As we approach the end of the calendar year, and for most of us, this year’s been a doozy, it’s a perfect time to take a pause. Normally, this time of year is full of the hustle and bustle of the holidays but since we’re restricted from many of these activities, why not take advantage of this unusual situation and dedicate some serious time to reflect on where you are, how you are and where you might want to go?
Mindfulness and mindfulness meditation are powerful practices that can not only support you in understanding where you are and how you are, but with practice, can deliver clarity in assessing not only where you might want to go, but how to get there.
Mindfulness has become a pop culture buzz word over the past couple of years, which I see as both a positive and a negative. If a 2-minute mindfulness app exercise introduces someone to mindfulness, that’s a positive. If that person believes they will reap the mental, emotional and physical benefits of mindfulness from using that 2-minute app, that’s not so positive, because it’s simply not true.
I believe part of the reason for the mindfulness craze is because people try it and feel an immediate sense of relaxation. It’s true that for many people, sitting calmly for a couple of minutes and focusing on your breath does calm your system down and feels relaxing. In a world where we live at a frantic pace and are overloaded with tasks, responsibilities and pressures, a couple of minutes of feeling relaxed feels like a miracle. But there are two problems with this. First, the goal of mindfulness is not relaxation. Second, that relaxation won’t stick – it will dissipate shortly after you finish the exercise.
Mindfulness is present awareness of what’s occurring within in and around us, without judgment. Ideally, it’s observing our inner and outer landscape with a sense of curiosity. Mindfulness meditation is the most powerful technique to increase our level of mindfulness. Relaxation that results from these practices is a side effect and just like with a prescription, not everyone gets the same side effects. Some people experience unsettling emotions from these practices that can lead to disturbing outcomes like sadness or depression. It’s not that common, but these side effects are just as real as feeling relaxed.
I guess what I’m saying is that mindfulness is pretty serious business, not a fad, and not an instant fix to all of our problems without careful consideration of how we’re practicing and how the practice is affecting us. While it sounds pretty simple, just pay attention to what we’re doing and sit and breathe each day, it’s not quite so easy. Our brains don’t operate this way naturally. It’s very worth the effort, but there is conscious effort required.
Try this experiment. Pick an object that you can see wherever you are right now, as long as you’re not driving a vehicle. It doesn’t matter what – a candle, flower, tree, lamp – and for the next 30 seconds, think only of that object without thinking any other thoughts. Ready?
Were you able to do it? Or did other thoughts pop into your mind? Odds are, the latter occurred. This is why attempting to be mindful through cognitive efforts only is extremely difficult. We have what is frequently called monkey mind. Our thoughts jump all over the place.
Many people resist the idea of meditation. They’re willing to try practicing mindfulness, staying aware of what’s happening in the present moment, but they don’t have the patience or believe they don’t have the time, to sit still for 20 or 30 minutes, so they skip the meditation part. That doesn’t typically work to improve mindfulness because of the way our brains work, as you just experienced. Our brains are wired to do the opposite of paying attention to everything in the present. The brain chunks as many behaviors as possible into habits so that we don’t have to be aware of them. The brain has to maximize efficiency wherever possible because the prefrontal cortex of our brains, the conscious part, is limited. And our brains are very efficient, moving almost 50% of our daily activities into habituation.
If you’re still driving to work versus walking to your living room, do you notice the details of your trip? More likely than not, you arrive at work and noticed nothing if nothing unusual occurred on the drive. You may have even had the thought at some point that you don’t recall how you got there. As you shower, dress, brush your teeth, cook, shop, carry out your work functions, very little conscious thought is involved.
Trying to pay attention to all of these details through cognitive efforts alone is extremely challenging. You can’t think about thinking about what you’re doing 24 hours a day. It’s exhausting. What meditation does, with consistent practice over time, is change the neuropathy in the brain to begin loosening those automatic commands. Meditation also strengthens the connection between mind and body, further enhancing awareness of what’s occurring both internally and externally in your world.
If you really want to be mindful, to experience the heightened consciousness of what’s going on, to enjoy the health benefits that accrue over time from the practice, you have to meditate. A good analogy is to consider a desire to get into great physical shape. If you want to get in better shape, but focus solely on cutting calories, you may end up skinnier, but you won’t be in great shape. You have to exercise the body to get it into shape. You have to build up lean muscle mass and reduce fat. That requires resistance training, aerobic exercise, stretching for mobility and more. Meditation is the exercise required for the brain in order to achieve mindfulness.
Benefits from meditation ranging from improved physical and mental health, increased longevity, sharper focus and attention, increased productivity and more are reported in thousands of evidence-based research studies. But it’s important to understand that these results come from consistent, meaning daily, meditation conducted over months to years to decades, with sessions ranging from 20 minutes to 10 hours a day, not 2 minutes.
Again, there’s nothing wrong with starting with a 2-minute exercise. But that’s not going to get you to mindfulness. I frequently recommend starting with 2 or 3 minutes and adding a minute a day for those who are uncomfortable with meditation. But the goal is always to get up to at least 20 minutes a day. I found it very uncomfortable when I started, so I can relate to the feedback I get that it’s hard, that it’s boring, that people hate it, that they don’t think it’s doing anything. All true for many in that moment. But it’s worth it to keep going. To stick with it.
As the new year approaches, it’s tempting to start making a list of resolutions. We’ve been conditioned to think that the beginning of a new year is a great time to begin making big changes in our lives and it feels exciting, which is motivating, at first. I would ask you to consider a couple of things. First, if there’s something you want to change in your life, why wait until the beginning of the year? January 1st is just another day on a calendar, not some magical holiday that grants wishes. Second, on average, 80% of new year resolutions fail by the second week of February. Why set yourself up for failure?
I would suggest that you set a goal today, like becoming more mindful. Then set an intention each day to be more mindful. These can be very small, simple steps that take no extra time from your busy day. Set an intention to pay attention to brushing your teeth for example. As you brush, notice everything you can about the sensations involved, like how the brush feels against your gums, how the paste feels on your tongue, how much foam is produced, what the toothpaste smells like.
Tomorrow you could set an intention to pay attention to another habitual task you perform, be it washing the dishes, cooking a meal or driving to work. Focusing in this way keeps you in the present and builds your mindfulness muscles.
The one activity to add to your day could of course be meditation. Simply set aside a few minutes and sit quietly, focusing on your breath. As you notice that your mind has wandered away from the breath, simply refocus on the breath. You may have to do this multiple times in just a couple of minutes at first, but each time you do, you’re strengthening your mindfulness skills. Add a minute or two to the length of your meditation each day and be sure to meditate every day.
By combining mindful behavior with meditation on a consistent basis, your neuropathy will slowly begin to shift. Work your way up to at least 20 minutes a day of meditation and at some point, everyone’s different, but at some point, you’ll notice that you’ve gone from doing it because you have to, to doing it because you want to. You’ll find that you’re actually sorry when the time is up. You’ll begin to look forward to that time of day that is just for you, sitting in peace, exercising your brain. The benefits of meditation are cumulative, so you’re building a bank of wellness that will continue to grow as long as you continue to practice. That’s the best holiday gift I can think of to give to yourself out of love.
There are lots of memes around about 2020 and lots of comments about how most people can’t wait for this year to end, but 2021 looks to be a pretty challenging year, too, so anything we can do for ourselves to shore up our health, patience, consideration of others and kindness to ourselves seems like a pretty good idea to me.
Remember that if you’re enjoying well-being, you’ll have more to give to others, so be good to yourself. Please also wear a mask, practice physical distancing whenever you can, and be sure to meditate. As we face the challenges of the new year, you’ll be glad you did.