What is Mindfulness?

Who we are is manifested in how we are in the world. As an early childhood educator, I work hard to align my actions with my values and beliefs. A large part of my personal values is to be fully present for children, students in my classes, colleagues, and my family. Sometimes I succeed and sometimes I fail, but the act of being mindful helps me to put more checks in the succeed column than the fail one. 

What is being mindful mean? It is the act of being intentional with my actions. It comes up in little things, like setting down the phone, tablet, or moving away from a computer screen when someone shows up in-person. It’s paying full attention when I am on the phone or at a conference. At its core, being mindful is the act of doing one thing at a time.

Being mindful is hard --- it’s tough to do one thing at a time. 

People claim that we can do more than one thing effectively at once, but multi-tasking is a myth. There is a growing body of research that talks about the myth of multi-tasking. Listen to the NPR stories about the Myth of Multi-tasking.  What we are actually doing is moving quickly between singular tasks. The act of moving quickly between tasks is a human strength. This skill allows us to assimilate information in a way that helps us move through the day. It can also be a drawback, especially when something of importance is happening. 

When we rapidly toggle between two tasks, slippage occurs. The frontal lobes of our brain switch so rapidly between tasks that we fail to hold the information long enough to transfer it into our long-term memory.  When that happens, multi-tasking causes us to loose information - just like we never heard it. It simply slips out of our short-term memory and is gone.

This is why it is important to be mindful. In slowing down and doing one thing at a time, we gain a level of mastery (and memory) over our tasks or the conversations we are having. That being said, this is not easy. Multi-tasking is addictive, especially with technology. Our brains love nothing more than to create and seek patterns, it also equally enjoys the stimulation of new things. These two forces of patterning and stimulation of new experiences make technology particularly addictive.   

Multi-tasking, however, only stimulates certain parts of the brain. The parts that are required for critical or complex thinking are under-utilized in multi-tasking. The need for concentration and deep thinking rests on another set of skills---skills that are developed and reinforced when we slow down. The act of slowing down promotes mindfulness in children and adults. Specific strategies can be used to promote slowing down and building critical thinking skills. 

It takes practice to wean our brains off the multi-tasking rollercoaster and increase our mindfulness in our work. One of the ways that I work on being mindful, is to employ reflective practice. Reflective practice is the act of thinking about my thinking (metacognition). In thinking about my thinking, I am able to reflect back and project forward, supporting my values to be fully present.

The gift of being fully present is something that goes beyond personal gains, it stretches out to the children, students, colleagues, and my family. When I am fully present, the people in my life feel heard, and therefore valued. I know that I am being mindful when the people who are most important in my life are being mindful in return.

How can you go out and cultivate a sense of mindfulness today?