1. Redefine mindfulness.
Do you dream about having a mindful life? Does it seem out of reach? Do you believe it takes a lot of time to learn mindfulness? A misunderstanding of the word mindfulness can put a wall between you and your so called mindful life.
I began to pursue mindfulness in 1973. I went to workshops and read books. I pictured myself sitting cross-legged on the floor, my hands resting on my knees with my fingers touching my thumbs, chanting a mantra that was mine alone. I pictured reaching a state where thoughts no longer entered my mind at all.
One summer morning, a friend of mine took me on a tour of the Self-Realization Fellowship in Los Angeles, California. The grounds are gorgeous! If there is a perfect place to find a spot and sit cross-legged, this is it. Although this took place forty years ago, I still remember walking towards a young man doing just that. As we approached, I noticed his eyes start to flutter under his lids. I knew we had disturbed his concentration. I felt bad, but I wondered how far he had gotten from taking that ultimate vacation away from his thoughts.
Now don’t get me wrong. I know this type of mindful meditation has huge benefits. Those benefits have been highly researched and replicated. I just never found the time or the determination to get there. So if there’s more to mindfulness than meditating, what is it?
Jon Kabat-Zinn, a biologist and an expert in mindfulness, defined it this way: “Paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” This means that we purposefully pay attention to what is happening in the present moment. We cease living in the past through rumination or the future through worry. We strategically bring our minds back to the present moment so that we are actually living our lives anchored in our environment rather than in our heads. So first, redefine mindfulness.
2. Do only what works.
There are hundreds if not thousands of mindfulness exercises to choose from. As a psychotherapist who uses mindfulness practices in my group setting, I have seen some clients who cannot tolerate certain types of exercises, but find others extremely helpful. One client cannot handle it when we begin to focus on our breath or go through any sort of “slowing down” exercise. Her mind is constantly racing. She is now practicing an exercise for very short periods of time to help her slow down her thought processes.
Another client needs a brain teaser—something to totally focus on—in order to bring herself back to the present moment. For another, using all of her five senses to experience her world is enough to bring her back to her “now” within a very short time. Explore the vast array if mindfulness exercises out there through the Internet or books or CDs. Some will work for you and some will not be as helpful.
3. Eat right.
You’ve heard it before: Food is medicine. We can get away with not eating right when we are younger, but as the years fly by, damage that is invisible to us is happening on the inside. We experience digestive problems or aching joints. We can become easily fatigued. Getting informed by reading blogs or books on healthy eating will help.
4. Sleep more.
Speaking of fatigue, getting enough sleep is essential to leading a mindful life. Our brains wake up with so much energy for a day. If we are healthy, we have enough physical energy, cognitive energy, and emotional energy. Then we have a reserve. Without enough sleep, once these energy stores are used up, they are used up until we sleep again. There is no reserve. That is when we feel our worst and can’t seem to get it together mentally or emotionally. If you are experiencing this, look at your sleep schedule. For most adults, 8–9 hours are needed.
5. Learn how to listen.
Have you ever listened to yourself? I have. And sometimes, I don’t like what I hear. I will be sitting across from a friend having a latte or talking to my sister on the phone, and once I’m on my way home or I’ve hung up the phone, I realize I did not ask them what was happening in their life. I find my own life so exciting that I blabbed on and on without inquiring how they are. Ugh. Just intentionally listening to another is a type of mindfulness. As how others are doing. Find out what is happening in their life. Listen, and pay close attention. Ask questions. It’s impossible do that if you are not paying attention, living a mindful life.
6. Practice gratitude.
Research shows that if you write down a few things you are grateful for each day, depression lifts after a while. You cannot reflect on what you are grateful for if you are wallowing in the past or worrying in the future. You are thinking about your life—now. Practicing gratitude is part of living a mindful life.
7. Practice, practice, practice.
When you first rode a bike, you had to watch someone else do it first. You noticed that you needed to swing your leg over to the other side, sit on the seat, put your feet on the pedals and hands on the handle bars. Then you needed to push the pedal forward with one foot first, then the other, all the while steering the bike. Eventually you graduated to one without training wheels that had brake grips attached to the handle bars. Soon, with enough practice, you were going everywhere on your bike. If you put your bike away for awhile, even for years, chances are you would be able to jump right back on it and ride.
You had developed muscle memory. Your brain knows how to ride the bike. This is how learning any skill works. The more you practice it, the easier it becomes, and the more automatically you use the skill when needed. You cease needing to think about it ahead of time.
I have taught mindfulness exercises to others for almost five years. I remember the first time I noticed I had automatically brought myself back to the present when I was ruminating about an event from long ago. I went outside and sat on my back porch. I changed my focus to the sound of the birds in the trees and the warmth of the sun on my face. I began to search the trees for the birds. I noticed the turquoise blue of the sky through the leafy branches of the ash tree. My mood lifted. I was living a mindful life.
So, have you only dreamed about leading a mindful life? Begin now by keeping these seven essentials in mind.
Featured photo credit: Mindfulness via