ANN ARBOR - “Many people are alive but don’t touch the miracle of being alive.” – Thích Nhất Hạnh, Buddhist monk and peace activist
With the new year upon us, it’s the perfect time to start cultivating a little peace of mind. The benefits of doing so extend beyond stress reduction; when we practice embodying a calm, nonjudgmental presence, we tap into the essence of being alive — creating more space for peace, wellness and joy in our everyday life.
Mindfulness, an age-old practice adapted for the modern world, opens the door to this fruitful way of living. As discussed in my last article, incorporating mindfulness into your life is a true gift -- to yourself as well as to those around you. Its research-proven benefits include less stress, anxiety and depression, as well as better focus, increased compassion, sounder sleep, improved health and the ability to find calm in a hectic world. Considering the myriad benefits, with zero drawbacks, what better New Year's resolution is there?
But time seems to be in high demand these days. For many of us, introducing a new agenda item to our already packed schedule feels overwhelming. Luckily, there are ways you can bring mindfulness into the activities you already do on a daily basis - like eating, walking and taking a shower, for example. Rather than adding another task to your list, it’s about shifting the way you choose to engage in your current routine -- weaving in small moments of intentional curiosity, acceptance and gratitude.
Each day will pass, one by one, whether you are fully engaged in your experience (as mindfulness teaches us to do) or playing mental ping-pong between past analysis and future worry (as most of us spend our lives doing, unfortunately and unknowingly). Mindfulness invites us to live life with full awareness; it opens our minds up to the little joys hiding in each moment, just waiting to be discovered.
Wondering how to start? Read on to learn three simple, research-supported ways to engage in your life in a more mindful way.
Mindfulness Practices for Everyday Life
“When awareness embraces the senses, it enlivens them.” – Jon Kabat-Zinn, professor and mindfulness expert
Consider your five senses as doorways into presence. Any time you notice yourself lost in your thoughts, you can into your present-moment experience to bring you back to the here and now. This might sound simple, but start to notice -- when you take a shower, are you truly present? Are you paying attention to the soothing feeling of the water against your skin, and the smell of your shampoo wafting through the air? Or are you stuck in your mind going over the events of the day -- running through what work tasks lay ahead of you, or going over previous interactions and wondering if you said the “right” thing?
One of those scenarios tends to trigger our stress response (for more on this, click here) and the other one brings us into a more present and peaceful state of mind. I’ll let you guess which is which.
So come to your senses, as they say. Periodically, throughout the day, let your thoughts fall into the background as you shift your attention to the sights, smells and sounds around you.
Ask yourself: What can I notice that’s right here, right now? While you’re walking to your next meeting, feel the movement in your legs, the rhythm of your footsteps, the air against your skin. Get curious about what you can sense in each activity you engage in, from washing the dishes, to sitting down at your desk, to getting some fresh air outside.
Doing so allows your mind the rest it so desperately needs, allowing it to clear and recover from all the planning, analyzing, worrying, and thinking that it does day in, day out. You may notice that, after coming to your senses for a moment or two, you feel more centered and settled as you take on the next task that comes your way.
“The little things? The little moments? They aren’t little.” – Jon Kabat-Zinn
The more you practice sensing into your daily life, you may notice details start to pop out at you that didn’t before: the sparkle of the sunlight on the morning frost, the pleasant feeling of a warm drink in between your hands and the nourishing taste of a home-cooked meal. Now let that feeling linger -- slow down a little and savor it.
Notice if the mind starts to dart off somewhere else -- caught in its usual habit of planning/analyzing/worrying -- and gently, without judgment, bring your focus back to sensing and appreciating this moment. Notice as your body starts to relax a little; with enough practice, your mind will eventually follow suit.
Our lives are full of moments to savor, adding a sense of peace and joy to those little moments that might otherwise pass unnoticed.
Here are a few of my favorite things to savor:
- A cup of coffee/tea
- A piece of chocolate
- The sky (especially around sunset)
- The softness of blankets/clothing
- A hug from a loved one
What could you savor in your daily life? What little joys are waiting to be felt into, and appreciated? Start by picking one activity -- your morning cup of coffee, for example, and set an intention to slow down and savor it. The more you shift your attention to what’s pleasant in this moment, the more it becomes an automatic habit; little by little, you are rewiring your brain to reduce stress and increase inner peace, joy and a sense of satisfaction with your everyday life.
“In daily life we must see that it is not happiness that makes us grateful, but gratefulness that makes us happy.” – David Steindl-Rast, Catholic Benedictine monk
A close cousin of savoring, gratitude is the practice of resting our awareness on our appreciation for the good stuff in life -- from the people we love, to the places we live, to the feeling of the sun hitting our cheeks as we step outside. And it deserves much more than its yearly nod at Thanksgiving; gratitude, it turns out, is a mighty force to be reckoned with in the wellness arena.
Science shows, again and again, the incredible benefits that gratitude alone has for mental, physical and psychological health.
Robert Emmons, professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, has conducted numerous studies linking gratitude with decreased depression and increased happiness. In one study, participants who kept a gratitude journal weekly for 10 weeks or daily for two weeks experienced more positive moods, increased optimism about the future and better sleep. Other research has shown its capacity to improve relationships, enhance empathy, self-esteem and mental strength, and increase people’s motivation to exercise and visit the doctor, thus improving overall physical health. Pretty powerful stuff, isn’t it?
But gratitude doesn’t mean ignoring the difficulties inherent in living a human life. Those are there, too, and they deserve our acknowledgment. But often when we are suffering, our mind becomes so focused on what’s wrong, that we forget about what’s right. And the capacity to recognize both -- to acknowledge the negative AND appreciate the positive -- that’s one of the keys to resilience -- to bouncing back from hardship with more inner strength, wisdom and balance than before.
You can’t be grateful for everything that happens to you in life, but in every moment there is something you can feel grateful for. Reach to gratitude as your loyal companion in both the difficult and the joyful moments, and over time, you will sense a powerful and positive shift in your relationship to life itself.
But don’t take my word for it -- give it a try on your own:
- Take a few minutes to write a list of all the things you feel grateful for.
- Read the list to yourself. Visualize every person, place and thing on your list. Notice how you feel.
- Now read this list to a friend or loved one. You can also take turns with them, each of you saying what you feel grateful for. Notice how you feel.
As you strive to live your best life and set healthy goals for yourself this year, allow space for recognizing what’s already there. Pay attention to the positive aspects of your life. Spend time each day engaging in your senses, giving your thoughts a chance to rest. Savor the tastes and textures of your nourishing food, and the warm, soothing, invigorating quality of your morning coffee. Pause for 30 seconds to soak in the beauty of what’s around you, whether it’s the laughter of your loved ones, or the silhouettes against the orange sky at sunset. Express your gratitude for the people you care about, and soak in that feeling, too.
Your mind will thank you with a newfound sense of clarity, appreciation, and peace. And those around you will be thankful as well -- for the ways in which you’ll enhance their lives by being a little more present, appreciative and joyful, too.
Happy new year; may it be one full of awareness of all the beauty that exists in your world.
Anique Pegeron is a mindfulness teacher and coach at Mindful World and Grove Emotional Health Collaborative in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Visit her website www.mindful-world.com for information on individual mindfulness coaching, group classes, workshops and more. Visit Grove's website www.groveemotionalhealth.com for more mindfulness, wellness offerings and other mental health services in downtown Ann Arbor.
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