I met Susan during the last few months of her life. She was a hospice patient in her 50s with ovarian cancer. During one of our visits, Susan shared with me that she had been an avid golfer and was feeling sad that she would never golf again. I asked Susan if she would like me to take her to the driving range and she absolutely lit up. Her family was pretty nervous about the idea, but Susan said to all of us, “I want to live until I die.”
And so, we went to the driving range where Susan took visible delight in the sunshine on her face and in the smell of fresh cut grass. She relished in the feel of the golf club in her hands and the sound of the “smack” that came with hitting several good drives. Susan was totally and utterly engaged in that experience.
I didn’t know it at the time, but Susan was my first mindfulness teacher.
Mindfulness has become a kind of buzzword. We hear it a lot, but may not know what it means. Mindfulness is the practice of being fully engaged in and attentive to what you are doing and experiencing in the moment that you are doing and experiencing it, just as Susan did at the driving range.
Mindfulness encourages us to be open, curious and nonjudgmental about “what is,” which increases our ability to respond rather than emotionally react to things. Mindfulness practices train our brains to notice when we are distracted and to return to the present moment by bringing our attention to things that are always in the present moment, such as our breath, our senses and body sensations. When our minds are not focused on what we are doing in the present, we tend to rehash things that have already happened in the past or worry about things that have not yet happened in the future ̶ all of which take a toll on our nervous system and disconnect us from our own life experiences.
Susan provided a wonderful example of being connected to one’s present moment experience. She was not worrying about her future or regretting her past, but rather, soaking in the fullness of her time at the driving range.
Practicing mindfulness, whether formally through mindful meditation or through informal practices (or ideally both!), has been shown to reduce stress, anxiety, depression and emotional reactivity as well as to increase focus, creativity, compassion and feelings of wellbeing. The benefits of mindfulness are most fully experienced with ongoing practice.
When we are truly present, we experience our lives more fully and learn to respond more compassionately – to ourselves and to others. Susan was wise. People do want to live, really live, until they die. When we choose to practice living more mindfully each day, we can really live a bit more fully by growing the number of moments that we are truly present in our own lives.