Mindfulness is paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, without judgement – Jon Kabat-Zinn. Some people use meditation, yoga, breathing techniques to practice mindfulness, but you can be mindful in any moment in life, just by paying attention.
I struggle with being mindful and present every single day. I have the type of brain, like most people, that jumps from topic to topic, randomly noticing squirrels in trees, a speck of dust on the ground, then back to worries about something I said or didn’t say, plans for fun workshops that I can create, then feeling guilty for not folding all of the laundry. It’s exhausting.
I started my mindfulness journey when I took a yoga class with my mother-in-law almost 15 years ago. We tried a class and quickly learned that yoga required practice. Downward dogs strained our legs and I had to take a lot of breaks. But the hardest part was at the end, when instructor had us lay quietly on our mats, lights dimmed, and quiet music playing. The intention was to relax, to be aware of our breath.
I rarely took time to be quiet, to be present. The moment that I got quiet at the end of that yoga class, my thoughts and feelings became overwhelming. All I could focus on was the tears rolling down the sides of my face, and trying to wipe them off with my sleeve before someone noticed.
Fast forward to today: at 42, I’m reflecting on hiding my tears in a dark room, and writing about that experience in a very public blog. I’m happier, healthier, and working on being present every single day.
I believe I’ve made huge progress and mindfulness has been a big part of that. But it’s still so hard to stay focused sometimes.
There’s lots of research out there indicating that mindfulness is good for mental and physical health. And so many people want to do it.
Then why is it so hard?
It’s hard to meditate, to be mindful, to be present, because we are always so busy trying to numb ourselves. Sometimes it’s with healthy stuff like a walk with a friend or a funny show and other times it’s through alcohol, food, and so much more.
Brene Brown says that most of what we do in life is all numbing. As human beings, we have a hard time sitting with our thoughts, noticing our emotions because sometimes it feels uncomfortable, at times even painful.
But missing out on feelings also means missing out on good feelings. Sometimes, our thoughts and feelings can be so beautiful, so powerful that we can feel it in our body, in our hearts.
I used to miss out on being present for beautiful moments all the time. I would only hear a few complimentary words that a friend would say before my mind took over with self-criticisms, questions, comments, my own problems. I would race through each day just to sit on the couch and numb out by watching an excessive amount of television. I would wish for my week to go by quickly, so I could numb out with wine or beer on the weekends. Sleep was my biggest way to escape. I’d hide in bed for hours each day, trying to escape the stress of life.
It worked for awhile, but every so often, I would feel painful feelings, and it would be hard to hide them. Hard to stuff it all down.
That’s why I had to work on myself, my own journey to healing. And mindfulness is such a big part of that.
There is a story that I often share with people to illustrate the importance of mindfulness.
I was with a girlfriend at university. We were sitting on the balcony of the student centre and I was crying over a broken heart. My friend was a compassionate listener, nodding and interjecting at all the right moments. I said at one point, “I don’t know when it will get better.”
At that moment, I saw a bubble floating by. A big translucent bubble. Floating right by the railing of the balcony. I remember the shining shades of blue and purple in top of the circle. And then it was gone. I asked my friend if she had seen it too. She nodded. Perhaps it was a sign that things would get better? We went to look for it, walked all around campus, but we never did find it. We giggled and puzzled for what felt like hours about why a bubble would be on a university campus, without a child in sight. I hadn’t laughed that hard in ages.
I didn’t believe in signs. But I did believe in paying attention when things were happening. And if we hadn’t been mindful, if we hadn’t noticed what was going on, if we hadn’t noticed that bubble floating by and talked about it, I would’ve missed that moment with my friend that is now one of my favourite memories.
I’m not saying that mindfulness is easy. Mindfulness is not something you stay focused on all the time, but rather something you keep coming back to. With practice, it gets easier. But some days, it’s still really hard.
I meditated with a few friends online this morning and I was doing pretty well, until my kid came up to me and tapped me on the shoulder to ask if I had fed the dog. I took my earphone out, answered, then tried to refocus. Then I heard footsteps, my family preparing breakfast. Then my brain thought about being hungry and what I wanted to eat. I thought about all sorts of breakfast foods. Then I thought about cooking eggs. Then I thought about a time when I travelled to Ghana and how little the people there had to eat, how much of a privilege it was to get a boiled egg there. Then I felt guilty for the food I had at home that I didn’t appreciate. And I realized I was off track with meditation, again.
But I came back to my breath.
Breathing in 1, breathing out 2, inhale 3, exhale 4… all the way up to ten. Then back to 1 again. I got distracted several other times. But it felt so good to take some time for me, some time to rest, to be aware of my breath, my body.
Here are my suggestions if you’re just starting your mindfulness journey:
1) Get an app or take a workshop or join a group. It can be hard to practice alone. I find it helpful to have someone guide me or share my practice. There are amazing apps like Calm, Headspace, MyndMethod that can be helpful. You can look up mindfulness videos online. Some great teachers include Jon Kabat-Zinn, Jack Kornfield, Kristin Neff. Soundstrue.com offers a wonderful online Insight Meditation course.
2) Try to be in a quiet, calm space. Sometimes that means getting creative. I’ve had many clients tell me that the best place for them to practice breathing is when they park their car and sit quietly with an app playing or just noticing nature.
3) Be patient and kind to yourself. It will take several tries to get used to breathing, to get used to being quiet, to paying attention. Keep coming back to the breath, to the moment, even if you have to do it dozens or hundreds of times.
4) You don’t have to practice breathing or meditation to be mindful. Sometimes being mindful is just taking a moment and saying to yourself, “Look at this person when they’re talking to me. Hear what they’re saying. Be present.” Or noticing a beautiful sunset. Or feeling the arms of a loved one hugging you. Or noticing someone’s beautiful smile, maybe even commenting on it.
Mindfulness changed my life, allowed me to feel, to cultivate the joyful moments in life. I hope it will help you on your journey too.
Michelle Weglarz, MSW, RSW