By Dr. Michael Stanclift

What makes us feel alive? How do we know we are alive? Answers to these questions are probably quite unique to us as individuals, and the timing with which they are asked. But I also suspect, that our answers will follow predictable themes, and the idea of “being in the present moment” or being “mindful” will pervade our sense of what it means to be alive, and to be human. In these moments, we’re intimately in touch with what matters most to us, and filled with a sense of purpose.

From what I see from patients, and my own experience, it’s common to lose touch with our sense of purpose. This can lead us to feel like we’re “just going through the motions.” But in moments of being mindful, the very same behaviors that were “just going through the motions” can become deeply meaningful, as we understand the conditions that contributed to them. Allow me to illustrate this with a short story.

Recently my wife and I took a trip. We spent some time living in the UK, and hadn’t been back in a few years. We wanted to return to reconnect with some friends, revisit some of the places we knew, with a fresh perspective. After stopping in the UK, we decided to venture to a place that was completely new for us. Though these encounters were brief (much too brief, by all accounts), they were rich in experience. We’ve found travel really valuable because we have to adapt (at least a little bit) to local life. It’s one way we’ve come to know a bit more about ourselves, and what unifies us globally, as people. We’ve come closer to understanding what matters most to us, and what is mere whim or convenience… and I’ve come to realize, most of my desires are really for things that are convenient.

Our first stop was London. Two of our friends live there, an American and a native Londoner. We arrived on Election Day, and the place was buzzing with discussions about the present struggles, and future of the UK. Though I wasn’t voting, it was an inspiring time to be in the capitol. That night reignited the feeling of having a say in politics. Part of what made it so inspiring was the feeling we get when we’re an active participant in something that’s much bigger than ourselves. I understood, and to some degree, felt what people were going through. Rather than merely thinking about the experience, I allowed my senses to be fully engrossed. I can recall the volume of voices in the pub where we sat with our friends, the temperature of the air both inside and out, the weight of the glass I drank from. I was a bit fatigued from the travel, but at the same time excitement to be in a part of the city I’d never seen with good friends.

The following day we rented bicycles. While I enjoy cycling at home, this was a much different experience in many ways. The busyness of London streets, being on the left side of the road, and the unfamiliarity of the streets around me put my senses on high alert. I ignored the urge to have expectations of the experience, and I was able to feel excitement, rather than nervousness. Surely, the ride could be construed as mundane, but with the right frame of mind it was almost magical. I felt fortunate for all the circumstances that allowed the experience: We had no pressure on time, I knew how to ride a bike, I was healthy enough to do so, I had wonderful company on my ride, and to top it all off, I was in London, and it wasn’t raining… well maybe just a bit, but it wasn’t very cold, so that was nice.

The point of this little story is to momentarily remind the reader (and myself as the writer), the frame of reference for “living in the moment,” and being mindful. From my experience, the more we practice this (and I say “practice,” because it takes intention and effort) the easier it becomes to find our efforts doing this “effortlessly.” Being in the moment can become a wonderful habit that allows otherwise boring or even uncomfortable situations to become filled with meaning. It can fill us with the sense of being alive. We don’t have to travel across the world to experience this, simply nudging ourselves outside our comfort zones, and being curious is enough.

So how is this important to health? By consistently asking ourselves, “what else do I sense/know, in this moment?” we engage that curiosity that filled us as children. We shift our perspective, and influence our mood in a positive way. We reduce the stress we feel, and that is then translated chemically inside our bodies. Though this awareness/state of being can appear to be nothing more than a change in thoughts, the consequences can be quite influential. I’ve seen depression, anxiety, migraines, irritable bowel syndrome, high blood pressure, and chronic pain greatly improve after someone adopted a mindfulness practice. Just something to ponder…

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