Behavioral medicine, neuroscience, and evolution all support mindfulness as an essential foundation for effective self-protection. Risk awareness and violence avoidance, as well as effective defense and counter-attacks, are all grounded in mindfulness.

What is mindfulness? The essence of mindfulness is to be fully present in the here and now - to perceive the present reality without bias, preconception, judgment, or projection.

Simple, right?

It isn’t simple for me. Even though I teach mindfulness in my self-defense classes, I’m easily distracted. I’m often preoccupied with thoughts about the past or the future. Rather than paying attention to what I smell, hear, see, taste, or feel, I catch myself thinking about and judging what I perceive, and often my thoughts wonder. I have to make continuous conscious efforts to be fully present with the people I interact with.

Smart phones and computers provide constant connection and information, and also constant distraction. I know I am easily distracted by my cellphone, alerting me to new messages, emails, or breaking news. At times, my eyes are glued to my Smartphone and the Internet engrosses me to the point that I forget to pay sufficient attention to my surroundings. And apparently, I’m not alone.

An extreme example of oblivion involves a shooting on a municipal train in San Francisco. All of the passengers appeared to be focused on their cell phones and tablets. None of them noticed a man with a gun until he shot a university student, Justin Valdez. The passengers apparently didn’t pay any attention to the gunman even though he repeatedly drew a .45-caliber pistol, pointed it across the aisle, and then tucked it in his side again, before he eventually shot Valdez in the back. The shooter even lifted his hand with the gun to wipe his nose, and no one noticed him. Describing Closed Circuit TV footage, District Attorney George Gascón said, "These weren't concealed movements — the gun is very clear." The passengers were in very close proximity with the gunman, and nobody saw his movements or the gun.

Did dozens of train passengers fail to notice a gun because they were hyper-focused on their digital screens? Maybe that’s too simple an explanation. Crowd dynamics and other human factors may also have played a role. But the constant demands of phones, computers, and media on our attention and perception make it difficult for many of us to remain mindful – self-aware and aware of our environment.

Constant immersion in digital worlds may not only affect our abilities to notice people around us; it may also erode our skills to perceive emotions even when we do “see” a person who poses a potential threat. Lack of face-to-face interaction may decrease our innate threat-detection abilities. Without enough practice, our competence to sense and interpret gestures or facial expressions, especially split-second-long micro-expressions, may deteriorate, and we many not note fleeting signs of anger, disgust, or contempt, even when we “see” another person. For instance, a brief sneer, signifying contempt, may alert you that a new acquaintance doesn’t respect you. Without sufficient practice in mindful face-to-face interaction, you may miss the sneer and other expressions or gestures. You may also miss subtle changes in pitch, inflection, tone, or volume of someone’s voice. Maybe you have progressed farther than I have in being mindful, but if you are as easily distracted as I still am, you may also benefit from mindfulness training.

Awareness and mindfulness can be trained. Even as you sit at your office desk, you can start with simple exercises like listening to sounds such as the humming of traffic outside. While grocery shopping, you can practice observation by consciously noting the hands and facial expressions of people around you. Sitting in a commuter train, you can experience sensations of touch, for example your forearm resting on a plastic armrest. You can also practice interoception, perceiving your body’s sensations, such as tenseness in your jaw muscles or queasiness in your stomach.

Chocolate Meditation - Noting sensations and feelings

A favorite awareness and mindfulness practice of my course participants is engaging all five senses while tasting chocolate.

Here is the exercise:

Choose a good quality chocolate. I prefer dark chocolate with a hint of ginger, sea salt, chili, or orange.

Listen to the sound of the tin foil as you unwrap the chocolate bar. Hear the sound of breaking off a piece.

See the piece of chocolate and note its shape, color, and texture.

Smell the fragrance of the cocoa.

Put the piece of chocolate into your mouth and feel its smoothness on your tongue.

Sense the change in its texture as the chocolate piece melts in your mouth. Taste the flavor and intensity of the cocoa. Try to detect any other flavors, like vanilla or sea salt.

Now tune into yourself. How do you feel? Content? Happy? Satisfied? Disappointed? Frustrated? Sad? Anxious?

If you don’t eat chocolate, you can do this exercise with any other food, like a blueberry, a raisin, a piece of cheese, or with a sip of water, coffee, tea, or wine.