Mindfulness is the ability to maintain a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment without becoming overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on within and around us.
This may seem straight forward until we realize just how habituated we are to mindlessness and autopilot. We are unaware of just how unaware we are! However, anyone can be mindful. It is an innate human quality that we simply need to cultivate and relearn, since we were all born masters of mindfulness. Babies exist only in the moment, but as their minds develop their thoughts begin to take more and more of their awareness and the habit of mindlessness begins to take hold.
How to Practice Mindfulness
Mindfulness is a lifestyle, not simply a practice. It gives awareness and brings meaning and purpose to everything that we do. The more we work with mindfulness the easier it will become to catch when we begin to sink into mindlessness. Here are some of the most common ways we can break out of autopilot and bring about more mindfulness…
Meditation is a primary tool in cultivating mindfulness. Done consistently we learn to become aware of our thoughts and feelings while remaining detached from them.
Since meditation is such a useful tool which can be used to further various aspects of your Work, we created a dedicated page that covers all you need to know to get started.
Inserting short pauses into everyday life will create mini rituals to cultivate mindfulness as a positive habit. Here are some simple ways to bring mindfulness into your daily routines:
- Mindfulness check. Pick something that you would do through the day and turn it into an opportunity to practice mindfulness. I like to use the times I am stopped at a traffic light during my city walks. A common example I read about is when walking into a room or building. The trigger can be anything you find common enough to be of use. During that time take a moment to ask yourself “Am I mindful?” and let your awareness expand around you for a quick check. Become are of your breath, the weather, the people around you.
- Awareness game. Pick something you want to notice during your commute to work, trip to store, walk through town, or any activity you have an opportunity to play this game for at least ten minutes. Choose a color, or something common like the white iPhone earbuds and allow yourself to become aware of them all around you during that time. Simply take a mental note as you see them. Get creative in choosing what the target will be.
- Body scan. (This is also a nice way to prepare for meditation or to fall help you fall asleep.) Slowly direct your awareness up your body starting at the toes. Scan for tension and allow each area to relax before gently moving to the next area. Allow each area to soften and adjust naturally. If it helps envision the scan as a blue glow creeping up your body, washing away tension and discomfort. Linger in areas that need more time, using your breath to guide out any stress as you exhale. If you prefer a guided meditation you can search for “guided body scan meditation” for free recordings on the internet.
- Examine something anew. Take a moment to calm and center yourself, perhaps taking some slow deep breaths like you do when preparing for meditation. Allow your awareness to expand. Pick an everyday object and experience it anew with all the senses you can. Feel its texture and how it sits in your hand. Is it cold to the touch? How does it sound when your fingers run along it? Note its colors and various physical properties. Does it have a scent or taste? Imagine how an alien that may never seen it would experience it, or imagine you are a child learning around the world around you. Be curious.
- Explore someplace with your senses. Stand or sit somewhere (park, office, on the train – anywhere) and allow your awareness to expand as your explore the area with your senses. Start with eyes closed if you can so that you can let the other sense besides sight paint you a mental image of your surrounding. Note how 3D sounds are – some close, others far in the distance. Become aware of the depth. Try to do this without judgment or too much mental processing. Simply become aware of what your senses are experiencing all around you and all the subtleties in the environment that often go unnoticed.
- Put the phone away. Chances are you have a bit of an addiction to the distraction of your phone and mindlessly pull it out constantly. Don’t believe me? Leave your phone next time you head out for errands or a meeting, or ask a companion to hold it for you. Note how many times you reach for it. Chances are you already see others lost in their little glowing screens in your travels and fail to realized you are one of them. Here are a few ideas for breaking out of the autopilot (and addictive habit of )phone use mode.
- Have a rule that during a meal the phones are left in a pile in a corner or in another room. Be present in your meal and with your company.
- Set phone-free rooms or designated phone drop locations. For example instead of carrying your around with you in your home, place it on a table so you know where it is and can hear it ring if someone calls. No need to mindlessly check it constantly when home. Similar can be done at the office. Leave it on the desk if you can.
- Make note of when and where you would like to use it less, and when and where are active phone times. It’s OK to set boundaries.
- Tell your friends you are no longer responding to messages immediately. If it is an emergency they can call you. Otherwise you can check for messages when you choose to, not when the phone tells you to with it’s demanding beeps.
- Keep a journal. Developing a regular habit of keeping a journal will allow you to reflect on and articulate your thoughts, feelings and experience. This simple act makes you more mindful of these things.
Becoming Present in Your Activities
Merging meditation practice with other activities, such as while doing dishes, yoga or sports, etc. will help break us out of autopilot and learn to be more present in our daily life.
This technique is relayed to the value of conscious practice over mindless repetition discussed in our section on Practice. When we can be more fully engaged in the various actives of daily life, the more mindful we become.
When doing menial tasks such as the dishes or laundry, do it consciously and with purpose. Engage all the senses, the feel of warm water, the scent of the soap, the care in handling each dish and placing it gently in the rack and the sound each makes as it makes contact with the rack, the rainbow colors simmering in the soap bubbles. Consciously perform the task instead of doing it on autopilot. Perhaps you can explore ways do do things more efficiently or more fun.
A common characteristic I have discovered in learning martial arts, and doing physical exercise and yoga is that there is a significant different between doing each move consciously and with purpose over pushing through a move. Take lifting weights for example. I can take a heavy dumbbell and quickly do a large number of of reps but any trainer would shake their head in dissatisfaction. First of all if you do it fast you are cheating by using momentum and muscles outside the scope of what you are trying to exercise. Secondly you might end up hurting yourself because you are putting stress on areas of the body that may not be designed for that. Ultimately it is less effective. I get much less of the benefit of that workout for all the time put into it. On the other hand if I do slow, consciously controlled reps, the exercise itself will feel harder and I will not be able to do as many, but I get the full effect of the exercise with less reps actually needed. The more mindful we are in our movements, be it Yoga, in the gym, or at the dojo, the greater the benefit and impact.
Be it games, or being engrossed in a hobby or other pleasurable activity, find things which fully engage you. The sort of things where time seems to fly because you were so absorbed in what you were doing and experiencing. Not only does this cultivate mindfulness but it increases your capacity for joy in your life.
Do Easy (D.E.)
The discipline of Do Easy (sometimes referred to simply as D.E.), by William S. Burroughs and Gus van Sant is a great way to cultivate mindfulness (and grace) and have a little fun in the process. The below quote offers a decent summary of the discipline, and the video which introduced the method follows.
D.E. is a way of doing. D.E. simply means doing whatever you do in the easiest most relaxed way you can manage, which is also the quickest and most efficient way, as you will find as you advance in D.E. You can start right now tidying up your flat, moving furniture or books, washing dishes, making tea, sorting papers. Don’t fumble, jerk, grab an object. Drop cool possessive fingers onto it, like a gentle old cop making a soft arrest.
Like with mindfulness itself, D.E. is a lifestyle more so than just a technique. The more you can apply it in daily life, the more you will progress in its practice.
We Are Not Our Feelings
When I was going through a very difficult period in my life a friend and mentor reminded me of something which on the surface seems so trivial, but at the time really resonated with me and helped me work through those difficulties. He simply reminded me that I was not my feelings. Various feelings would wash over me, ever changing, and if I held my ground, and not let them sweep me away, eventually things would improve and life would move on.
In practicing mindfulness and meditation, you will become aware of many thoughts and feelings which can be overwhelming. In learning to remain a detached observer remembering that those thoughts and feelings neither define nor own us can be comforting and help anchor us to the present so that they do not sweep us away.
When we are in autopilot, feelings are in control. However when we are mindful we have the ability to step outside of them and choose how we wish to proceed.
I may not be able to choose my feelings, but I can choose how to respond to them.
Additional Benefits of Mindfulness
The section of meditation outlines quite a number of benefits which would also apply here, but I wanted to bring up a some key benefits specific to mindfulness here.
First in cultivating mindfulness you will find you are also fostering compassion, empathy, and altruism. In becoming more aware of ourselves and our struggles in life, we become aware that those around us are on their own journeys with their own challenges. Not only does this make you a better and more attractive person, but will help enhance your relationships.
Secondly, mindfulness involves developing acceptance, where we become aware of our thoughts and feelings without judging them. There is no “right” or “wrong” way to think or feel in a given moment. In practicing mindfulness, our thoughts tune into what we are experiencing in the present moment rather than reliving the past or imagining the future. It can help to tame, or at the very least, recognize our inner critic.
- Mindfulness is Powerful, But Keep Religion Out of It
- A Visual Guide to Slowing Down and Enjoying Every Moment
- Mindful.org (a massive resource about the subject)
- How to Notice, Shift, and Rewire Your Brain