Rather than trying to achieve a specific state or destination, mindfulness is a practice of noticing and allowing with compassion and kindness.
Last week, I wrote about what mindfulness is (and isn't) and how it differs from meditation. What I have found through my own journey of practicing mindfulness is that often when I feel whacked out, it's because I'm mindlessly running through my day and missing important cues for how to care for myself.
Feeling better is about cultivating cues for mindfulness throughout the day. There are countless ways to do this. The following 5 paths can help you to deepen a practice of mindfulness within your existing routine:
Path 1: Anchor your attention in 3 ways.
1. You can anchor attention to your breath through counting breaths or narrating the in and out breaths. (You don't have to be sitting with your eyes closed to do this, however, carving out some space to do this is a big boost in building the habit of anchoring to your breath).
2. You can anchor to sensations in the body. Try it. Do a body scan. Take a moment to notice what's happening inside. Is there tension in your shoulders or brow? Notice it gently. What do your clothes feel like on your skin? What are your feet touching? There is a whole world inside of you. Your senses are the bridge to the outer world.
Want to give yourself a gift? Try this:
The next time you eat a meal, practice slowing down to fully savor each bite. I frequently find myself shoveling down my food in the rush of the day's to-do's only to reminisce about how good it was the moment it's over. Do you? It takes conscious effort to remind myself to take a moment and savor the flavors, textures, and colors I'm consuming throughout the whole meal. It's a practice that feels easier some days than others, but is worth the effort. When you try it, you'll likely notice your mind wander after a few bites. As soon as you notice, gently come back to the sensation of chewing. Eating with intention allows us to enjoy our food more and feel more satisfied when we're finished.
3. You can anchor to the sounds around you. It's a rare and special moment when we find ourselves in complete silence. Most of the time we tune out a steady stream of noise around us. In my house, there is a steady cacophony of small noises from the distant hum of traffic on the highway, to the voices of neighbors, the occasional dog barking, ambulances from the hospital down the street, and more.
In the sweet moments where those sounds are hushed, I can hear the sound of my cats purring or the air diffusers running. Even now as I savor near silence, the sound of the keys clacking as I write this anchors me in the present moment. I've come to love that sound: thoughts exiting the body. Experiment with which anchors are most potent for you.
Path 2: Practice identifying and allowing your emotions.
Our active minds generate thousands of thoughts per day. Each thought generates emotions. Our emotions influence our actions. Our actions create our habits and our habits dictate our results. Many times we get stuck in thought and feeling loops. The irony here is that often what we resist, persists.
Rather than fight or attempt to change what you're feeling, name it and practice allowing it. Surrendering how you feel to merely observing releases the pressure by building awareness and resilience. By slowing down to tune in to what’s happening under the surface, we can create new options for where and how to focus our attention, expediting the shift out of uncomfortable emotions more quickly as we do.
Path 3: Note your energy shifts.
Have you ever been in a really crabby mood and then had an unexpectedly wonderful encounter with someone (or gone for a walk, or taken a shower, or been smiled at by a dog or baby, or any other small moment) that brought about a total shift in how you felt almost instantly?
Notice when this happens. Relish it and keep track of that bad boy.
I used to experience this sudden shift when I taught art to the itty bittiest CosmicKIDS in SF. Pre-pandemic, I worked with clients in their homes and at various school sites. What seemed like plenty of time to commute across SF was often met with traffic induced stress-episodes over because I hate being late. I'd often arrive in the knick of time, dripping sweat from an hour of fight or flight across the Bay, but, the minute I got there and had a little K or 1st grade cutie run up and hug me, smile and ask with an excited twinkle in their eye "what project are we doing today?" Well, shucks, that stress would just roll right off me and I'd forget all about the last hour of Daytona 500 across the Bay.
Notice what beings, places, and activities offer you this fast energetic boost. This is your parasympathetic nervous system kicking in to ease you. Do yourself a favor and keep a list of quick "shifts" in sight. I have mine on a post-it in my office because the visual menu helps when inevitable stressors emerge. You may also want to note which people, places, or activity suck the energy out of you. Plan accordingly.
Path 4: Notice inner judgement.
Like our emotions, often our internal judgements go unnoticed. Noticing when we are judging ourselves or others is mindfulness. Noticing our nature to think and feel and even do on auto-pilot, with compassion, is the practice of mindfulness. That's when we come back to our anchors in the present moment.
There is an incredible book called Positive Intelligence by Shirzad Chamine. In it, he discusses the power of recognizing our own inner (universal) judge as a cue for practicing mindfulness. The amazing part of this book is that he never actually names any of the super easy practices (like wiggling your toes or rubbing your fingers together) as mindfulness, which helps make the practice of mindfulness feel more accessible. There's much more in the book, which I highly recommend to anyone invested in improving any area of their life.
Path 5: Shake it off!
No, I'm not quoting a Taylor Swift song as the path to greater mindfulness in your day, unless said song gets you up and shakin that groove thang! Song references aside, when you're all up in your head and can't seem to shake the funk: Move!
Go for a walk or a run, put on a song and dance, jump rope, do some burpees or yoga, literally stand there and wiggle or sway... anything to move your body. For an added bonus while you move, see if you can practice noticing what the ground feels like under your feet, how the air feels in your lungs, what your arms are doing. When your mind drifts back to your to-do list or the annoying thing dragging you down, notice and gently come back to the sensations of the moment. Coming back to yourself in the moment is mindfulness. It doesn't matter how many times your brain runs away in thought. The power is in coming back.
Gifting myself little moments like this throughout my day has truly shifted how I relate to myself, external events and the people around me. I hope you will practice these paths to greater mindfulness as you develop your own set of tools for transcendence.