Coloring books, origami, crocheting…it seems that every month, the media decides on some fun, repetitive, flow-triggering activity to practice mindfulness. Headspace, Calm, Pacifica, Wildflowers – all apps to guide you to mindfulness, with new apps hitting the market practically every other week. They’re all fine if you use them for what they are intended for – as a starting off point toward a more mindful way of living. But most people stop there. They feel temporarily calmer, tell themselves they are mindful now, and never grow into a true state of mindful consciousness. Worse, many believe that these activities really are what mindfulness is. These are all tools to help you calm down, and some may lead you toward learning mindfulness. But they are not necessarily mindful.
Mindfulness is not some external "thing" that requires special pens or fancy paper or an app. Mindfulness is our ability to notice what's going on in our minds and our bodies and our surroundings. It is non-judgmentally taking note of our thoughts as they arise, and allowing them to dissolve. Mindfulness is a profound understanding that everything passes, so there is no need to get too positively or negatively attached to a thought or an event. Mindfulness is understanding that we are all connected and we therefore need to pay attention to our thoughts and actions within the larger perspective of the bigger picture.
You can certainly choose something artful or trendy, like coloring or folding paper, or following an app, as an anchor for starting a mindfulness practice. These activities can help us set aside time for ourselves and for exploring mindfulness. But just doing them does not mean you are doing them mindfully. You can just as easily zone out while coloring a mandala and complete it completely mindlessly. You can listen to an app, check it off your to-do list, and not gain any long-term benefits because you’re approaching it as a task that you are supposed to do each day because the app is tracking (and judging) your participation.
True mindfulness really requires some form of meditation. You just can’t get to the inner workings of your mind with a coloring book. Mindfulness is akin to exercise. You can’t build muscles in your body by reading a book about exercise or watching a video of other people exercising. You have to actually do the work yourself. Mindfulness is much the same. At first it’s awkward and uncomfortable, just as when you first start exercising if you’re out of shape. When you work out for the first time, or the first time in a long time, you feel clumsy, you’re very sore, and you wonder if it’s worth it.
Meditation is very similar. It feels hard to sit still, to notice your thoughts, to connect with your breath. You may realize you have unpleasant thoughts, or even upsetting thoughts. That’s like being sore from a workout. You may feel awkward – what to do with your hands, how long can you ignore that itch, why can’t you stay focused on your breath? And for many, am I wasting time sitting here doing nothing?
Just like working out your body, meditation is a form of working out your mind. It is not a waste of time by any means, but it can certainly feel like it at the beginning. There are many forms of meditation, including moving meditations like yoga or T’ai Chi, but I think there is a deep value in starting with stillness first. If you feel strong resistance or avoidance of this, that is truly a call to reflect on what you are afraid of experiencing. Thoughts? Emotions? Old, unhealed wounds? What are you afraid will come up for you? Boredom? That’s another sign that you’ve perhaps been filling your life with so much busy-ness to avoid something, it now feels alien to allow space for deep thoughts and feelings to present themselves.
When we constantly seek out newer, shinier alternatives to meditation, we run the risk of thinking we can find mindfulness outside of our minds, of thinking mindfulness is something we can buy or own or watch or listen to. In truth, we've already got everything we need to be mindful, right here and now.
Think about what you’re thinking about right this second. Are you thinking about what you're reading? Are you thinking about how you have to have something to do or you’ll never be able to be mindful, because you can’t stand to think about what you think about? You’re already doing it, by the way – you’re thinking about what you’re thinking about right now because of what you just read. Except for about 47% of you who are not even thinking about any of this. Your mind has already wandered off to what you’re going to make for dinner or errands you need to run or worrying about why your boss said whatever she said a couple of hours ago. Kind of shocking, isn’t it? Our brains are just a hub of constant activity and we spend almost half of our day focused on something other than what we’re doing in the moment.
That is, until you learn to be mindful. Don’t get me wrong, your brain will still wander, but you gain the ability to keep it focused for longer periods and you notice right away when it wanders off, versus the slight surprise you might have just experienced when I called you out for mind-wandering.
Why does any of this matter? People have lived for hundreds of years without this “new,” very old practice, so why do we need it now? Actually, we need it now more than ever in history. We have filled our lives with so many distractions, our brains are now very out of shape for focusing, reflecting, deep thought, and connecting with others. Our mental, emotional and health statistics all point to calamity. We’re (sort of) 'walking heart attacks' waiting to happen. We find less meaning and joy in life than any period of time prior to now.
We’re not happy, we’re not healthy, and we’re completely numbing ourselves with devices, entertainment, narcotics, alcohol and shopping to feel better. We know we feel bad and we want it to stop. But we’re addicted to instant gratification, so sitting quietly and waiting for something to change does not sound like the answer.
It is. Mindfulness shifts us from reacting to responding. It changes our outlook on life. Upset about the political situation? Being mindful means you can see that it’s not permanent and that even if you think it’s awful, it’s serving a purpose. Alarmed about the condition of the planet? Mindfulness not only allows you to see a broader perspective, it allows your mind to be more creative and collaborative to help solve the world’s problems, not add to them. Terrified of what technology may mean for the future? Mindfulness helps you clearly see that technology is a tool and it is only how it is used that may be detrimental. It can also be a huge aid in solving many of our problems. Upset with your coworker? Mindfulness helps you maintain compassion for even those you disagree with.
I know it seems counterintuitive to say meditation, sitting still and what seems to be doing nothing for a while, increases productivity, but it does. There have been thousands of studies on meditation and mindfulness and it turns out, slowing down and focusing actually saves us time and increases our output.
The final Holy Grail is happiness and joy. People who are mindful feel a greater sense of happiness, and perhaps more importantly, a greater sense of joy. They are not rocked by the day-to-day craziness that surrounds them. They aren’t immune to it, they still experience stress and frustration, but it is more of a passing feeling than a permanent trait. That leads to improved physical health, as the more mindful you become, the lower your stress levels. The more connected you become with your own mind and body. The more relaxed you feel, even in the midst of chaos.
So seriously, it’s not going to hurt you to sit still for a few minutes. You don’t have to start with an hour or two. Start with three minutes. Keep expanding until you’re up to at least 20 minutes, which is where many of the health benefits kick in. If you can go longer, by all means do, as the longer you meditate, the better. Do it however long you plan every day. It has cumulative effects. When you fall off the horse and miss a day, get back on the horse the next. Once you’ve mastered even 10 minutes a day, start exploring other forms, such as yoga.
Mindfulness can help set the world straight again and meditation is how you get there. But like that old commercial said, first you’ve got to just do it.
For a beginner's guided meditation, listen to our podcast here. The last few minutes of the episode will introduce you to a wonderful mediation.
Have a mindful week,