game is not a waste of time. But for all their ability to reflect and project, humans are happiest and most stress-free when they occupy the present moment, so it’s important to carve out as much time as possible for mindfulness.

Occupying the present moment feels so good because it is almost always stress-free. If you think about it, you’d have very little stress if you could magically cut off your connection to the future, with all its worries about what will be—commitments, pressures, dangers, doubts—as well as your connection to the past, with all its regrets, embarrassments, sins, imagined do-overs, failures, and traumas. The tiny slice of time that is “right now” tends to be a pretty comfortable place to be, with only the sights, smells, sounds and textures around you as stimulus, and without any context invoking the past or future.

Believe it or not, achieving such a state is possible, although it takes some practice. And the benefits of mindfulness practice extend beyond the present moment. In other words, it’s not only a good idea to practice mindfulness because it grants us a moment of stress-free living, but because those brief snatches of living in the moment have a spillover effect on our general levels of wellbeing, including our cognition, which suffers under stress. What’s more, learning how to focus on the present moment offers us a powerful tool for dealing with stressful situations as they come along. If we can confront such crises for what they are, rather than carrying into them all the baggage of the past and dread for the future, we’ll handle them much better. And the same techniques that help us learn to live in the present moment can be used to boost our cognition, since they are essentially tools of attention, concentration and focus. The practice of mindfulness has been associated in studies with better sleep, improved blood pressure, reversal of memory loss, immunological health, and lower levels of oxidative stress at the cellular level.


Meditation, in varying forms, is the most common way to practice mindfulness. You may associate meditation with religious or spiritual practice, and while it can be done in those contexts, the point of mindfulness meditation is not to enter an altered state or connect with your subconscious, but rather to train your mind to ignore the myriad distractions constantly competing for your attention. Nor must you sit cross-legged, fold your hands, or assume any other prescribed posture.

Instead, try this mindfulness training exercise developed by Herbert Benson, MD, of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital:

  • Sit comfortably in a chair and close your eyes.
  • Turn your focus to the breath entering and leaving your body. Breathe slowly.
  • If you find it helpful, repeat a single word each time you exhale.
  • When sights and sounds take your focus off your breathing, acknowledge them and, without judgment, return your attention to your breath.
  • Your mind will fill with distracting thoughts. These, too, should be acknowledged and gently brushed aside so that you can go back to focusing on breathing.
  • Practice for just a few minutes per day at first. It will be extremely difficult at the beginning, but before long you should be able to work your way up to 20 minutes per day.

If you don’t have time for a full-on meditation session, you can grab a few idle moments to try a mini-session:

  • Count down from 10, exhaling deeply (from the belly) with each number, and inhaling deeply through the nose to deep in the belly between numbers.
  • Slow down if you start to feel dizzy.
  • Once you reach zero, see how you feel. If you have time and the inclination, do another 10 breaths.

Live it

Remember that the point of mindfulness training is not just to get good at meditating but to equip yourself with the tools to be more mindful in everyday life. So look for ways to grab some mindfulness as you’re doing chores, driving or spending time with your kids. Use the techniques you’ve been practicing to really taste your food, chewing and savoring every bite. Listen carefully and undistracted to the singing birds and distant lawn mowers during your evening walk. Feel the thrum of your car’s tires on the road and the coolness of the air conditioner blowing on your face. As you train for mindfulness and then put it into practice, you’ll find that you’ve created a cascade effect in which you’re less stressed, happier, and better able to focus on cognitive tasks.

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