One way of bringing yourself to the present moment is by using the mindfulness skill called observe (Linehan, 1993). Observe is about merely noticing what is happening right now. It is just noticing, nothing more. Often it can be more powerful to just notice the present rather than think about the present. Observing is contacting, whereas thinking about is distancing.
In addition to getting out of the habitual, auto-pilot sorts of thought patterns that complicate our experience, the observe skill helps us check-in with what is going on right now. By checking in with what we are feeling we can make better decisions about what is right for us, right now. By checking in with our sensations, we can notice when we need rest. By checking in with our thoughts, we can make choices based on what matters to us.
In the previous article, a breath-mindfulness was described. This was one way to observe – observing the breath. This is a great way to begin formal mindfulness practice because observing the breath tends to help us quiet the mind and allow for a deeper experience of the present.
After observing the breath for a few moments, turn your awareness to other physical sensations. Notice the feeling of the air on your face. Observe the pressure of your legs pressing into your seat. Attend to the feeling in your fingertips. Feel your heart beating. You can scan your body from head to toe, pausing when you notice a physical sensation. Or you can allow your mind to go to whatever physical sensation arises as it enters your awareness.
From physical sensations, move to observing sounds. Without naming them, attend to different sounds. The whir of traffic outside. The humming of the air conditioner. The noises inside your abdomen. When a sound arises in your mind, attend to it.
Finally, a more subtle and consequently more difficult object of the observe skill, observe your own thoughts. Notice them come and go, without clinging to or avoiding any of them. Watch each thought appear and fade. Rising and setting like the sun. Not getting caught up in the content. Just watching them as you might watch the participants in a parade.
As you practice observe, you will undoubtedly notice your mind wandering to other things. As is always the case in mindfulness, the act of noticing it has wandered is a sign of success. Acknowledge that wandering is what minds are supposed to do, and gently bring it back to observing.
The key with this practice is to allow awareness of all of these events to come and go without clinging or attachment. If you notice an itch, allow it to be there. Make space for it by interestedly watching it. As you do, you affirm a level of acceptance for each moment. Rather than getting caught up in the “should be’s” of autopilot-thinking, you drop the struggle, and embrace what is.
As with most of the mindfulness skills, you do not have to save this practice for the five-or-so minutes a day you reserve for formal meditation practice. You can employ this skill in everything you do. Observe driving to work. Observe walking to your car. Observe eating you lunch. Observe at the gym. Observe in the shower. The more you use it, the more connected and present you’ll be, and the less your day will be caught up in the dramas your mind would otherwise create.
Linehan, M.M. (1993). Skills Training Manual for Treating Borderline Personality Disorder. New York: Guilford.
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