Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the world earth revolves— slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future; live the actual moment. Only this moment is life.
—Thich Nhat Hanh
I discovered mindfulness—the process of bringing one’s attention to the mental, physical or emotional experiences occurring in the present moment—long before I realized that it had a name or was a thing. In fact, when I first started writing this “Day in the Life of Mindfulness” series I wasn’t actually thinking about Mindfulness. I only added the “of mindfulness” part later. I wasn’t thinking about “grounding in the moment,” “being present” or even “being mindful.” I was perfectly clear, however, that I had stumbled on things I could do that cleared my head, calmed my emotions or uplifted my spirit every single time I called on them.
Now that I’ve connected all the dots, I’ve come to realize that more often than not and more precisely what I’ve been describing in these pages are informal mindfulness practices. Mindfulness practice comes in two varieties: formal and informal. The formal practice is what we would normally call “meditation” or “yoga,” or even a “body scan.” That is to say, formal practice involves setting aside a specific time to do a specific activity with focused attention on the breath or movement or sensation. The informal practice on the other hand is mindfulness in our daily lives. These activities work in the same way as when we do the formal practices, but informal practice can happen anywhere, anytime for as long or as short a time as we like.
When I wrote “Creating happiness everyday,” “Creating a ‘good’ present moment” or even “Looking at life differently” I knew I could find a bit of peace in everyday activities. Focusing on what is actually going on, instead of floating around in my head, or getting lost somewhere else in my imagination of “what if,” changes everything. Walking my dogs offers me the opportunity to relish the feel of the breeze on my face. Standing next to roses bush invites me to bend over and be enveloped in a scent I love. Burning my favorite candles and inhaling deeply lulls me into calmness. Walking my dogs, smelling roses and burning my favorite candles as a form of meditation each dispel the notion that being mindful is something foreign and exotic that require special props, locations or teachers.
There are innumerable moments waiting for you to be present and appreciate something if you’ll just stop to do so. Now that I know what’s what, when I hear spiritualist, Eckhart Tolle encouraging us to “always say ‘yes’ to the present moment… Surrender to what is. Say ‘yes’ to life— and see how life starts suddenly to start working for you rather than against you” I know exactly what he’s talking about. In mindfulness we relish feeling what we feel, when we feel it. So naturally, mindfulness is not to be confused with being “blissed out” and oblivious to life as it is, but dealing with life, now, as it is in all its perfect imperfection and complexity.
When we are mindful we focus our attention on something and that focus shapes how we feel in every sense of the word. The idea that changing your thoughts can change your reality is a cornerstone of Buddha’s philosophy. The first verse of the Dhammapada, considered one of the primary collections of teachings attributed to Siddhartha Gautama, considered the founder of the Buddhist tradition says, “[The] mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they [ideas] are all mind-wrought. If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox.” That is to say, how you experience the world starts and is created in your head. Traveling west, we find that Epictetus, a Greek-speaking Stoic philosopher, expands on that thought when he says, “what concerns us is not the way things actually are, but rather the way we think things are.”
In the west we are now studying what has been taught in the east for centuries. In the article “A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind,” Harvard Researcher, Daniel Gilbert’s writes,
Unlike other animals, human beings spend a lot of time thinking about what is not going on around them, contemplating events that happened in the past, might happen in the future, or will never happen at all. Indeed, “stimulus-independent thought” or “mind wandering” appears to be the brain’s default mode of operation (1–3). Although this ability is a remarkable evolutionary achievement that allows people to learn, reason, and plan, [and insured our survival as a species] it may have an emotional cost. Many philosophical and religious traditions teach that happiness is to be found by living in the moment, and practitioners are trained to resist mind wandering and “to be here now.”
Spiritualist, philosophers and scientists all suggest that a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Fortunately we don’t have to accept the default mode as the only way of being. When we are mindful, we are 100% present—within a matter of minutes and whenever we need it— we can change our mood. If you’ve been unhappy, discontent or just plain unfocused you can appreciate how great it would be to be able to unlock the power to change how you feel. Now you can. Mindfulness is that key.
With mindfulness it is clear we have a choice. Rather than remaining on automatic pilot as we move through our day, contemplating events; we can choose to bring our attention to what it is that we are doing, right now, in the present moment. What more, through practices we can actually train our brains to default to being present. That is to say, we can create long-term muscle memory for being present through the very act of repetition, which eventually allows it to be our default response without conscious effort. That means with practice—and my own experience proves that the change can happen rather quickly—when truly stressful situations arise, our newly formed muscle memory will begin to kick in and the impact of stressors will be reduced because our capacity to respond to external events will have increased.
The muscle memory is accessible to anyone. In Full Catastrophe Living, John Kabat-Zinn references Gilberts explains, “Mindfulness is a skill that can be developed through practice, just like any other skill. You can also think of it as a muscle. The muscle of mindfulness grows best when working with a certain amount of resistance to challenge it and thereby help it become stronger.” So if you sit down to meditate and your mind wanders, take a deep breath and be encouraged. That’s the resistance you need to strengthen your brain. Be assured that we are not trying to escape the world in which we live. We are leaning into the challenges of life to reach that place of bliss. The more we exercise the muscle of mindfulness the easier it becomes to cope with the full catastrophe of living.
I once relied on my informal practices to pull me from the grips of negative emotions and stress. Now I look to my mindful practices as preventative medicine to keep the blues away and anxiety in check. Whereas I once considered my monkey mind as something to be contained and controlled now I recognize it as my internal personal trainer inviting me to do a little resistance training by returning to the breath. Now you too can adopt or create mindfulness practices of your own and harness the power that is lies within you.