What does mindfulness really mean?

We often hear about the health and life benefits of mindfulness, regularly reminded to "live in the moment." But what does mindfulness really mean?

The essence of mindfulness is to pay attention, right now. It means that if we are reading bedtime stories to our toddlers, here we are, reading bedtime stories to our toddlers. When you pick up your baby, you're picking up your baby.

It means that if you're struggling to get out the door in time, you are paying attention to what is actually happening and how the people and things around you are working or struggling. You're not thinking about how embarrassing it will be to be late or how many times before today you've had to search for your son's missing shoe or why your parenting has failed to such a degree that no one actually listens to you.

If you do have those thoughts, all you do is recognize and acknowledge that you're having those thoughts, and try to focus only on Right Now. Not the thoughts about the future (embarrassment of being late) or the past (how he keeps losing his shoes), and certainly not thoughts that ascribe value to something outside your current situation (being a failed parent).

Related: Ask the Expert: What Does Mindfulness Look Like in Parenting?

If you're a regular reader of mine, you probably know about "shark music." Shark music is the soundtrack of anxiety and fear. You're taking a walk in the woods. It's a nice walk in the woods. But if you imagine taking the same walk while the song from Jaws is playing, it's a very different walk in the woods.

Shark music is what your over-thinking brain does to warn you of danger, but it's confused about what is actually a threat and what is important to attend to right now.

I think of this part of my brain as a sweet golden retriever named Lily. She wants to protect me, but she thinks everything is something to be wary of. She barks at the mailman, the kids on bikes, the neighbor's toddler. She wants me to know she's still there and watching, looking out for me.

But mostly what I say to her is, "Thank you, Lily, go lay down." Part of my practice of mindfulness has been learning to recognize that my Lily is barking for no good reason. Then, at that moment, I try to love her back to her spot on the couch so I can get my work done or enjoy doing a craft with the kids.

Related: Just Be: Importance of Mindfulness for Mamas

You are having an experience and trying to focus on having that experience. If you let the shark music play, getting worked up because your Lily is barking, it changes your experience.

Everything happens in the moment. We can't do anything tomorrow. We certainly can't change anything from yesterday. The fullness of our lives happens when we live for right now.

We just do what we can or need to or feel is right, right now. If we always do that, our whole lives will feel right.

That doesn't mean that all your life experiences will be a wonderful. There will be Right Nows that you really wish were not. But as far as I've been able to tell (in my admittedly tragedy-less life) my fear of a thing is always much worse than the thing itself.

Three times, in my time as a parent, my "worst fears" came true. It sucked, every time, but it wasn't as bad as my mind had cooked it up to be. The worrying about it was worse than the thing itself.

That's why I'm working to bring more mindfulness into my life. If I can just experience what happens (whether I decide to judge it good or bad) instead of also having to experience my spun-up mind-Lily barking about it for days and weeks, life will be a lot easier.