For those of you who have read my previous posts, mindfulness is not a new concept. For any newcomers, welcome! Mindfulness probably isn’t a new word to you either. In fact, everyone wants to talk about mindfulness. But why? And more importantly, how can you start living a more mindful life?
Mindfulness, for anyone needing a refresher, is when you make the effort to focus on the present using your five senses. Taste, smell, touch, sight, and hearing. Moreover, it is a movement that encourages us to listen to our body and its reactions to various stimuli.
Likewise, when we practice mindfulness, we actively empower ourselves and promote emotional resiliency.
A Small Note About Stress in a Mindful Life
We all get stressed out.
Our stress is a natural response to a difficult situation. Whether we are stressed because our partner didn’t do the dishes, or our boss was too demanding at work, stress is normal.
On the other hand, prolonged stress can cause problems. Maybe you are struggling to sleep at night because you’re worried about your tasks the next day. Perhaps you’re struggling to eat because “you’re just not hungry”, but you know it’s because you’re anxious for a big test.
Stress is normal. Even when you start to practice mindfulness, you will get stressed.
But, when you choose to live a mindful life, you will see choices where you used to react before. Since I focused on living a more mindful life, I can choose whether I will let something make me angry. I can choose to put my phone down and walk away from an angry piece of media.
Mindful living helps you slow down, and it helps you live more intentionally.
Mindfulness is also critical in setting mental boundaries.
I’ll admit it, I wasn’t convinced that something like meditating could change my life. I thought there was a big hype over nothing. What do you mean this simple thing could stop me from getting righteously angry at the injustice in the world?
If you’re in the same place, I invite you to take this journey to learn how you can live a mindful life too.
Where Does Mindfulness Start?
The short answer is that mindfulness starts with you. No one else can tell you that you need to be more mindful. Even if they did, no one else can force you to learn the skills it takes.
And yes, mindfulness is a skill. Like any skill, it requires practice – like a muscle that needs strengthening.
So, if mindfulness starts with you, how does it start?
A mindful life begins with choices. Small choices each day eventually add up to an entire lifestyle. When that lifestyle promotes internal peace, stress management, and intentional actions, THAT is when you are living a mindful life.
And it takes time. The first time I “officially” meditated was this past winter. While I’ve come a long way, I certainly have a long way to go.
But you’re not here to read about me. As I said, mindfulness is a personal journey. If I bared my soul to you, you would probably only identify with a fraction of my experiences.
No, you’re here to read my tips about how to start cultivating mindfulness in your own life.
Tip #1: The Five Senses
Okay, okay. I mentioned this one already.
But the truth of the matter is our senses are powerful mediators of how we experience the world. On one hand, they alert us to threats and dangers around us. On the other, they can help ground us in a safe environment.
For example, say you are incredibly anxious about a test. Psychology tells us there are a few ways to cope. You could study, or you could avoid thoughts about the test. But, if you have anxiety, avoidance doesn’t already work. And what if you already wrote the test, and now you are anxious about your performance?
The 5-4-3-2-1 Technique is a handy way to ground yourself when you feel like your thoughts are out of control. It involves consciously (or mindfully) using your senses to place yourself back into your physical environment.
Other ways to use your senses to practice mindfulness include noticing small details when you are walking. What does that graffiti say? Which restaurant is that smell coming from? How does the breeze feel on your face?
Something as simple as sitting and examining the bark of a tree can help promote mindful living.
Tip #2: Mindful Crafts
I have a whole article about the benefits of mindful coloring, and if that is something you’re into, you can read it here!
If you are more hands-on, any craft can be mindful if you engage the five senses as described above.
There is an important caveat though.
Knitting is not inherently mindful, however, I can knit mindfully.
What do I mean by that? There are times where I am knitting and my thoughts are racing. Coincidentally, I often start to make mistakes, which stresses me out, which speeds up my racing thoughts.
Sometimes, I need to pause.
I can’t remember where I first heard this, but an elder once told me that the energy we are filled with when we create something then spills into that thing we are creating. Therefore, if I am knitting someone a scarf and I’m angry, that anger is then in the scarf.
Not the best gift.
This teaching has led me to create things differently – mindfully. Now, when I knit, I try to think loving, positive thoughts.
Even if that scarf doesn’t actually hold any of that energy, it helps me become more mindful.
Tip #3: The Breath of Life
How we breathe is critical to how we feel.
When we are in a stressful situation (maybe public speaking), our breaths get shallow and we get sweaty. Alternatively, breathing deeply activates the parasympathetic nervous system – this is the part of our body that helps us calm down.
Therefore, if my mind is particularly vocal one night, I make the conscious effort to slow and deepen my breaths. By doing that, I can trick my body into relaxing, and fall asleep much quicker!
Also, when you are focusing on your breaths, it distracts your mind. We can’t completely dispose of our thoughts, as much as we try, but when we disengage from them, our thoughts have less power.
Tip #4: Visualization
Imagine you are on a beautiful, balmy beach, with a coconut in hand.
It sounds silly, but it works!
If I am ever particularly stressed or unhappy in my own situation, I refocus – on paradise! Obviously, paradise can be different for everyone, and it can change every time.
Sometimes, I am on a lakeside beach, sunbathing without a care in the world. Other times, I am sitting in the forest, smelling the peppery-sweet scent of the pine trees.
Like the first three (and probably all of these tips) visualization helps us focus our thoughts on a safe place. This facilitates relaxation. In a way, it’s the reverse of an “if you are thinking of a yellow car, you will see a yellow car”.
If you’re thinking about a beach in Maui, you won’t see your phone screen light up with the text you’ve been waiting for.
Tip #5: A Mindful Life Through Mindful Meals
I like food. Quite a bit. Yet, in today’s society, it is all too common to eat while something else is distracting you. Maybe you are scrolling through social media, or watching the evening news. Perhaps you are cramming in a sub while trying to finish a task at work.
Eating is necessary to productivity. However, enjoying your food is often shunted to the side.
I take an active stand AGAINST mindless eating! And there is more than one reason.
Remember how I said that our senses are critical to mindfulness? Well, the food we eat is a gold mine for our senses (as long as it’s something you enjoy eating). What are the flavors? The textures? How does the sweetness go with the salty? What does it smell like? Is it crunchy? Can you hear it?
So yes, meals are a great place to practice mindfulness.
Now, the second reason is a little different. I have a tendency to eat when I am emotionally disgruntled, bored, angry, or lonely. (If fish are friends, not food, what happens when food is your best friend?)
Since I have started eating mindfully, I have been more aware of what and why I am eating, and when I am eating something because of my emotions. This awareness has been critical for portion control, nutrition, and enjoyment.
Tip #6: Schedule It In
When we first choose to live a mindful life, it isn’t easy. We have a lot of old habits that we need to break.
For me, scheduling moments of mindfulness were crucial to beginning to replace old habits with mindful ones.
This could be as simple as taking the time to practice breathing before bed or focusing on mindfulness during one meal each day. It could also be closing your eyes, and enjoying the water running down your body in a shower.
Alternatively, you can join a meditation group. My university is offering a meditation on Tuesday nights on Zoom, and it’s basically a soundscape, but it is scheduled. (I did miss it this week though, so scheduling isn’t always the answer).
When we schedule something, we set boundaries around our time. This also tells our minds that this is important, and we should remember to do it. Basically, by scheduling even five minutes to practice mindfulness, you are telling yourself that it is a priority.
Tip #7: Add It To Your To-Do List
Traditionally, to-do lists are supposed to be a list of tasks that we need to finish that day to feel productive or else.
This year, I have started to take a different approach.
As I said above, when we write something down in our schedule, we are to some extent making it a priority. The same thing happens with our to-do list.
Which is great for all the homework or work assignments that we have to finish by a deadline!
But I’ll tell you a little secret.
You can add whatever you want to your to-do list. For me, this means putting self-care tasks on that little notepad. Do I need a good long shower? On the list! Have I been avoiding exercise this week? O the list!
Am I stressed out and need to take the time to meditate?
You guessed it. It’s on my list.
Why do I do this? Well, we live in a world where productivity is deemed queen. How often do people feel worthless because they needed a day off and didn’t do anything? Far too often! We need rest, and we need to practice self-care.
If you want to start living a mindful life, you need to start placing it next to tasks like “take the trash out”.
Tip #8: Patience (It’s a Virtue)
Mindfulness is not an easy skill to learn. For some people, it is so much harder to shut your brain off!
If you have ADHD or anxiety, it can feel like mindfulness is a myth that only neurotypical people talk about.
But it is possible, with patience and reasonable expectations.
Mindfulness is like a muscle. In fact, it is truly strengthening our brain and our ability to manage our thoughts. Because of that, we need to practice. And we need to recognize that we are not equally mindful every day.
Even now, there are days where I wonder if I have been practicing mindfulness at all? That little person in charge of the thoughts in my head feels like he’s doing jumping jacks at hyper-speed. Meanwhile, I already know I am going to be exhausted the next morning.
But, a day or so later, I have a handle on that mindfulness again.
It takes time to learn a new skill. When you are working towards a mindful life, the first step (or in this case 8th) is recognizing that it will take time.
Tip #9: The Role Of Thought
A common complaint I hear about meditation is that it is just too damn hard to shut your thoughts off.
And that is a fair point.
But, did you know that meditation and mindfulness do not mean shutting your thoughts off at all?
This took me a while to learn, and even longer to internalize. But when I did, I felt a HUGE sense of relief.
When we meditate, it is true that we are not supposed to focus on our thoughts (especially not the ones telling us we have work in the morning and oh did we pack a lunch). However, our thoughts existing is not inherently bad, nor does it mean we are failing at mindfulness.
Thoughts come and go. A part of mindfulness is acknowledging our thoughts, and sending them away without attaching any importance to them. If a thought is important, it will return after we meditate.
Remember, a huge part of meditation is setting boundaries around our time.
When I am meditating, it is not my responsibility to catch up on my readings for the next week. I can acknowledge that yes that is something future me may have to consider, but in that present moment, my focus is on my breath, or the feel of the wind, or the sound of a gong.
The thoughts are not bad. It is just not their time to be heard. So thank the thought, and allow it to pass through.
Tip #10: Make The Mindful Life Work For You
Do I really have to say it?
We are all different.
Some people thrive in a guided meditation, other people can’t get over how weird the instructor’s voice is. There was one meditation I listened to that guided me through the various chakras and their associated colors. Except, when we got to violet, they said “think of violet, like the color of lavender”.
I giggled every time.
Likewise, some people could find the sounds of traffic relaxing, whereas others can only relax in silence. Everything, even this list of tips, all comes down to the person you are.
Maybe you hate crafts, but practicing your kicking for soccer is a mindful activity. Or, maybe you’d rather not focus on the texture of your food, but you like to dissect the layers of a song.
Mindfulness is not unobtainable. In fact (and I rarely say this), I do think everyone can benefit from being more mindful. You just have to find your path, and you have to commit to it.
Warning: What You Can Expect From A Mindful Life
I just made you read through 10 tips about how you can begin to embrace mindfulness, but I didn’t really explain what happens when you start to approach your life mindfully.
So why exactly should you embrace mindfulness? Am I just trying to brainwash you for my own nefarious purposes?
I’m not, and if I could brainwash you, there are probably other people I’d rather brainwash.
But why am I so stuck on this concept of mindfulness?
It’s simple. Mindfulness does something wonderful. It helps you attune to your own body, its reactions, and its needs. It is the first step to embracing your own health in a positive way. You don’t just notice when you are sick, you also notice when you are content, or when you do need to take a step back.
By practicing mindfulness, and choosing mindfulness each day, we are choosing to be in control. In short, it’s kinda the exact opposite of brainwashing.
I hope you enjoyed this article! Please share your thoughts in the comments, and subscribe for weekly updates on pursuing holistic health your way.