Tuesday, February 2, 2010

How to be more mindful

One of the simplest ways to find happiness on a daily basis, in any situation, is through mindfulness. The first time I recall consciously practicing mindfulness was probably about five years or so ago when my cousin introduced me to the concept. She didn't label it mindfulness; she was simply trying to give me some advice on how to fall asleep. (This was a point in my life when I was constantly stressed and was taking quite a bit of Benedryl every night to get myself to sleep.Not healthy.) For whatever reason, I'm not the best at recalling details, but for some reason this memory sticks in my mind so vividly. My cousin and I were lying in her childhood bed at her parents house and she was explaining this amazing sleep-inducing tactic to me. It was simple enough, but it had never occurred to me before and I found it so enlightening. To this day, I still use it to fall asleep.

It goes like this: Instead of focusing on all of those thoughts rushing and racing through your mind at bedtime, focus on your five senses. As you're lying in bed, ask yourself, "What do I hear? What do I see (hopefully blackness because your eyes are closed)? What do i feel? What do I smell?" Perhaps this wouldn't work for everyone, but I swear, every time I try this technique I fall asleep. Now, it's important to think about these things in detail (which may be why it's a great exercise for me and wouldn't be so great for others. This tactic may not work for everyone, but it's certainly worth a shot.

And, of course, that lovely little intro leads me into today's topic:
mindfulness. According to Wikipedia (a quite credible source if I do say so myself!), mindfulness is "a mental state, characterized by concentrated awareness of one's thoughts, actions or motivations." Mindfulness is the idea of being aware of what is going on around you (and inside you). So often we go through life just going, going, going -- and we don't stop to look, touch, smell, listen, think. When we start becoming mindful of the world around us (and, trust me, this is not easy and in no way am I able to practice mindfulness as often as I would like), I begin to see things different. I understand, and appreciate, the world around me more. For example, I hate rain. HATE it. I also hate the cold. Today I woke to a cold, cloudy, rainy day a day of the gloom! I was unhappy. I was irritated. I was feeling that glum, gloom-ridden Eeyore attitude with every bone in my body. But then I reminded myself to be mindful. I started looking at the rain as it splattered on my car and I thought about how lucky I was not to be out in the rain. I thought about how much the rain looked like tears rolling down the windowpane; this was a sad thought, but it was a beautiful one as well. Sure, I still hate the rain and I long for the next sunny day, but being mindful of it made it a bit more bearable.

Being mindful is especially important when it involves -- surprise! surprise! -- your mind. It is so easy to have thoughts and to act and react without really thinking. I have to think about my thoughts in order to make them productive. Say, for example, I feel angry Larry. I choose to embrace that anger and yell at a coworker, who really has done nothing seriously wrong. Bad situation, right? Well, if I had chosen to take my anger and, instead of acting on it, thought about it, I may have reacted differently. It's easy to let a thought or emotion take over. It's easy to just say to myself "I'm angry." What's hard is being mindful of that feeling or thought. It's much more difficult to say to myself, "I'm angry because..." or, harder still, to ask myself, "What's really bothering me? What's really at the heart of this feeling?" Being mindful of of my mind is difficult. It causes mw to think about topics and emotions I may not want to think about. But, in my experience, it only makes things easier in the end.
I'm not always mindful of my thoughts and feelings (though I hope some day I will be able to be), but when I am I find that my actions are much more appropriate and, overall, I'm much happier. When I stop to think about what I'm feeling or thinking, I realize that it's not usually what it seems. There's usually more. It's usually complicated. And, yes, sometimes it's a pain in the ass to think about situations or feelings I don't feel like dealing with. But finding out what my feelings mean or thinking about why I'm thinking about a certain topic usually leads me to a greater understanding of myself, which only brings about more happiness in my life. Knowing me better means knowing the world better, something Ioften take for granted.
Mindfulness is not easy, but it's worth trying out -- even on the small things. It's important to be present, to be in the moment, and mindfulness is a tactic that makes life not only easier, but more interesting.


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