Check Your Vibes: Mindfulness For Real People

Do you ever feel like there’s some kind of invisible film between you and your reality? When you walk down the street, do you feel like you’re seeing it on a TV screen instead of in front of your own face? That could just be really bad seasonal allergies, but it’s probably because most of us are living in the world of the same few thoughts playing on a loop day after day, with little time leftover to take in whatever’s happening in front of us. We think about what we’ll eat for breakfast tomorrow, what that last text from our frenemy could’ve meant, and how we’ll be so happy when we get to go on that vacation next week (which, nope, once we’re there we’ll find something else to anticipate instead of being present).

Don’t feel bad about it. Just about everyone does this, but life can be a lot better than that if we break free of the constantly living in an imaginary future or past. It’s time for a little mindfulness. The problem with the Western world’s obsession with mindfulness is that telling someone to “just live in the moment” probably sounds like the most trite and out-of-touch advice you could give, but it really is the most helpful thing a person can do for themselves. The act of focusing solely on our surroundings, and really sinking into savoring the moment, has life-changing effects. It allows a massive percentage of our stress to melt away, and suddenly we’re on a high when we encounter even the simplest of joys. Life becomes…sort of easy (sort of), and when it’s difficult, the tough times often melt away more quickly.

Obviously, it’s all a bit more complicated than that, because human beings don’t exist in a vacuum, but on the whole, mindfulness is almost like a happy pill. When you’re first starting, it takes a lot of practice to train your brain to think only of what’s in front of you and let the other thoughts filter through, because it’s simply not our first instinct to perceive the world this way. There are periods in my life when I’m very good at being present (and usually  much happier), and other times when I’m very rusty, and not in the mood to bother even though it would make things better. The human mind isn’t necessarily wired for constant “living in the moment” because the more ancient part of our brain that had to look out for our survival before iPhones and home security systems is concerned with finding patterns. We hone in on the negative side of experiences and potential threats, and then obsess over them, because our primal brain is trying to keep us alive. It’s nice and all, just not quite as necessary in the modern world. To me, mindfulness has been the single most powerful tool to a more fulfilling life. Obviously, things like therapy and introspection and shedding toxic habits are all deeper, more tangible paths to a better life, but what mindfulness does is accelerate and amplify the effects of those things. It makes joy easier to come by, and regrets fewer because we’re appreciating the good things while they last.

Like any Western approach to a spiritual pursuit, mindfulness can come across as hippy dippy, whiny, a game for the rich, and, well, possibly motivated by moral superiority complexes. In short, “mindfulness” is the kind of word that prompts eye rolls in everyday conversation. It sounds like the kind of thing a flower crown-wearing “free spirit” would boast about, assuring us that we too can let go of all our past traumas, as long as we “just meditate by the beach every afternoon after our morning kale smoothie and attend yearly yoga retreats to “redirect our center.” Um, where’s the part where we go to work and pay bills and have tough life changes we can’t “positive think” our way out of and like, vacuum the house every now and then?

It makes me sad, because I don’t know a single person who wouldn’t benefit from incorporating mindfulness into their everyday (busy, normal-person) lives. No money or fancy yoga classes (though yoga never hurts) or spontaneous monthlong getaways to Bali are needed. Mindfulness is for everyone, and it existed for thousands of years before “hip” Americans discovered it. Countless spiritual leaders, religious seekers, and academics from varying walks of life have arrived separately at similar conclusions about the benefits of living in the present, over the course of many centuries, and that must mean something.

It’s fine to not be great at it all the time, and it’s not your fault – living in the present is not how we were socialized to think. Doing so sometimes feels as first like giving up some sense of control, as if when we don’t think about every uncontrollable hypothetical in our lives, we’re giving up our ability to shape it (NOPE). The key, at least for me, is to see mindfulness as a touchstone that you return to when you catch yourself living too much in your head or having a tough time. Like any successful habit (like, say, eating well or budgeting), imperfection happens and viewing your competence as all-or-nothing is a waste of time. Humans aren’t built to be perfect all the time and no amount of discipline in the world can change that.The point is to always be willing to try again the next day, without a “starting over” mentality. On that note, after the first few days or weeks of adjusting to letting go (that part can be tough), mindfulness is pleasant. Wonderful, even. It’s not going to feel like a chore or a diet. It’s going to feel like an ecstatic introduction into a whole new life that you never knew you were ignoring — your own. Here are a few tips to get started.

1. Become very aware of your senses. Is a warm breeze blowing your hair around your face? If you’re in front of your computer, what does your keyboard look like? Look, really look at the grooves in the keys and try to memorize their design. What does it smell like around you? (That one is probably only fun if you’re burning a vanilla-scented candle and not, like, walking down a smelly city sidewalk.) What do you hear? Make a practice out of paying attention to the basics of our surroundings that we tend to tune out, and those things will start to seem pretty amazing. You may feel a hint of that same “I’m alive, dammit!” rush you get when you travel to a new city, because paying close attention helps you rediscover the novelty of your everyday environment.

2. Think like a kid. About a week ago, I was sitting in a coffee shop as rain poured outside for hours on end, framed by a nasty, not so June-inappropriate grey sky. I was ready for true summer weather and so over it. Just out the window, though, I noticed a 3-year-old was having the best damn day of her life, because…rain, I guess. Her grandma shook a tree branch over her head so she could watch rain drops fall into her hair and onto her brightly colored rain coat, and she laughed so hard that I don’t think all the money or fame or worldly possessions on this earth could have made her happier. When you’re little, everything is new and exciting. Everything in a kid’s path brings with it the emotional high and sense of novelty that adults feel they have to try increasingly harder to find by making more money, work harder, traveling farther, staying out later. We search for extremes because the everyday no longer seems to provide those feelings for us, and while we’ll never be a kid again, we can remind ourselves to appreciate those simple things.

Imagine if you had no name for a tree, or for rain drops — that’s pretty tough to fathom at this point — but my points it that since our brains have finished categorizing what trees or rain drops look like, we don’t consider them to be worth examining anymore. There’s magic in unlearning the things we now write off as predictable. We look up and see “meh, tree,” a singular object, instead of the millions of moving parts that are actually in front of us – a big, solid trunk, hundreds of small moving leaves, the rustling sound it makes in the breeze, the decades of stories it’s seen in that very spot before you walked past it, the small patches of sunlight that make it through the shade of the leaves and onto the sidewalk. We miss all of that. And yes, it’s just a damn tree, but if we’re missing out on that, what else are we missing out on? What if, instead of passing things off as “been there, done that,” we took on this same sense of wonder when we heard sound of our partner’s voice telling us a funny story, or when we had our ritualistic first sip of deli coffee in the morning, or when we finally sank down onto the couch after a long day?

3. Bask in the impermanence of it all. The “boring” stuff makes up the fabric of our existence, and it’s when the real living happens, so why not treat it as the precious, fleeting thing it is? Life is very impermanent. I’ll never forget sitting on my aunt’s sun porch with her one beautiful afternoon a few years ago, eating lunch, just going about a regular day. She said something like, “well, it’s not so glamorous, but this time is precious, so we need to enjoy it.” At the time, this was very literal – I was staying with her for a few months, and my visit would be over before either of us wanted it to be — but I know she meant it in a biggerx way too. Our everyday reality shifts into different phases and seasons, and even the things we most take for granted, that seem like they’ll be around forever — our lame commute, our blah evening TV routine — will be gone someday. That’s not necessarily bad, I suppose, because some seasons of life suck and can’t change fast enough, but it adds a degree of preciousness to each moment.

4. See life through the rosy lens of nostalgia. So, since everything is impermanent, imagine that your present moment is a mere memory, years from now. Maybe your loved ones or friends who currently surround you aren’t there anymore (ugh, tears). Maybe they’re still around but times are very different. In your future mind, these semi-shitty present times will probably seem like some of the sweetest of your life. Nostalgia and hindsight are weird that way, but it sure does help with finding joy in our current moment. Someday when our lives have moved many seasons forward, we’ll wish, more than anything, that we could relive just one moment of this seemingly ordinary era in our past.

5. When you lose sight of the present, talk yourself out of it. This may not work if you’re in public or an open-plan office, but if you catch your mind losing itself in a sea of what-ifs, say “STOP” or “I’m back” out loud to redirect yourself back to the here and now.

 

6. Try writing morning pages or a more traditional form of meditation. (Yes, I totally consider these meditation, but that’s me). Morning pages are an excellent way to clear your head of all the distracting junk thoughts floating around in there. You can learn more about this practice here.

7. Let your thoughts pass through. Being mindful doesn’t mean never having random thoughts or feeling unpleasant things. If anything, mindfulness causes pain or bad feelings to go away more quickly, because we don’t devote any effort to resisting them. When you feel emotional pain in the present without resisting, there’s a sharp piercing in your heart for a moment, and then it’s gone. Pain snowballs when we think about the pain, then try to make meaning of those thoughts, then try to avoid that pain, and so on — it’s like gradually tearing a Band-aid off bit by bit, and it gives the negative feelings much more power than they’d have if we just faced them head-on and carried on with our day. Of course, it’s totally human nature to do this, and it’s how we were taught growing up to handle bad feelings. It’s so uncomfortable to decide to just stare pain in the face, especially that first time, but it’s so much less likely to ruin our whole day when we do.

8. Shape the tone of your reality. Life loves to throw random surprises in your face to ruin your day, and there’s nothing you can do about it. But you know what doesn’t help? Cursing the sky and declaring your day ruined. If you’re angry, let yourself be angry, but try your best not to actively resist something that’s unchangeable (I know, it’s hard). If you’re stuck in traffic or you locked yourself out of your house again, you don’t have like it, but you can try to make your crappy reality as enjoyable as possible. Use that time to make some phone calls you’ve been putting off, or take a long walk around your neighborhood. Find the silliness in the moment, because this moment is all you’ve got.

Ultimately, mindfulness is simple. That’s the whole point of it — freeing yourself from the unnecessary complications you create with your thoughts. These tips are here to help, but I don’t want to make it sound more confusing than it is. Your already know how to be mindful. Just take a deep breath, look straight ahead, and savor the glorious, boring, beautiful life right in front of you.

[Image via Shutterstock]