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Why being present is a mind-body exercise you should practice more

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By Dana Santas, CNN

(CNN) — In the holiday season’s whirl of preparations and ensuing festivities, it can be all too easy to get caught up in ticking off boxes on your to-do list. One of the best gifts you can give your family and friends is to remember to slow down and share your attentive presence.

Above and beyond gifting material goods, by showing up in a way that offers your mindful attention, you’ll foster better relationships by making your loved ones feel seen, heard and valued.

As an example, think of the beloved Apple TV+ character Ted Lasso, who approaches every interaction with a focused curiosity about the people in his presence. Even if you haven’t seen the show, you have likely encountered warmhearted people in your own life with that singular ability to make you feel illuminated. Their presence and the moments you share with them truly feel like gifts.

Of course, not everyone has the personality or desire to be the Ted Lasso of their next holiday party or family gathering. In fact, being present and attentive is easier said than done for most people.

With innumerable distractions and rising anxiety levels tied to many aspects of current culture, it’s seemingly normal to feel scattered and detached. And when your thoughts are constantly moving back and forth between past experiences and future worries, you miss the richness of moment-to-moment experiences and opportunities for meaningful connections.

Thankfully, according to Dr. Nathan Brown, a clinical psychologist in Bellingham, Washington, who has specialized in brain function and focus issues for nearly 40 years, your ability to pay attention is akin to a muscle — a muscle we all possess. “Although our culture doesn’t give us much opportunity to build that muscle,” he said, “with practice, you can strengthen it.”

Read on to learn research-based strategies you can practice to improve your attention “muscle” so you can appreciate each moment of the festive season on a deeper level.

How’s your attention right now?

To get a baseline understanding of your current ability to attend to the present moment, you can use the Mindful Attention Awareness Scale. Widely used by mental health professionals, it was developed by clinical psychologist Richard Ryan and quantitative psychologist Kirk Brown. Ryan is a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Rochester, and Brown is a faculty member in the department of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University.

The assessment is a simple 15-item questionnaire. You rate each question from one to six, and it measures your frequency of attention and awareness related to being present in events and experiences. A higher score reflects better attention, while a lower score shows room for improvement.

Once you’ve worked on building your attention with the strategies below, you can redo the questionnaire and see how your efforts are reflected in the score.

Exercises to build your attention muscle

When practicing any type of exercises for strengthening attention, Brown said the key tool is redirection. “When trying to focus, you’re going to get distracted and that’s OK,” he said. “Your mind can wander 50 times but as long as you redirect it 51, you will come out of the experience with a little stronger muscle.”

Try the following four ways to build your attention.

Tune into your mind

Mindfulness meditation practices have many benefits, research has shown, including improving attention. Even if you don’t know how to meditate or don’t think you have the time, it can still benefit you by practicing it in short consistent increments.

One February 2020 study with participants who had never meditated before found that just 10 minutes per day of focused attention meditation over eight weeks showed marked improvement in attentional performance and corresponding brain changes on an electroencephalogram, or EEG, which gauges the brain’s electrical activity.

Tune into your breath

Your breath is always happening in real time so it serves as the perfect anchor to the present moment. As a mind-body coach, I use breathing techniques all the time to help clients restore their connection to the here and now. There are a variety of effective, deep breathing exercises you can use, but you can easily start with a moment of simply following the path of your breath in and out of your body.

Tune into your body

The mind-body modalities of yoga and tai chi enable you to practice focusing your attention on intentional movement and related sensations in your body. Another very accessible technique is progressive muscle relaxation, where you focus your attention on one area of your body at a time, contracting and relaxing your muscles.

Tune into your senses

Seemingly mundane moments of everyday life offer many opportunities to put presence into practice. Whether you’re standing in the shower, folding laundry or sitting in traffic, try tuning into everything you can observe with your senses about your current circumstances. What do you see, feel, hear, smell and taste in those moments?

How to share your presence over the holidays

Brown said holiday parties and family gatherings increase the challenge of practicing presence because the unstructured nature of these situations can be anxiety-inducing. You may worry about conversations with rarely seen relatives turning political or negative. Brown advised going into these experiences with a simple strategy: Ask others questions about themselves.

“Approach conversations like an anthropologist … go in trying to see what you can actually learn about people that’s interesting to you,” he said. “In this way, you are creating a structure that will make you feel calmer because you’ll feel more confident that you’re setting a direction for the conversation.”

To foster deeper connections, Brown suggested using a motivational interviewing technique that focuses on asking the person “why” and “how” questions that explore the motivation behind their actions and interests. For instance, you can ask someone why they choose a particular career, place of residence or hobby. “This style of questioning allows you to get below the surface a little bit,” he said.

He also recommended keeping your phone out of sight when engaging with others to avoid dividing your attention and sending a message to those around you that you are not fully present.

Give yourself the gift of presence

As Brown mentioned, your mind will wander from time to time. Treat yourself with kindness as you make the effort to redirect and restore your connection with the present and, in turn, restore your sense of calm. Practicing presence is not only a gift to those around you but also a boost for your own mental health, research has shown.

In circumstances in which you find it difficult to focus and/or manage your anxiety, proactively step aside and take a momentary breathing break. During the holidays, give yourself the opportunity to savor all the experiences of the season. Let yourself sample seasonal treats while using your attention-building skills to mindfully tune into all of the tastes, smells and textures. Take a moment to listen to holiday music with an attentiveness for each word, each instrument and each note.

The level of attention you give your life in each moment creates your experience and perspective. Being truly present enables you to show up fully aware that your attention in that moment is the greatest gift you could give yourself and others.

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