“We have only now, only this single eternal moment opening and unfolding before us, day and night.” ~Jack Kornfield
Almost two years ago, I kept seeing the word “mindfulness” pop up everywhere I was looking, and I had no clue what it was.
I kept seeing blog posts with titles like How Mindfulness can Help You at Work¸ How Mindfulness can Help You in Relationships, and How Mindfulness can Help You in the Bedroom.
Then, I saw a short video explaining mindfulness. It was a monk drinking coffee, and the narrator was talking about how much better the coffee tastes when you think about the beans being grown, the people who harvest the beans, and everything else that goes into making your simple cup of coffee.
Everything I was seeing from pop-culture blogs made it seem like this thing called mindfulness was this snake oil that could solve all of life’s problems. Although I was skeptical and had no clue what I was getting into, I decided that I was going to keep an open mind and see what mindfulness was all about.
For me, it was a quick and easy sell from the moment I started practicing because everything just “clicked” for me.
As someone who tries to encourage everyone to give it a try, I’ve learned that people don’t often have the same experience. So, if you’re someone who is thinking about trying the practice or giving up, I hope this will give you some motivation to keep moving forward.
1. Time is our most valuable currency, and we can’t waste it.
In June of 2012, I was diagnosed with congestive heart failure at the age of twenty-six, and the doctors told me there was a slim chance that I’d live more than another year. Well, here we are five years later; I’m alive, and I’ve been able to watch my son grow into an amazing young man. My heart is almost completely back to normal, and it’s blown my doctor’s mind.
With this second chance at life, I made a commitment to myself that I was going to experience every day to its fullest with a goal to waste as little time as possible, because tomorrow isn’t promised.
I know, my situation is a little bit more extreme than most, but I believe this is something we can all get behind. We’ve all had unexpected tragedy in our life from losing a job, a relationship, or a loved one. Since tomorrow isn’t promised, we need to make the most of today. I thought that this was exactly what I was doing until I discovered mindfulness.
When I took my first course on mindfulness, some questions started to come up that I had never even asked myself because I didn’t realize they were questions that needed to be asked.
- When was the last time I sat in awareness of simply noticing gravity keeping me grounded on Earth?
- My breath happens twenty-four hours a day, seven days per week, but how often do I notice it?
- How many times do I drive from point A to point B without noticing one part of my experience because I’m stuck in my head?
These last five years I thought I was making the most of each day, but there was so much that I was missing. I mindlessly drive to work, eat food, have conversations, and engage mindlessly in many other situations. Mindfulness helps keep me fully present and engaged with as many moments in my life so I don’t miss anything.
2. Mindfulness is backed by science.
I’ve been an extremely skeptical person my entire life. Maybe it stems from the trust issues I developed as a kid. My father always taught me that if it sounds like it’s too good to be true, it usually is.
In order to sell me on trying anything new, I need some very clear-cut evidence and scientifically backed research that this thing is going to work. Like I said, my time is extremely valuable to me, so I’m not going to waste my time trying something that doesn’t have any evidence to back it up.
Around the same time that I discovered mindfulness, I also learned that I’m fascinated by neuroscience. One of the most interesting parts of the brain is the prefrontal cortex. While it’s the youngest part, it also has some of the most important responsibilities, including:
- Emotional regulation
- Impulse control
- Body regulation
- Making logical decisions
- Connectedness to others
The problem with us as humans is that our limbic system (our primitive instincts to react) often overrides the prefrontal cortex. However, scientific evidence shows that a regular mindfulness practice helps strengthen that part of the brain.
Basically, if I wanted to get stronger biceps, I know which weight-lifting exercises I could do. If I wanted to increase my stamina, I’d probably do some cardio. So, if I want to improve all of the abilities listed above, I should practice mindfulness because it strengthens the prefrontal cortex. I can debate with the best of them, but I’ll never argue against scientific evidence.
3. My mind is a boat without an anchor.
I am one of those people with a mind that never stops. This is something that I’ve dealt with since I was a kid. I don’t think it’s any form of ADD, but I have a brain that’s constantly planning, coming up with new ideas, and trying to find solutions to problems.
This is a gift and a curse. The way my mind works has helped me excel at many different jobs because my brain is wired to always think about how I can improve what I’m doing. The issue is that there’s a time and a place for this, and when I’m in the middle of a conversation or doing an important project with a mind that takes off, it can get me into a bit of trouble.
I also noticed that sometimes my mind would end up in the weirdest places sometimes. I could be sitting at my desk at work, and after zoning out for a few minutes, for some reason I’m thinking about a scene from a 90s TV show, and I’m wondering how I got there. It’s like driving your car to buy groceries and somehow ending up at the park and thinking, “How on earth did I get here?”
I always thought that I was one of the only people this happened to, but it’s extremely common. Our brains have tens of thousands of thoughts per day, and my mindfulness taught me that’s alright. It becomes a problem when we don’t notice where our thoughts are taking us.
By using different anchors like my breath or anchor words like “thinking,” I’m able to catch my thoughts drifting sooner rather than later.
I often say that instead of my mind taking me five hundred miles off of its course, now it only takes me about five miles off course.
This has also allowed me to find humor in my own thoughts, which helps me out incredibly with self-esteem issues.
I have a brain that can quickly turn an anthill into a mountain. For example, maybe I said, “Good morning!” to the receptionist when I arrived at work, and she didn’t reply. My mind used to start over-analyzing that situation immediately with thoughts like “Maybe she’s mad at me,” “I wonder what I did wrong,” and “I wonder if I’m about to get fired because nobody here likes me.”
My mind used to take a hard turn to the off-ramp leading to crazy town, but now I can catch it and simply giggle to myself about where my mind went to.
4. Mindfulness helps you deal with emotions in a new way.
One of my mindfulness instructors discussed how nobody teaches us, when we’re children, that life and emotions can be intense, and I immediately related to him in that aspect. My emotional regulation has been off since I was a child. I don’t just feel things; I FEEL things.
I think of my emotions as being on a line that goes from -10 to +10 with 0 being in the middle. Whenever I felt anything, positive or negative, it was always at a -10 or +10, and both of these can hurt me.
Learning about mindfulness taught me what equanimity means, and that’s something I knew that I needed in my life. I always had issues not just getting sad, but getting depressed. I wouldn’t get worried; I’d get anxiety. I wouldn’t get angry; I’d get furious. And whenever I started to like someone, I’d fall head over heels in love with them.
My other issue was that my expectations would cause me to cling to optimism at a +10, and if the situation didn’t pan out, I’d fall to a -10 because I was up too high.
The Buddhist teaching talks about how grasping can lead to suffering, and it made sense. I would grasp at emotions whether they were positive or negative. In both situations, this was like holding onto a hot coal for far too long.
Maybe I was letting something from earlier in my day ruin the rest of my day. Maybe the exciting plans I had for after work was distracting me from getting my job done. Mindfulness helps me simply notice what my emotion is, and let it be exactly what it is in that moment.
This is easier said than done with good emotions, but what about the bad ones? The practice also teaches me about impermanence and that no negative emotion is going to last forever.
Now, I’m able to sit with my emotion and turn toward it and accept it. I can see my emotion as a leaf that’s gently floating down a stream past me. Knowing that my negative emotion will eventually pass allows me to embrace it without trying to resist what I’m experiencing in that very moment.
5. It helps my son.
As a parent, we’re always looking for something to do with our children, and mindfulness is something that helps me be a parent and helps my son manage his thoughts and emotions. I was practicing for about six months when I realized how beneficial it would be for my son to begin practicing with me.
We were on vacation in Southern California visiting my best friend. On the last day of the trip, we took my son to the boardwalk, which was full of everything that he loved. He could play video games at the arcade, eat some boardwalk junk food, and spend time at the beach. Unfortunately, he was having a very bad day, which started as an attitude problem and evolved into him breaking down in tears.
I had been trying everything to cheer him up on this last day of our vacation, but nothing was working. I thought maybe he was hungry, so we got food. My head told me he was being ungrateful, which can trigger my negative reactions. I thought maybe we were doing too many adult things, so we tried the arcade, but that didn’t work. What was wrong?
He was tired, but he didn’t realize it.
My son was seven at this time, and I have to remember that he doesn’t have the knowledge or experience that I do.
Everything he’s experiencing is new for him, and not only is it difficult for him to communicate his feelings to me, but oftentimes he doesn’t even know what he’s feeling. When we finally sat down and took a minute, he explained that he was extremely tired and he didn’t sleep the night before.
As soon as we returned from that trip, I started teaching him mindfulness, and I’ve seen him change so much over the last nine months. He’s able to identify his emotions much sooner, and he has his own tools to calm himself down.
He realizes when he’s worried about the future, and he uses his breath to come back to the moment. He loves doing loving/kindness practices and sending kind thoughts to his little brother, friends, family and sometimes complete strangers. He even did a presentation on mindfulness for his 2nd grade project!
I thought that I was happy and content with life before, but my life has grown exponentially better with my consistent practice. Each day, I learn more about myself as well as life.
If I ever stopped growing from my practice, I’d probably stop, but my experience as well as the experience of others shows me that we continue to grow each day. So, whether you’re at a lull in your practice or thinking about trying mindfulness, just keep moving forward toward enlightenment.