What are you thinking about? You've probably been asked this question before, but how often do you consciously think about your thoughts on your own? You may find the question irritating, nosy, or out-of-the-blue so much so that you tend to provide the autopilot response of "nothing." If you have feelings of anxiety, fear, stress, or sleeplessness, ask yourself again: What is it that you are thinking about? If you can't pin it down to just one thought in one moment, consider fine tuning your focus. This practice of thinking in the moment of your exact thoughts is called mindfulness and has been shown to help lower stress levels in daily life.
I was introduced to the University of Pennsylvania's mindfulness program through my company, who presents the opportunity to a few employees each semester with the goal of reducing stress. The program has taught over 10,000 participants to manage difficulty and stress, reduce depression and anxiety, cope with trauma and loss, increase focus and mental clarity, improve communication in relationships, and find purpose, meaning, and beauty in life. What peaked my interest, selfishly, was the reported number of performance benefits ranging from improved decision making, better attention in meetings, decreased stress and anxiety, increased self-awareness, and overall emotional well-being (Jon Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living).
After participating in the eight-week mindfulness program, I feel more prepared to navigate through an over-scheduled, technology-driven, media-saturated, endlessly complex society. Bringing awareness to my day has allowed me to make more conscious decisions. Every action we take comes as a result of a decision to take action. From waking up and getting out of bed in the morning to leaving work in the evening, and finally to turning off at night and going to sleep, each action in your day deserves attention and should align to your intentions.
The decisions you make should be part of your life, even at the micro level.
I'll warn you that practicing mindfulness sounds easier than it really is. At the beginning of the course, I became easily frustrated by the concept of taking time away from my so-called detrimental distractions and spending that same time on the "nothing" (breathing, meditating, and feeling). Leaving behind my cell phone, work assignments, and social life for a set period of time each day was crucial to the meditation practice that was a key component of the program. Meditation has been shown to be beneficial both physically and emotionally. Buying into the idea of leaving life for a few minutes each day was made easier to understand with the book Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn that the class used as an anchor to key lessons. Zinn helped me realize, in my own time, that what I was looking for "well-being, inner balance, and peacefulness exist outside of time" and by committing to a meditation practice, you can find those moments every day and avoid becoming a victim of time.
As a type-A competitive, hurried, easily irritated, and impatient individual, one of the most meaningful takeaways the mindfulness practice taught me was to stop (whatever I was doing or thinking), breathe (1, 5, or 20 breaths at whatever pace I needed), and be (re-opening myself to the present situation). This concept of awareness in how I was responding to the world around me was extremely powerful. It allowed me to see how reckless I was being with my time. Mindfulness taught me to check in with my thoughts constantly by pulling my attention to the current focus.
It seems most honest people acknowledge that their thoughts regularly wander. We advance through life ignoring the most appropriately present thoughts by distracting ourselves with thoughts of the list of things we need to check off, what we're making for dinner, Facebook updates, or exactly how we're going to meet that deadline. Although we may feel that we have control over the time we spend thinking about these things, we end up using these distractions as an indulgence to escape from the current moment. Then, we feel frustrated when we don't know where the time has gone. Our time has been spent without meaning or focus.
First, it is important to understand when you lose your focus. Then, transition from noticing those moments to reestablishing your intention. Remembering whatever it was you wanted to set your focus on like the person talking in front of your or the paragraph in the book you're reading.
In week five of the mindfulness course, I decided to treat myself to a lazy Sunday by selecting one of my free on-demand movie options. I was aware that when I chose the movie About Time, I was not engaging in a mindful activity. Quite the opposite -- I was intentionally distracting myself and avoiding my to-do list. Unexpectedly, About Time provided an opportunity to reflect on the Penn mindfulness course.
In the movie, the men of the Lake Family have a special gift: the ability to travel in time. This supernatural ability comes to an end for the father (played by Bill Nighy) when we find out he is going to die. Before he passes, he provides his son with his secret formula for happiness. After living through one full day, he says, "live every day again almost exactly the same as the first time (with all the tensions and worries that stop us from noticing how sweet the world can be) but the second time, noticing." Noticing is the exact premise of the mindfulness course. As I watched life play out over again, I was struck by how incredibly and unexpectedly emotional I became in how powerfully the mindfulness lessons hit me. Watching the characters go through life with the same annoyances that I feel on a daily basis like sitting next to someone whose headphones are on for the world to hear or demand the barista speed up in getting your coffee made me think twice about my practice. When I realized the opportunity we all have to live life with a different perspective, my perception of the world was transformed and I became excitedly more grateful for everyday experiences.
By taking in each joy and pain as it happens, and just being with each moment, you learn to be mindful of every aspect of your life from something as dull as your commute to something as exciting as your wedding day. With the help of technology, we have gotten very good at multi-tasking. In tuning into the entertainment industry or social media, we steer ourselves away from the present. I'm guilty of it -- taking a snapchat at a sporting event, tweeting from a concert, uploading a picture to Instagram mid-run! If you have ever done any of these things, I will challenge you to start living in the moment. Slow down. Be present. Connect with nature and those around you. Listen more carefully. Allow your mind and body to react. At the very least mindfulness tells us to reflect on pervasive entertainment and social media consumption and start using our time to just be. Start today, in this moment, by being mindful with only one thought at a time. Ask yourself, "What am I thinking about?" but this time, answer honestly.
This post was originally published on Quarter For Your Crisis, an online community created to share stories of those who don't think normalcy is an option and who want to actually live and breathe their passions.