“I don’t want to watch TV news anymore,” my current-events-junkie husband said to me the other day. “It’s giving me heart palpitations to see all the craziness in Washington.”
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we keep our inner peace no matter what’s going on in our lives — or in the country — since it’s the topic of my latest novel. Turning off the television is one way, of course, but the wild world somehow still seeps into our lives, via conversations, social media, or overhearing the political arguments regularly breaking out everywhere. Anyway, a news fast does nothing to quell the angst in your work life and family.
To truly stay sane, we’ve got to find that calm, soothing center within ourselves.
People who have studied how to disconnect our inner peace from the outer reality — everyone from scientists to religious authorities — have discovered that the answer is to keep corralling our leaping thoughts back to the present moment. Surprisingly, most of us spend little time actually thinking about what’s happening right now.
Several years ago, Harvard scientists asked thousands of people to track their thoughts on a phone app; on average, their minds wandered 47 percent of the time — during pretty much everything they were doing, except having sex. You might think the daydreamers were the most content, but actually the happiest moments occurred when people focused on the here and now.
Use Mindfulness to Help
This is something I’ve come to understand the hard way. I first took up mindfulness — where you actively train your mind to notice the sights, smells, and sensations happening in the moment — several decades ago, when I discovered yoga and realized the most adept practitioners weren’t easily flustered by the things I was. Even today, I know a swami in Miami who starts each day watching CNN, but he never feels upended like my husband.
I thought I was developing a pretty good practice, but a few years ago when I developed a debilitating illness that flummoxed a long train of doctors, I couldn’t stop my brain from projecting to worst-case scenes. It took me a long time to realize that I’d been waiting for a medical label — any label as time went on — to end the catastrophizing. Yet that was something I could do myself, simply by deciding to. I started consciously accessing that soothing space of inner peace and, perhaps not surprisingly, my body began to heal. (I never did get that label, but I believe I had parasites, which integrative medicine eventually rid me of.)
Everyone has experienced this internal oasis. It happens automatically when we watch a gorgeous sunset, snuggle with our partner, breathe in the fold of a tiny baby’s neck, or when we do something more intentional, like taking a deep breath. It’s why we all say we’re “beside ourselves” when we go off the deep end, intuitively understanding there’s a tranquil “self” we’re supposed to align with, but in that moment we’ve pulled away.
Over the years I’ve discovered many effective ways to access this calming center. People think they have to be in sitting meditation to do it. Indeed, that is a time-honored approach, because coaxing your mind to alight on your steady breath or a repeated sound mantra stops it from flying to future worry or regretted past. Research has even documented sitting meditations’ biological effects, including boosting the sedative neurotransmitter GABA and making the anxious part of the brain, the amygdala, a little smaller. But I confess I have a spotty record when it comes to a daily sitting meditation practice, and so do many other well-intentioned people I know.
I have come to appreciate the mindfulness practices you can do anywhere: at work before a meeting begins, at home while making dinner, while sitting in the midwife’s office potentially waiting to hear something bad (as happens to my novel’s protagonist, Lorna), and even watching that TV news.
Scatter Mindfulness Throughout Your Day
Here are some great ways to do that:
Notice Your Body — Or the Energy Inside It. My go-to is to bring awareness inside my hands or feet. These appendages are always with us, but they are generally ignored. Focusing on the energy and aliveness in them immediately launches me into the moment. Take a moment right now to experience the surprising level of dynamism going on inside your palms.
Other easy ways of bringing in that nonjudging awareness, when you’re noticing something but not categorizing it in your mind or labeling it as good or bad: truly experiencing how your hands feel under running water, sensing the pressure of your computer mouse beneath your fingers, smelling the produce in the grocery store before putting it into your cart, and hearing the steady sound of your humming fridge we’re mostly inclined to overlook.
Do Yoga with Focus. If moving your body is more your thing, there’s yoga, of course — and I believe its mind-soothing qualities are the reason so many of us have taken to it, even as gyms position it as strength-training or exercise. To do it mindfully, avoid getting caught up in how much more flexible the woman next to you might be.
Walk with Intention. You can also take short listening walks, which simply involves opening your ears wherever you’re strolling, be it in nature, an office, or the mall. Pay attention to the sounds that are always there, but that we largely ignore because we’re too busy thinking.
Help Yourself Remember
Whatever mini mindfulness practices you settle on, the biggest challenge is remembering to do them. It’s so easy to get distracted by the busyness of every moment you forget you’re trying to step back. I’ve posted notes by my computer; then, after a few weeks, I stop noticing the notes. Once, inspired by Aldous Huxley’s great novel, Island, where the mynah birds are trained to crow “attention, attention” to prompt islanders to focus, I gave the ibises outside my window that role. It worked for several months, until one day I realized a bird was squawking incessantly, but I had been oblivious for hours.
This year I’ve downloaded an app that chimes each hour; when I hear Big Ben I silently take a few seconds to bring my awareness inside my limbs, regardless of what I’m otherwise doing and who I’m with. I suspect that will stop being effective at some point, in which case I’ll seek out something else, because in the crazy, busy, stressful life we’re all living, making time for brief, mindful moments is the best way to stay sane. (Anybody know where I can get a trained mynah?)
Meryl Davids Landau is the author of the new mindfulness/yoga novel Warrior Won. Midwest Book Review calls it “one of the strongest spiritual women’s fiction pieces to appear in recent years.” Learn more at MerylDavidsLandau.com