Now that mindfulness and meditation have become the fad of the day, there’s a lot of promoting activities and practices that are not really mindfulness. From laughing yoga to breathing exercises to mayonnaise, there’s a lot of hype around products and services that are being called mindfulness - because it’s a hot topic right now and people naturally want to take advantage of it to boost their earnings. This is not to say that laughing yoga or breathing exercises aren’t beneficial – they’re just not the same as mindfulness. And the mayonnaise? I’m not even going there.
Just to clarify, certain types of yoga are considered mindfulness practices, as they require focusing on the breath and body with the goal of increasing awareness of both. But laughing yoga, which makes you feel great by the way, is about feeling happy. Breathing exercises relax us and calm us down. Even many guided meditations are not the same as mindfulness meditation. Guided meditations may help us learn to meditate, but they are typically full of visualizations created by the guide, not a focus on your own thoughts and feelings.
None of these are the planned outcome of mindfulness meditation, where the purpose is to exercise our minds to increase focus in order to learn to stay in the present moment. Mindfulness may have the side effects of making us feel happier or more relaxed, but may have the opposite effect. It varies by individual and we can only tell by experiencing the practice to determine whether it is right for us. We can also only be drawn to it by realizing we have certain needs that are not being met and are ready to try it. We can’t make someone want to be mindful nor can we buy mindfulness products to fix what ails us.
While we can practice mindfulness without meditation, it’s typically a much slower and arduous task. Most of us do not have the ability to stay focused on the present or on one thing at a time, especially in these times where there are so many distractions. It’s also somewhat exhausting to try to pay attention to our thoughts all day long, since we have around 70,000 of them daily.
Mindfulness includes not only paying attention to our minds, but our bodies as well. And again, when we’re busy working, running around, and trying to meet too many obligations without enough hours in the day, we quickly forget to check in with our minds or bodies at all. That’s why meditation can support us in becoming more mindful. Meditation is a formal method to train our brains, to slowly change automatic thoughts, and to get in touch with our bodies naturally, without having to remember to do it once we’ve gained the skill.
Meditation is a skill, which is why it requires regular practice. Think about your other skills. From playing a musical instrument, to playing football or baseball, to roller skating, to learning a new language – you didn’t start out as a master. You may absolutely stink at it at first. But just as with your other skills, it takes discipline at the beginning, where for many, it means making yourself do it for a certain number of minutes, doubting whether you’re accomplishing anything, yet sticking with it.
In neuroscience, it’s called the courage of repetition. And it does take a certain amount of courage to keep repeating something that you may not be enjoying or that you may feel you’re doing wrong or that sometimes feels like a waste of time. In today’s times, it even feels downright unnatural. I think it not only requires courage, but perhaps faith as well. Faith that if you stick with it, you’ll enjoy a lot of health benefits, mentally, emotionally and physically. But it’s not easy in the beginning if you’re not comfortable with slowing down or with recognizing your thoughts.
We have a lot of whack-a-doodle thoughts, believe me. We also have disturbing thoughts about our past, about unresolved emotional issues, and worries about the future. But this is one of the very benefits of meditation – learning how to let go of those thoughts, recognizing that we are not our thoughts and that many of those thoughts don’t serve any benefit to us.
For most of us, our minds chatter away all day long, full of ANTS.
ANTS are automatic negative thoughts and we have a ton of them. The acronym is perfect to me because if you’ve ever watched an ant colony, you know that they never seem to stop. There is a continuous line of ants marching to and from the nest, regardless of what is happening around them. If you destroy the nest, it simply pops up somewhere else and the soldiers march on. That’s how our ANTS work. They just keep coming and to make matters worse, the more we try to stop them, the more intense they typically get.
Mindfulness meditation, with consistent practice, begins to open a space between the ANTS and present reality. We cannot stop our thoughts, but we can begin to notice them and recognize the ANTS versus productive thinking. As we learn to detach from our thoughts in that new space, the ANTS have less impact on us.
This begins to shift our energy. We’re less drained from our daily activities because we learn to not only focus on our present tasks without the negative chatter running on auto-pilot, but also because we shift our lived experiences to the foreground instead of being lost in our thoughts. Instead of worrying about what may or may not happen in the future, we learn the discipline of focusing fully on the present, so even mundane tasks are more enjoyable because we’re fully experiencing the task. From something as simple as washing dishes, instead of thinking of how much we dislike this task, or using this time to rehash something that happened earlier in the day, we notice the smell of the detergent, the feeling of the soap on our hands, the suds or bubbles, the weight of a plate and the beauty of a fork or spoon. Washing the dishes still takes the same amount of time, but it becomes an enjoyable experience instead of an irritating task.
Consider eating. Many of us wolf down our food so that we can get to the next thing we need to do. But food is full of sensory experiences from the colors to the textures to the smells to the sensations in our mouths to the tastes. For most people, the only time we take this much notice of what we’re eating is when we eat something unusual for the first time. I was in a meeting yesterday where they did a menti-meter asking what the most unusual food we had ever eaten was and many answered insects, including me. Things like chocolate covered crickets and fried grasshoppers. I guarantee that the first time you eat a grasshopper, you’re going to pay close attention to every detail, from the crunch to the taste to the texture. But we can do the same thing with everything we eat and fully experience the miracle of the food before us.
Many of us see ourselves as standing still as life events happen to us. From this perspective, life is coming at us and for many, requires constant vigilance to defend ourselves from it. Mindfulness and meditation begin to change our perspective over time, where we are moving through life. I always think of those people conveyors at airports where stuff is happening all around us as we glide along. We can choose which experiences we want to hold onto as we pass them and which ones to let go of if we don’t like them. This moves us from feeling victimized to feeling more in control of the direction we’re moving.
This doesn’t mean we won’t experience unpleasant events in life. Suffering is a part of life, but it means we respond to those unpleasant experiences differently. As we’re rolling along our life conveyor belt, we begin to recognize that everything we pass by or through is simply an event. Each event provides us the opportunity to experience it and determine if it is something we want to experience more of or if it is something we want to let go of.
We’ve been introducing other types of meditation over the past few weeks that have different goals that result in various outcomes because I believe any type of meditation is beneficial to our current state of being. But mindfulness meditation has no specific experience goal. It is simply a practice with no preset outcome. We’re not trying to achieve a specific feeling or a spiritual experience or to achieve enlightenment. We’re simply practicing to increase awareness and the outcome will vary person to person. What we do know from thousands of studies is that it results in a lot of health benefits, but even that is not the goal, it’s more of a side effect.
For most, mindfulness and meditation lead to the ability to experience events as feelings – pleasant or unpleasant – which we move beyond as we continue on our path. It moves us to feeling our breath versus thinking our breath. It allows us to choose how we respond to every event. As we continue to practice, we stop wasting time judging events as good or bad because we broaden our perspective to understand that we don’t really know what is good or bad. We can only know that in this moment, the event is enjoyable or unpleasant to our senses.
As I mentioned earlier, many guided meditations aren’t the same as a mindfulness meditation, but they are beneficial to working our way up to sitting in silence and focusing only on our breath. They can provide us with visualizations to experience detaching from our thoughts, to strengthening our ability to focus through the visualization and to practice sitting still to meditate which can help create the habit of meditating. Keep in mind that some guided meditations are mindfulness meditations, where the guide is providing prompts and then allowing a period of silence for the meditator to observe their own thoughts. Some have a specific goal, like the loving-kindness meditation, which increases compassion and empathy towards ourselves and others.
Only you can decide when you’re ready to learn mindfulness, practice meditation and which type of meditation resonates for you. Again, I think any type of meditation is beneficial. I focus on mindfulness meditation because it’s non-secular which means it’s an option for more people than a religious practice and because it’s practical. We know from studies that it’s effective, it requires no special equipment or substantial time investment and at some point for most, if you stick with the repetition, you’ll recognize that you feel better, you’ll be less reactive and you’ll experience more of the richness of life. You’ll probably also enjoy less stress which is at the heart of most diseases, lower blood pressure, improved memory and a whole host of other health benefits, even up to living longer.
To gain any of these benefits however, you have to call up the courage of repetition. It takes a lot of repetition. And no one can predict when you’ll cross the threshold to enjoying meditation and never wanting to skip it, to ceasing to be the victim of your own narrative, and to experiencing life as a source of contentment instead of strife. The most beautiful aspect of all of this is that you get to choose, if and when you’re ready.
If you’d like to experience viewing your thoughts as separate from you and floating by you as you move through life, try the Flowing Stream meditation on our YouTube Channel. If you’d like to begin repeating a mindfulness meditation practice, start by sitting in stillness for a few minutes, focusing only on your breath. Pay attention to every detail, like the feel of it, where it goes in your body, the temperature, the speed, and any other detail you can. When your mind wanders, which it will, gently return its attention to the breath. It is actually noticing that your mind has wandered and returning to the breath focus that strengthens your mindfulness skills.
Until next time...Stay well, be kind, and remember you can choose to be mindful.
Have a wonderful week.
Mindfulness increases our emotional, physical and mental well-being. It can also enhance our focus and productivity. Perhaps most importantly, mindfulness strengthens our empathy and compassion for others, which I believe we need more of in our world today. So, practice mindfulness in everything you do. Spend at least a little time meditating every day. And remember to be kind to yourself and others.
We’re here to do more than just survive. We can thrive. And it all starts with a mindful moment.