We have all been there… Last night, after hurting my rotator cuff over the weekend, sleep just wouldn’t come until almost 11pm. This morning, at Oh God Thirty, my adult children were (as I perceived it) unnecessarily loud in the kitchen, getting ready for their day. I drug myself out of bed for coffee. They were loud, in my way, my shoulder hurt, I spilled the coffee pot trying to make coffee; Everything in my immediate surroundings was beyond irritating so, I retreated to my room with said coffee, mind boiling. In our modern society, there is always something pushing us forward, overstimulating us or creating havoc with our lives. Emails, appointments, social media, kids, work, bills, responsibilities seem to pile up until we fall into bed at the end of the day wondering what we even did. Were we productive? Did we create good connections with the people we interacted with or did we run through our day on autopilot? Did we actually experience joy during our day? Did we take 3 breaths to actually FEEL our extreme gratitude for the opportunities we have in our life? Often, we don’t even realize how we went from fun-loving to overloaded. The days, weeks, months fly by and before we know it, we are trying to figure out how to carve out a few moments to just take a shower, or fit in a workout. Most of us will attempt getting up earlier or staying up later which in turn makes us feel even more exhausted. Weeks of vacation time build up unused because the demands of our wallets supersede our need to relax. It’s always later. If you are like most people, it feels like we barely have 2 seconds to collect our thoughts during the day. This leads us to feel like we have zero control over our lives. In truth, we actually have complete control. What we need is to remember that little jewel of wisdom.
Hear me out here. Obviously, we can’t change things like our number of children but we had complete control over the job we took, the debts we get into, the activities we are involved in, the amount of time we choose to spend on things and, most importantly, how we respond to or interact with all of it. For me, I didn’t realize I was on a collision course. I was working 50 hours a week in a thankless job, raising 2 teenagers (1 with special needs) all by myself, and trying to have some semblance of a social life. I was constantly exhausted, always sick in one form or another, my diet was crap and there was no time for anything “unnecessary”. That was 7 years ago. Then I got what I thought was the stomach flu, only it never went away. I was forced to take 3 months off work. I was stuck in bed, stressing about how little short-term disability would pay, how was I going to feed my kids, pay my bills, take care of getting the kids where they needed to be. I was a mess. I attempted to go back to work at the end of my leave, I lasted 4 more months before I ended up in the hospital and on permanent disability. Now, I realized that change was what was necessary. I have detailed my health journey in another article but the hidden gem in this story is I had no choice but to focus on figuring out my life. It took almost 2 years on a liquid diet to find out the actual problem. When modern medicine had basically written me off as a lost cause, I started digging in because I wanted to live. Not the life I had been living, because that definitely was not living, but a life I actually wanted to experience.
I read incessantly about ways to help improve my condition. All the articles talked about stress management, choosing happiness, finding a balance. I read countless articles on positive psychology. I discovered a WHOLE NEW WORLD. People who actually loved and lived their lives in an intentional manner. I started meditating. If I could sit for 2 minutes, I considered that a miracle because my brain never shuts up. The more I practiced, the longer I was able to sit. The longer I sat, the more that feeling of peace followed me through my day. I found myself thinking clearer, feeling more joy, able to focus on what I felt rather than what was expected. I began to see that there was a pattern. The more space and grace I gave myself, the more I was able to give to others around me. There really is a waterfall of benefits to giving yourself the space in the day to simply be. Not dwelling on the past, not worrying the future, just being… right here, right now.
Mindfulness is a concept that Eastern spiritualities discovered several millennia ago. That has really only become popular in the West in the last 50 or so years with the help of philosophers and spiritualists such as Alan Watts and Ram Dass in the 50’s and 60’s. Then popular the whole hippie movement brought it into popular culture. That said, something that has worked well for several thousand years can’t be all bad. The APA (American Psychological Association) defines mindfulness as referring to a psychological state of awareness, the practices that promote this awareness, a mode of processing information and a character trait. For the purposes of this article, I define mindfulness as a moment-to-moment awareness of one’s experience without judgment.
There are many different practices that can cultivate mindfulness, such as yoga, tai chi and qigong, but most of the research focused on mindfulness that is developed through mindfulness meditation, which is a self-regulation practice that focuses on training both attention and awareness with the goal of bringing mental processes under greater voluntary control and fostering general mental well-being, development and/or specific capacities such as calmness, clarity and concentration. (APA definition)
What does this mean for us? The real-life, evidence-based benefits are immense, both personally and professionally. They include:
Letting go of repetitive thought cycles– those thoughts that keep you awake at night, the negative self-talk in your brain, the self-defeating commentary all of us have experienced.
Boost in working memory– Your brain’s ability to not only store memories but actually recall them when you need them
Focus- The ability to focus and complete the task at hand
Reduced stress and anxiety- I believe this one is self-explanatory!
Lower emotional reactivity- The ability to choose how you want to respond rather than reacting emotionally to situations and people.
More cognitive flexibility – It actually increase your brain’s ability to create new neural pathways.
More empathy and compassion- For both ourselves and others, it reduced the amount of judgement we experience internally.
Better quality of life- Increased emotional intelligence, created improved social connectedness and overall stress and anxiety reduced by up to 70%
I don’t know about all of you, but that sounds almost like heaven.
Let me start by saying that literally anyone can practice mindfulness. Any age, race, religion, color, creed, socio-economic status, gender …it doesn’t matter. You just have to make the decision to do it. The key that really helped me is that it is a PRACTICE. It is not about perfection. If you are constantly judging your practice and beating yourself up over consistency and level of ability, you are defeating yourself so, above all, give yourself grace!
There are countless YouTube videos on mindfulness meditation so I am not going to explain the whole basic process here. I will, however, give you a few tips on what has worked for me. Initially, guided meditations are a great way to start. They help you to focus your mind and relax without having all these questions about procedure. They will literally walk you through it. I find that having both a set time and place for your meditation makes it easier to stick with. Schedule it into your day. Make the time to devote to it. Create a space for it, I eventually got a comfortable set of meditation cushions, added candles, incense, whatever helps relax you. I highly encourage you not to meditate in bed as you will probably fall asleep. This isn’t a bad thing but it is not what you are trying to achieve. There are many sleep meditations you can listen to for that.
Once you get comfortable with the procedure, you can try to meditate without the guided part. I do many different forms of meditation but my set-up is always the same. I focus on my breathing, allowing it to get deeper and slower. I visualize red light coming from my root chakra sending roots into the earth. Through the floor, into the ground, anchoring me to the earth’s energy. I feel the energy in that chakra, spinning, building. I mentally imagine the energy rising up my spine, focusing on each chakra in turn, bringing each one “online” until I reach the crown chakra. At this point, I imagine being bathed in bright white light and that light pouring forth from my crown up to the stars, so that I am both grounded to the earth and connected to source energy at the same time. From there I enjoy the absolute bliss of being a human being rather than a human doing.
Once you have found what works for you, you can use this time to simply be or to practice what I call contemplative meditation to address specific things that are going on within. The amount of self-awareness and joy it brings into your life will astound you if you have never experienced it. It is profound and I would say, of all the things I do in my life, It is the most important activity I partake in. Without it, I wouldn’t have made the progress that I have in all other facets of life.
I hope that if you don’t already have a mindfulness practice, that you will take the time to develop one. Stay Blessed and have an amazing week!