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In the present: Mindfulness puts the focus on the here and now

Updated 9:25 am, Wednesday, September 18, 2013
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Flexing your focus
The Mayo Clinic offers tips on mindfulness at mayoclinic.org:
Pay attention -- While in conversation with someone, listen to their words and then about "their meaning and uniqueness. Aim to develop a habit of understanding others and delaying your own judgments and criticisms," according to the clinic website.
Concentrate on the familiar -- Look at some of the objects surrounding you, but with fresh eyes. As you focus on finding new details about each, it will help you to become more aware of your world.
Focus on breathing -- Find a quiet place to sit, keep your back straight, but relaxed and begin to breath. Feel that movement in and out of your body and pay attention to its passage. Feel the way your body adapts and changes as you breathe. When the mind wanders, bring your focus back to your breath.
Awaken the senses -- The Mayo Clinic site offers this advice: "Get a raisin. Sit in a quiet place with your back straight, but relaxed. Look at the raisin. Smell it, feel it and anticipate eating it. Taste the raisin, and slowly and deliberately chew it. Notice the way the raisin's taste changes, your impulse to swallow the raisin, your response to that impulse and any thoughts or emotions that arise along the way."
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A typical teen with the attendant pressures of today's fast-paced world, Tessa Zimmerman often felt anxious.

"There is the constant stress of fitting in, having good grades and making friends," said Zimmerman, 18, who grew up in Westport. "The average teenager wants to help themselves deep down, but no one knows how to do it. They think the response is only flight or fight, but they don't know they have another choice."

Seeking a way to find inner peace in this busy world, Zimmerman spent the past several years researching and trying different techniques, such as exercise, proper nutrition and meditation. It was a form of the latter practice, known as mindfulness, that she said helped give her the tools to thrive.

Mindfulness is broadly described as an intentional act of paying attention to the present moment -- the here and now -- without judgment. It isn't about staring at your to do list and freaking out about what you suspect is headed your way tomorrow. It is about sitting quietly, remaining focused and letting thoughts come and go, free of entanglements, expectations and assumptions.

Since finding these tools, Zimmerman has worked to help other teens to become the masters over their anxious thoughts and feelings. She launched a program called ASSET (Awareness, Self-efficacy, Science of Happiness, Exploration and Touch and Connection) that she hopes to expand. For the next six to 12 months, she will work to attain that goal while living in Boulder, Colo., and attending Watson University, which fosters and supports emerging leaders and entrepreneurs.

She has achieved all this because she decided to concentrate and pay attention.

"There is too much overload for everybody; too much stress; too much anxiety and too much stimulation," said Ellyn Gamberg, a psychotherapist with offices in New York and Danbury.

Gamberg has reaped the benefits of mindfulness for years, and over the past decade has integrated the discipline into her practice. She is working to establish relationships with schools and create community mindfulness programs throughout Fairfield County.

"The one thing that all meditation does is that it takes you away from the outside and turns you inside," she said. "By turning inside, you are really able to focus, and the word `focus' is key. If you are going to focus on what you are doing, you are going to be better at it, no matter what it is."

Hearing such words might make one think mindfulness is simply an antidote to the multitasking that has become the norm. In reality, it is a discipline and practice that is extremely active. With, its reputation for reducing stress and increasing performance, it has made its way into classrooms, executive offices, hospitals and nonprofits.

Mindfulness has been part of the human condition for thousands of years, but for the past 30 years, the integration of mindfulness meditation into everyday life has largely been driven by the work Jon Kabat-Zinn, who is credited with bringing the technique to the forefront.

Next week, a revised and updated edition of his book, "Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain and Illness," considered a landmark tome on the subject, will be released. Kabat-Zinn, is the founding director of its Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. It was there that he developed the mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program, which helps participants bring mindfulness into their lives.

Certified yoga instructor Anne Dutton runs such a course at the Yale Stress Center in New Haven, where she is on the clinical staff. "It focuses on techniques of working with your attention," she said of mindfulness-based stress reduction. "Attention is a very powerful tool and its powers are largely untapped by most of us because we don't realize that it is continually wandering and moving away to different things."

That wandering often has a pattern associated with it, she said, which can create a repetitive loop that contributes to feelings of anxiety or depression.

When it comes to working with clients, she said the main thrust is to investigate the point where one is at the moment. It is not necessarily a process of getting to Point B, since life is a constant evolution. The focus in on being rather than doing.

Jennifer Simon, the founder of Stamford-based Rockin' Meditation for Education program, has brought the message of mindfulness to business and nonprofit leaders and students. With the testing and social demands of a largely plugged-in society, she said everyone is constantly "on," with little to no downtime. "It's all about helping kids find the ways to help them to relax," Simon said. "In the end, it is about helping young people develop an emotional intelligence. We are our own worst enemies. We limit ourselves, stress ourselves out, think about the past and regrets, what we should have done. Then, we project into the future about what may happen or not happen and stress about that. Mindfulness is becoming aware of that and taking the next step and deciding you want to live in the moment and experience life more fully."

christina.hennessy@scni.com; 203-964-2241; http://twitter.com/xtinahennessy