“There are two mistakes one can make along the road to truth…not going all the way, and not starting.” – Buddha
Life means constant and inevitable change. Sometimes that change takes the form of dust accumulating bit by bit on a bookshelf and at other times change manifests itself as a major life transition. There are times in life when change seems to come slowly, just as there are times when change seems to strike like lightning. No matter how busy or dull life seems at present, change that is mindfully observed and accepted is neither overwhelming nor boring… it is accepted as integral to the beauty, nuance, and lessons inherent in being fully alive.
The choice to become present to your life, however “busy” it feels, naturally allows you to slow down and savor the present moment in a new way. When you find yourself rushing about from task to task, event to event, and goal to goal, do you ever pause to honestly ask yourself what the fuss and hurry are really about? Being still – even for brief moments – means sitting with yourself. If you feel “too busy” for a few minutes of calm connection with yourself, it is worthwhile to ask yourself what you are avoiding.
What would life be like without that to-do list, activity, or event? People can be quite creative and convincing in the ways they manage to truly believe how unbelievably “busy” they are. There are important differences between the feeling of being busy as a form of experiential avoidance versus calmly and joyfully meeting responsibilities in life. When you take the time to honestly look at how you are living your life, it becomes increasingly simple to notice the distinction between activities that have been constructed to distract you from yourself and others versus activities that bring deeper connection with yourself and others.
It is easy to get caught up in the chatter of the mind and allow those thoughts to become convincing, paralyzing, or overwhelming. Thoughts are simply thoughts, not facts. You don’t need to become fused to your thoughts, thus taking you away from experiencing the richness of the present moment. The untamed, unobserved, and unquiet mind has the capacity to leap rapidly between thoughts that are trivial, practical, irrational, fearful, profound, meaningful, and so forth. A mind that is peaceful, awake, and accepting observes the present moment without becoming lost in it.
Mindfulness Exercises for “Busy” People
If you find yourself in a cycle of jumping from task to task, allow yourself a few moments to reconnect, recenter, and reengage with the present. The following three brief mindfulness exercises have the potential to calm your mind, release unhelpful emotions, and improve your connections with others. Increasing inner calm and connectedness is worth a few minutes of your time… instead of rushing ahead to “what’s next,” try a different approach. Notice what it feels like to slow down for a moment within your typical whirlwind of events and truly tune in to your experience.
(1) Breathing Meditation: Release Painful Emotions
Letting go of painful or overwhelming emotions during busy or stressful times is possible. Emotions are temporary internal states that fluctuate up and down like waves. The degree to which your internal emotional “ocean” is tranquil or stormy is often a result of the thoughts and behaviors you choose to focus on and perform. The foundation of this brief mindfulness exercise is to become fully aware of your breathing. Once you have chosen to slow down and direct your focus toward your breath, try the following steps:
- Breathe in deeply through your nose as you count to three.
- Hold your breath within your lungs to the count of three.
- Breathe out slowly through your mouth as you count to three.
- As you continue to breathe, identify the negative emotion by asking yourself, “What am I experiencing right now?”
- Allow the answer to arise naturally… “I am feeling anxious/depressed/afraid/frustrated.”
- With your next deep breath out, release that negative statement and replace it with a positive one as you breathe in… “I am allowing compassion/calm/peace/joy/serenity to enter into my experience.”
- Continue to breathe and direct your mindful attention toward the positive statement.
- Keep repeating the process of breathing and holding the positive statement in awareness until you notice the negative emotion losing its power.
- Remember that the idea is not to invalidate/deny an authentic negative emotional experience; rather, the point is to shift your internal focus in such a way as to transform painful emotions into manageable, effective, and useful experiences.
(2) Walking Meditation: Improve Mood & Lift Depression
When feeling depressed, there is often a tendency to want to isolate oneself, stay in bed or at home, and generally avoid activities and social interactions. While this is often a genuine desire, those chosen behaviors only serve to intensify the emotional experience of depression and sadness. Try picturing the steps within this scenario: (1) an event that you perceive as negative has occurred, (2) you experience and focus on negative thoughts/ruminate on the event, (3) the emotional experience of depression emerges, and then (4) you engage in behaviors consistent with feeling depressed. This is a wonderful opportunity to apply the DBT principle of “opposite action” to this painful emotion by actively choosing behaviors that will negate the sadness and improve your overall mood. Try the following steps to explore mindfulness through walking meditation:
- Choose a place where you can go for a walk (ideally) with minimal external distractions/stimulation, such as a walking/hiking trail, park, stairwell, or even within your home (if this is impossible due to the environment, consider it as an even more challenging opportunity to strengthen mindfulness).
- Begin the brief mindfulness exercise by actively turning your focus toward your breath. Simply notice it and tune into it.
- With each breath in through your nose, think the word “in,” and with breath out through your mouth, think the word “out.”
- Turn your awareness toward your physical presence as you continue to breathe.
- Notice the sensations of your feet, legs, hips, stomach, chest, arms, shoulder, neck, and head as you move.
- Turn your mindful awareness toward the physical activity and sensations that you are experiencing in the moment, noticing and accepting your body’s movements and allowing yourself to experience a sense of vitality.
- By remaining focused on your breath and becoming fully attuned to your physical presence and movements, you are checked in to this moment… your focus has shifted away from ruminative thoughts and desires to isolate.
- Notice any emotional or cognitive changes that you experience as a result of making the choice to engage in physical activity and genuinely tune in to your body’s movements.
- This is one of many ways to practice mindfulness, apply opposite action, and begin to lift the clouds of depression.
- Remember that physical activity without any mindful engagement (acting on automatic pilot or using physical activity to “check out”) is a temporary solution that is unlikely to result in genuine connection with yourself or the present moment.
(3) 5-Minute Meditation: Improve a Relationship
This mindfulness exercise is considered a “wise speech” exercise to be practiced with anyone in your life with whom you are experiencing difficulties in communication or connection (e.g., friend, partner, spouse, family member, co-worker). This exercise can be useful in improving relationships that are both intimate and professional. The idea is to engage in mindfully assertive listening, which involves centered awareness of the other person’s non-verbal cues/body language, tone of voice, facial expressions, and the content of their words. Assuming that the other person is desirous of improving communication and strengthening the relationship, this is an interpersonal mindfulness exercise that is quite simple, direct, and powerful.
- For harmonious and productive conversations to occur, both participants must be willing to engage in dialogue. If you simply have a message you feel compelled to thrust upon another person, their compliance is not necessary, but if you wish to reach a positive and meaningful outcome, it is imperative that both parties either share the desire for improvement of the relationship or have at least agreed to converse.
- The exercise begins with “person A” acting as the speaker, who initiates the dialogue by sharing whatever thoughts and feelings are on his mind (while using interpersonal effectiveness skills).
- “Person B” initially serves as the listener, who engages in active listening without interruption. While serving as the listener, the goal is to remain open, nonjudgmental, and accepting of what “person A” is saying. This means resisting urges to become defensive, shut down, or lash out…. avoiding classic obstacles to listening.
- While acting as the listener, “person B” is paying attention to non-verbal information, tone of voice, and content in an engaged and connected way (even if this means listening to things that one does not particularly like/want to hear).
- When “person A” is finished speaking, the listener then responds in an authentic manner by letting the speaker know that he has been mindfully engaged throughout the process and then makes sure to let the speaker know what he “thinks” he has heard, so as to avoid potential miscommunication. For example, “I heard you say that you would like to have a deeper and more meaningful relationship with me, yet you find it to be a struggle to engage with me on an emotional level. Does that sound right to you?”
- After this interaction has taken place, switch roles between speaker and listener and engage in the same mindfulness exercise of “wise speech.”
If you are still wondering what the point is of taking the time – however brief it may be – to engage in mindfulness exercises, consider the following thoughts of Dr. Ronald Alexander on the benefits of cultivating mindfulness: “Through these simple mindfulness meditations, we can light up and build up the left-prefrontal cortex in our brain, associated with optimism, self-observation, and compassion, allowing ourselves to cease being dominated by the right-prefrontal cortex, which is associated with fear, depression, anxiety, and pessimism. As a result, our self-awareness and mood stability increase as our harsh judgments of others and ourselves decrease. Even if you can only devote five minutes a day to mindful meditation, doing it while waiting in line at the bank, sitting in traffic, or waiting on hold for computer technical support, you can receive these benefits.”
This attitude of mindfulness does not mean coldness, numbness, or lack of feeling. On the contrary, the willingness to slow down and authentically engage with the present moment leads to a deeper and more enlivened state of awareness. No matter how busy life feels, mindfulness is always within reach. Mindfulness is the stillness at the very core of your being that is always with you, whether you choose to attend to it or not. All positivity that you seek outside of yourself already resides within… be it validation, acceptance, love, or anything else. The moment that you choose to give unto yourself that which you have been desperately seeking externally, there is no more room for fear. When you are truly content with who you are at the core, the loving expression of your unique gifts to others will flow naturally.
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Alexander, R. (2010, December 1). Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/collections/201206/meditations-effects/too-busy-meditate-think-again
Baer, R. A. (2010). Assessing mindfulness & acceptance processes in clients: Illuminating the theory & practice of change. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
Featured image: meditation by Spirit-Fire / CC BY 2.0