It’s quite easy to get caught up in the “busyness” of our daily lives. Keeping up with our full schedules, endless to-do lists, work deadlines, family obligations, and social commitments can reduce us from a “human being” to a “human doing.” We often don’t even realize when this happens, and our minds can easily shift into an echo chamber of internal chatter flying on auto-pilot. It’s not surprising that so many people struggle with stress, anxiety, insomnia, depression, and a wide range of physical and emotional issues. The good news is that we do have the power to keep our minds in check and to live more presently and deliberately through mindfulness.
So, what is mindfulness anyway? You’ll find tons of popular TED Talks, books, podcasts, and websites plugging the power of mindfulness, but what does it really mean? Does it mean to be at peace, to be a “zen” master, to have strong mind control, to only have happy and pleasant thoughts? While these may be temporary outcomes of practicing mindfulness, none of them really get at its overall purpose. Mindfulness is paying close attention to the nature of your thoughts and actually connecting with experience in the present moment. In its simplest form, it is the ability to notice what it’s like to be you from moment to moment…to observe the nature of your thoughts and experience without reacting. Mindfulness is often coupled with meditation, but before we jump into that, let’s get practical and look at some fundamental steps you can take to start practicing mindfulness right now.
First, simply unplug from the outside world by setting aside time to be with yourself, by yourself. No kids, no spouses, no pets, no cell phones, no distractions…just you. It doesn’t matter if you only have five seconds, five minutes, or five hours. Just be alone with your thoughts. This goes back to the importance of finding time for yourself that we discussed in the blog post Finding the Time for YOU. By simply setting aside a small segment of alone time each day, you will lay the foundation for a more mindful and well-balanced life.
2. Observing Your Thoughts
Once you have learned to consistently carve out some solo time and you want to dive a bit deeper into mindfulness practice, you can take the next step of focusing inward and observing the nature of your thoughts. This will help strengthen your ability to carefully pay attention and take inventory of what’s really going on in your head. A quick caution here…you might discover just how neurotic, ridiculous, or unstable some of your thoughts are. That’s okay because one key point of this practice is to realize that your thoughts are not you. That’s right…they are simply thoughts, and that’s it. We don’t have to give them the power to make or break our day. It sounds simple and maybe even strangely obvious, but these kinds of epiphanies can truly transform your thoughts, actions, and experiences moving forward.
One of the most organic and useful ways to observe your thoughts is to write them down in a journal. Writing them down can give you the authenticity and focus needed to truly observe your mind and track your progress. Our journals are the perfect tool for reinforcing mindful living in this way. As you consistently practice observing your thoughts and recognizing them for what they are, you will embrace this role of being a sober witness of your thoughts rather than a hostage held captive by them.
3. Practicing Mindfulness Meditation
If you want to take your mindfulness practice even further, mindfulness meditation is perhaps the best method for learning to live in the present moment and to better understand and experience the nature of consciousness. Whether you’re looking for everyday stress relief to get through the day or you want to reach deeper states of prolonged concentration, or anything in between, mindfulness meditation can significantly enhance your relationship to yourself and the world around you. And there are infinite ways to practice. Most people prefer guided meditations to develop their mindfulness skills with an experienced teacher. Many also enjoy meditations that involve breathing exercises. And some even practice mindfulness meditation while walking or sitting in a public setting, such as a park or the beach.
I first tried meditation in my 30s but didn’t stick with it. As I entered my 40s, I recommitted to practicing regularly by discovering an exceptional meditation app called Waking Up by acclaimed neuroscientist and author, Sam Harris. The Waking Up app provides an introductory meditation course, daily guided meditations, lessons on a variety of mindfulness-related topics, and even guided meditations for children led by Sam’s wife, Annaka Harris. These meditation sessions and lessons have helped me pay much closer attention to the nature of my thoughts, minimize unnecessary psychological and emotional suffering, and make healthier choices. I now use the principles taken from these meditation sessions in everyday life when interacting with difficult people, when battling hectic traffic, when noticing negative self-talk, or when powering through an intense workout. And once I experienced these real-world benefits of mindfulness meditation, I got interested in learning more about consciousness and what it can teach us about how to live more mindfully. One of the biggest take-aways from learning about consciousness is that the “self” – the identity we create for ourselves in our heads – is an illusion. While our notion of “self” serves a practical function for operating in the world, it sometimes creates the unnecessary suffering we encounter when we are not living in the present moment. This is another realization that can totally transform your mental and emotional health and your everyday experiences.