Posted by Roberta Ward, Social Worker
“The past is gone, the future is not yet here. If we do not go back to ourselves in the present moment, we cannot be in touch with life.” ̶ Thich Nhat Hanh
Before I came to work as a social worker at JourneyCare, I was a volunteer for many years. During that time, I visited with a hospice patient, who I will call Susan. Susan was in her 50s and had ovarian cancer. One day she shared with me that she had been an avid golfer and that she was feeling sad that she would never golf again. I asked her if she would like me to take her to the driving range and she lit up. Her family was pretty nervous about the idea, but Susan said to all of us, “I want to live until I die.”
So we went to the driving range where Susan soaked in the sunshine and the smell of fresh cut grass. She enjoyed the feel of the golf club in her hands and the sound of the “smack” that came with hitting several good drives. She 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 buzz word. 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 - whether you are golfing, writing a report or caring for a patient.
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 well-being. The benefits of mindfulness are most fully experienced with ongoing practice.
When we are truly present, it transforms our ability to fully experience life, to really be with people, to listen more attentively, to respond more compassionately – to ourselves and others.
Susan was wise. People do want to live until they die. We can all live more fully by choosing to practice living more mindfully each day, and by growing the number of moments that we are truly present in our own lives.
In hospice, we have the privilege of being able to help our patients and families do the same.