06/29/2013 09:51 am ET Updated Aug 29, 2013

The Power of Morning Practice


If you don't practice being in the moment, feeling stress-free when everything is well, you won't be able to feel centered when life falls apart.

I learned that powerfully yesterday.

I just got back from a dream trip with my dad. We were golfing in Scotland. Every day was a true pleasure, even though the ball didn't behave as I would have liked, and the only stress was deciding how late to sleep so we wouldn't be late for our tee times.

Then, on the road for my first day back at work, it began to creep back in: stress. Stress is a sneaky little devil. It usually doesn't come into our lives like a crazed maniac or screaming child. It tiptoes. It crawls. It inches its way into our thoughts and feelings like a thief in the night.

I was simply driving and suddenly I started to feel a bit anxious. I started to think about everything I had to catch up on and the people I needed to check in with. I began to worry about those people. Then I began to worry if I was going to be any value to them. Then I started to doubt if I should be doing the work I'm doing and about my 10th grade geometry teacher who thought I was a prig.

Then I caught myself.

That is the cycle of the alarm in our brain. The amygdala causes you to think of something as simple as a list of things you have to do, and if you're not careful, to make sure you take care of all the things that need your attention, it will ramp up the adrenaline in your body. It will pull mostly random, stress-inducing thoughts from your memory center that have little or nothing to do with your work or day's plans. The alarm wants you to stay on task even when the task is hours or days and weeks away. But I was in the car. I wasn't late. I didn't need to feel any anxiety.

On my vacation, everything was mindfulness. I didn't need to meditate in the morning or intentionally do exercises to stay focused. Every moment was full and complete.

During my normal life, however, I realized I have to start every morning with a practice. Every moment is just as complete, but the pressure of work, family, and our modern world can drive even the sanest among us crazy.

Yesterday, in the car, as I started to melt for no reason, I did a simple mindfulness exercise: I just drove. I turned off the radio. I let my mind go blank. I enjoyed the feel of the steering wheel and the power of controlling a two-ton vehicle. I watched other drivers and listened to the bump-bump-bump of the highway. I didn't have anything to worry about, so I intentionally practiced staying in the moment.

What the experience of noticing the transition from vacation to regular life taught me is that during more stressful times, I have to be more intentional about my practice. I have to practice being well so that in times when my brain is reacting to inevitable stressors, I have the experience from earlier in the day to call upon and remind myself I can always be well or return to wellness more quickly than my alarm would have me believe.

In addition to the obvious habits of yoga and meditation, here are a few classic suggestions for morning practice.

Morning pages: Write, free form, on one topic. As described in "The Artist's Way," write for 500 words. Don't judge what you write, just write. Let your mind be in the moment, creative and free.

Make coffee: This a mindfulness standby. Just make coffee (or tea). Watch, feel, listen as you construct your morning beverage. If a thought about the future or past comes, notice it and let it slide though your mind like water through a pipe. As you sip your first taste, just taste. It's amazing what a totally-present cup of Joe can do for the rest of the day.

Hug: My wife gave me one of those long hugs you don't forget this morning. Whether the person you love, your child, a friend, or your cat, don't miss the chance to be present for a minute or two with those closest to you.

The question we each need to answer is, "What are we doing each morning to stay centered?" If we don't practice being well, our alarm will run the show. Morning is often best. You have more ability to ground yourself in wellness than you're probably using. What I learned yesterday is that I don't want to wait for vacation to de-stress.

For more by Jon Wortmann, click here.

For more on stress, click here.