Stop Overthinking Mindfulness: Simple Strategies for a Present Life
Trending: A More Mindful Existence
Mindfulness is quickly emerging as one of the hottest new trends in today’s culture. Practices such as meditation and yoga are gaining increased attention for their ability to help us foster a mindful existence. Tech companies are creating products to deliver mindfulness to us. Corporations are jumping on the bandwagon to support their employees in navigating life stressors.
As our way of life continues to pick up speed, we’re collectively becoming more aware of the need to pump the brakes and smell the proverbial roses. We are overstimulated, constantly distracted, and increasingly isolated from deep human interactions. We bounce from place to place, person to person, thought to thought with knee jerk quickness. Meanwhile, expanding our awareness of ourselves and our surroundings has become foreign, even unsettling to us.
Deep down, we may intuitively sense this disconnect and feel drawn to the concept of mindfulness. After all, who wouldn’t like to feel less stress, more connected, fulfilled, and happy? Mindfulness is more than just a new buzzword, it is a pathway towards balancing our lives. But how do we get started?
As a coach, I see the practice of mindfulness eluding many people. Just like in our daily lives, we often turn what should be simple and intuitive into an overly complicated mess of minutiae.
- What’s the proper technique?
- Where do we begin?
- How do I know if I’m on the right track?
- What does it feel like?
- Am I doing it right?
Stop. You’re overthinking it.
In this article we’ll unpack this thing called mindfulness and explore the ways to make it work for you. Let’s set aside traditional practices and let’s forget about what the gurus are doing for few minutes. Let’s strip away all the mysticism. Let’s focus less on mindfulness “tactics” and more how to keep it simple and consistent for transformational results.
The Big Picture of Mindfulness
No doubt there are many different approaches, practices, entry points, and languages around mindfulness. We could sit here splitting hairs over these small differences or embrace the big picture and act.
You may have heard mindfulness is “being present.” To elaborate, let’s define mindfulness as intentionally paying attention. What are you paying attention to? In particular, what is going on around you and within you. Mindfulness is about paying attention to your external environment, your internal experience, and the connection between the two.
A key element of mindfulness is observation without evaluation, analysis, or judgement. This is so simple we often get off-track. Our brains are wired to search for problems and solutions. Be sure to say “thank you, brain” because overall it’s a good thing. However, left unchecked this becomes a habitual pattern that may distract from the present moment. There’s something to be said for just taking it all in. Mindfulness is not just going through the motions or flipping through the channels of your mind. Mindfulness is experiencing the many flavors of your life.
The Real Benefit of Mindfulness
Another place where we get derailed is understanding the benefits. Mindfulness is a subtle practice, the benefits come into focus with time and consistency. This runs contrary to our culture of instant gratification. There are many potential benefits, but perhaps the most universal benefit of mindfulness lies in it’s ability to shift us towards embracing the process of life.
We’d love to predict the future or have some way to insure what we want to happen, but we learn time and time again that just ain’t how it works. Mindfulness trains us for acceptance. Through practice, we learn to see the silver lining of every cloud. We learn to appreciate the good and the bad. We learn to recognize that the nothing lasts forever; the landscape is always shifting. In essence, mindfulness is how we can fully embrace this wild ride on our rock hurling through space.
Ending the Search
We might hear about mindfulness on a podcast or read an article in our newsfeed and think “I that’s totally what I need!” We then launch a massive search for more articles, books, apps, teachers, classes, and retreats. We look everywhere in a Google-fueled quest for the answers, how else are we supposed to know if we’re doing it right?
But in our haste we forget to look in the most important spot, inside us. Mindfulness is an innate capacity, like strength, mobility, or balance. It’s not an add-on or an upgrade that you need to acquire, it’s already inside you. Of course, learning new approaches and techniques is a part of strengthening your ability. All the resources and tools out there can be helpful but recognize that the ability is already a fundamental part of you.
By seeing mindfulness as something you’re drawing out (rather than bringing in) you’ll relieve the pressure of trying to “do” something or force results. Understand that it’s your practice and it’s an on-going process. No one can do the work for you or tell you how it should be done. Be open to learning new approaches and feel confident in putting this information to use in a way that works best for you.
Building Your Practice
Mindfulness can be applied to just about any practice. Start with a vehicle you’re comfortable with. Ask yourself where you’re already spending your time and energy. Consider how you could engage in these activities more mindfully. I’ve personally come to access a more mindful lifestyle through my fitness training and spending time in nature.
Prior to embracing mindfulness, my fitness was defined by pushing forward at all costs. I rushed quickly from goal to goal. Over the years, this got pretty old. I shifted my focus to mindfulness and began feeling my movements from the inside out. It was no longer solely about more reps or more weight, but also observing the sensations and emotions arising from the movements. I experienced greater patience with myself and for the process of change. This resulted in fewer injuries, increased body awareness, more effective training, and higher overall performance.
Spending time in nature has also been a way to access a mindful state. I’ve placed more awareness on taking in the sights, smells, sounds, and textures. Navigating more complex terrain requires a greater degree of presence which prompts me to turn off my auto-pilot and engage. I’ve learned to appreciate not just the comforts of nature (sunshine and warm temps) but the challenges as well (rain / snow, cold, wind, mud, bugs, etc…) My nature adventures might last 5 minutes or 5 hours but the experience coupled with mindfulness always leads me to a sense of awe and connection.
Start with any activity you’re already familiar focusing on. These are your strongest vehicles to access mindfulness. These activities are where mindfulness will click for you and begin to resonate through the different areas of your life. It doesn’t have to be anything extraordinary; everyday tasks make for great mindfulness practice. Try out some of these jump off points to start practicing.
- Unplug your workout. Put your headphones away and get off the machines. Choose 3–5 different movements or exercises and perform them mindfully with quality in mind. Sense your muscles activating, your heart rate and breathing changes, your stability or instability. Acknowledge what emotions or feelings stir up and eventually settle. Notice your reaction to these feelings.
- DIY yoga / stretch. What are you trouble spots? Start out with just one good stretch that targets one of these areas. Stay in your body as you stretch, don’t check out. Pay attention to the sensations and your breathing. Hold the stretch for longer than you’re used to 2–3 minutes. Move in and out the stretch. Change your body position slightly to stretch slightly different angles.
- Take a walk in nature. Get off the beaten path and remove some of the barriers between you and the environment. Go barefoot or make a point to touch as many objects as you can. Find a comfortable place to sit and just take in the sensations, smells and sounds.
- Savor a meal. At least once a day, take some extra time to enjoy what you’re consuming. We know how easy it is to rush. Eating too fast or working / texting / surfing our way through a meal to the point where we’re not really even tasting what we’re eating. Put your devices away and enjoy something nourishing and flavorful.
- Create something. Draw, write, build, film, act, play, sculpt, photo, dance, design. Let go of the pressure of having to make something “good” and just create something for the sake of it. When you’re finished, don’t judge it or get attached to it. Realize it won’t be the last thing you create. Acknowledge and appreciate the product and the process of creating it.
Let it (Over)Flow
When mindfulness becomes a routine practice it reshapes your perspective on the world. Mindfulness becomes a habit that overflows into the other areas of your life. Consistent practice enables you to access a mindful state in both mundane activities and in stressful or emotional situations.
It’s great that we have many resources and support around mindfulness training. These resources serve us best when they are used to help us individualize our approach. There may be a wealth of techniques for mindfulness but it’s your personal responsibility to integrate them in a way that works for you.
Keep your sights set of the big picture behind mindfulness — being passionate about paying attention. Instantaneous results won’t happen, but over time the shift that takes place is monumental. This process is paved by recognizing that mindfulness isn’t something you become, it’s what you express. Put forth the effort with the understanding that being mindful is something you’ve always done, now you’re just turning up the volume.