Over the course of 20-plus years seeing clients in private practice, I have also been on my own personal journey reflecting, healing, and growing and, in that time, have learned a lot about mindfulness. As Jon Kabat-Zinn, Professor of Medicine Emeritus and founding director of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, defines it: “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”
Most significantly, I have learned that becoming curious about, purposely paying attention to, and nonjudgmentally being present to all my experiences, regardless of the quality of those experiences, has helped me to become more appreciative of them. Consequently I am also more peaceful, joyful, and grateful in all aspects of my life.
Aside from the fact that this has completely transformed the quality of my life for the better, I also imagine I am a much more pleasant person to be around than when I was anxious, competitive, worried, suspicious, and generally operating from fear. (Admit it—these are adjectives that you have some experience with, too!)
Often, when we are not living mindfully, the thought of doing so sounds great in theory, but can also feel absolutely overwhelming in thinking about putting this new way of being into actual practice. It is true—most of us do not make this kind of transformation instantly. Honestly, like any other endeavor, it starts with one conscious choice: to begin.
Once that intention is set, finding our way to consistent mindful living starts with that first choice and continues with each conscious choice we make, moment to moment. There is never a time when we do not have a choice to make a change. The instant we realize we are headed in a direction that does not feel good to us is the moment we can make another choice to change direction, literally from moment to moment.love, and more joy. You don’t have to make any grandiose gestures—no need to sign up for a month long meditation retreat in Tibet. You don’t even have to take a yoga class, learn to meditate, or regress to a past life (though I wouldn’t discourage any of those avenues!). You can start right this moment.
Do you want to “open your eyes” with your dying breath and realize that you slept through the bulk of your life? You don’t have to; you can make a conscious choice to wake up now. Here are a few suggestions to get you going:
Practice Conscious Gratitude
First thing in the morning, as soon as you open your eyes, before you put your feet on the floor, take a moment to be aware that you are awake. Notice how your body feels against the sheets. Take a conscious breath. Be aware of the fact that you are breathing. Hold an intention to be grateful for a new day and all the potential it holds.
Do you realize the truth in that statement? Each day contains the promise of unlimited possibility. Give thanks for this potential. You don’t have to have any kind of formal or religious belief in God to do this; you can simply be thankful and have gratitude for the day you are about to embark upon, and the unique experiences you will have and the possibilities it holds. Truly a brand new day.
Ask questions about every experience you have. Of course, not all of your experiences will be pleasant ones, but what if you held the belief that each experience—pleasant or otherwise—holds the potential for growth, a message for you to use for learning and healing, and an opportunity to remember who you really are and become an expression of that. If you believed this, could you then simply be curious about all that occurs in your life and how it might add to your full experience of being alive and present in this lifetime?
If you find yourself embroiled in a familiar conflict with a co-worker, as soon as you become aware, can you wonder about this interaction? Can you step out of judging the other person, or yourself, and be curious about what is being affected in you? What may be going on in the other person?
Can you be curious about the feeling you are having? Can you be curious about where in your body you feel that emotion? Can you wonder if you have ever felt this way before in your life? You might notice that your curiosity shifts the energy of your experience from one of heaviness and stress to one of lightness and ease as you let go of the need to be angry, irritated, jealous, annoyed, etc.
Express Who You Really Are
And do this as often as you possibly can. Some people say, “I don’t really know who I am!” If this describes you, think of it this way instead: Express who you want to be! Sometimes it may be hard to know even that, so it might be even easier to develop an awareness of who you are not (that is, who you DON’T want to be).
While you may not have ever thought about this before, if you start paying attention, you will likely notice that you already can feel the difference between these two states of being. When you are expressing the true you, you feel good, light, joyful, optimistic, connected. When you are expressing the you that you do not want to be, you feel bad, heavy, angry or resentful, discouraged, disconnected, and alone.
In the moment you realize you are thinking or behaving in a way that is not you, choose to remember who you are—that is, the person you want to be, the person you know at a very deep level you truly are—and then shift into the expression of that.
Someone tries to cut in front of you on the road. Do you feel angry? Notice the kind of energy that ignites from this experience. Does it feel good to you? Who do you want to be—the angry, vindictive person who reacts by speeding up, flipping off the other driver, cursing, and wishing them ill will?
Or would you rather respond from a place of compassion, knowing that this aggressive person is not connected to the truth of who they are in that moment, and that you do not have to engage in the negative energy around you? Can you step into knowing that allowing the driver to get in front of you does not diminish you in any way? Who do you want to be: anger or compassion? Stress or peace? You get to choose.
Pause Before You React
Whether it is a partner who is upsetting you, a child who is challenging you, or a stranger who is irritating you, take moment to step back, and wait … notice the energy in your body, the feelings you are feeling, the thoughts running across your mind.
Then make a conscious choice about how you will respond. Will you engage in an upsetting, irritating, annoying interchange? Or can you use that pause to shift yourself into a place of calm, and instead respond with fairness, compassion, and generosity?
Can you respond from a place of love, even in the face of one who is inviting fear? Stop; notice that you are breathing. Really notice. Don’t just breathe (you are already breathing!); instead, notice that you are breathing. That is the pause, the conscious moment you need to choose a more mindful response.
Wait Before Using Your Phone
Use your newly learned ability to pause when you hear your phone ring, or feel it vibrate, to simply notice that it is alerting you. Before you take the call, type a text, or email, be aware of where you are, how you are feeling, and what your intention is about responding to the call, text, or email.
Caller ID is a brilliant tool to help you make this kind of conscious choice about responding. And when it comes to phone calls, voice mail is a brilliant tool to help you know that you will not lose anything by choosing to be patient, stay in the present moment, and allow the caller to make their own conscious choices about leaving you a message.
Ask yourself, is this a call that must be answered at this moment? Does it take priority over what I am engaged in right now? How will this moment in the present be affected by my disconnecting to respond to someone or something else? Can you connect to who you are before you pick up the call or type the text?
Turn off the TV
There is nothing inherently wrong with entertainment, even if it is simply indulgent fun! We all need time to decompress. However, notice how the TV can become a way of going “unconscious,” a way of separating you not only from your loved ones, but from yourself and your actual presence in your life.
When you have that urge to turn the TV on, notice what is compelling you. It is a favorite show that starts soon? Or is it some inner place that is feeling anxious or uncomfortable? Be aware of your choice to pick up the remote. Pay attention to your reason for doing so. Have a clear intention about turning on the TV when you do decide to watch it.
Then notice what you choose to watch. Notice how your energy changes depending on the quality of the shows you watch, or for that matter, how it changes just during commercials. Pay attention to how you feel when you are watching the news, which most likely will be reporting about all the negative events of the day, versus how you feel when you are watching something light-hearted and creative. Once you can feel the difference, allow those feelings to direct you as you make your choices about what to watch and when.
Check Email at Specific Times
Have intentional and specific times to check email and/or voice mail. In the age of instant access, it is very, very easy to be distracted each and every time your phone rings, sings, chirps, vibrates, or flashes. Yes, it is true: there are so many ways these devices make our lives easier and more connected.
However, can you also notice how your phone distracts you? When it disconnects you from being in the moment with people, or a task at hand? When you do not need the phone for work or some other active task, can you turn it off, put it somewhere you can’t see it or hear it; even for short periods of time? Can you choose to put the phone away, or turn the ringer off at specific times—while driving, while eating dinner, while spending time with your friends and family.
Notice what happens when you do not have access to it during these times when you really don’t need it. Pay attention to any feelings that come up. Just notice them.
Noticing Your (You’re) Breathing
I don’t mean making an effort to slow your breathing down … In fact, don’t do anything to change your breathing; simply notice that you are doing so. Feel the air coming in through your nostrils, feel it filling your lungs, and feel it expanding your belly and diaphragm.
When you exhale, feel the air flowing out through your nostrils or your mouth. Any time throughout the day, whenever you remember to do so, notice your breath. This focus of attention will take you back inside to your center, clearing away all the external clutter that keeps you frazzled and off balance. It may not seem like much, but with consistent practice you will find yourself using this ability to watch your breath as a way to ground yourself, bring yourself into the moment, and respond to life, rather than react.
Try to go outside at least once per day. Breathe fresh air. Even if all you are able to do is simply go from your house to your car, notice that you are outdoors. Look around you. See the life that surrounds you in Nature: trees, flowers, animals, shrubs. Hear the sounds of the birds, squirrels, wind blowing. Smell the ocean, the freshly cut grass, the rain, the moisture in the air. Use this as a reminder of your place in the world and your connection to all that exists. Life is breathing all around us. It is easy to forget that we are nourished by our connection to nature, until we make it a point to get out there and experience it with awareness.
Walk around the block. Go for a bike ride. Run along the beach. Feel yourself in your body. Notice your feet touching the ground. Pay attention to the sensations of your body as you move. Are your arms swinging? Can you feel your clothes against your skin?
Your physical body gives you the opportunity to feel who you are. Keeping it stagnant disconnects you from your experience of being present in your life. Our bodies may not be who we are, but they are the physical “containers” that allow us to feel the experience of existence. Move, allow yourself to be in your body, and let the universe know you are aware you are alive!
Bonus Step: Send Positive Thoughts
If you want to challenge yourself to take it a step further, send positive thoughts to those who challenge you. Can you gracefully accept the human imperfection in us all? Acceptance does not mean allowing behavior that is damaging, or keeping yourself in a situation that is not good for you; it simply means that we remember that each individual is doing the best they can to manage through their own reality.
Life is full of disappointing events, challenging times, and painful experiences. We cannot control most, or any, of these things. The only thing we can control is how we respond to them.
Even if someone has done something intentionally that is painful to you, or circumstances are not how you want them to be, know that you get to choose how to experience these interactions and events. Staying in a place of acceptance, and moving in to your heart as you send positive thoughts and blessings to those who are struggling themselves, can help remind you of who you really are.
© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Carol Cirabisi, MS, LMFT, PA, therapist in Naples, Florida
The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.