In the last few years, the concept of mindfulness has become a hot topic of debate both online and around the office. However, If you ask people to define it, it seems like the concept means different things to different people. So to put an end to the confusion, I wanted to break it down for you and show you how to apply mindful living to your everyday life with The ultimate guide to mindful living.
What does it mean to practice mindfulness?
Mindfulness is simple to define but much harder to practice. To grasp the concept it is important to compare the yin and yang components of "mindful" and mindless". Simply put, being mindful implies a mental state where one's mind is fully connected to the moment. In opposition, being mindless implies a mental state where one's mind is less than fully connected to the moment and is either tethered in the past or future.
As I said, easy to define, hard to practice! But why is that? The problem lies with our nervous system. We have two basic states of physiological operation. The first is fight or flight, the other is rest, digest, heal.
Fight or flight is the sympathetic nervous system state where our body goes into defensive and reflexive mode. This is our get-away from danger mode. Our body judges the situation as one where thinking and contemplation is not in our best interest, and reflexive movement and behaviours are.
When you're walking through the Savana and you come upon a lion, the last thing you want to be doing is contemplating its geographic origins. "Hmmm? Is that a northern plains lion, or a central African lion that is running at me?" This is where your reflexive instincts kick in and say "RUN!"
At that moment your body jumps into autopilot. It doesn't think about how to step, it just does it, and as quickly as possible, based on its best-learned program. It's those learned programs that are both our saviour and our downfall.
Where do we learn our programming from?
As a child, we learn the vast majority of our default programming from our parents. It's basically monkey see, monkey do. How we physically move our body through space has a lot to do with what we learned by watching others do it. The question is, who and what were our role models?
Did you grow up in a household of strong, athletic people, who stood with their shoulders back and their core engaged, or did you only see examples of people slouched over a couch with no structural integration or activation? Did your family commune around physical activities like swimming, hiking, qigong, sports, yoga or biking, or only around the dinner table or in front of the TV?
But it's not only our physical autopilot that is programmed by our parents, it's also our mental and emotional one as well. Did you grow up in a household that discussed sensitive emotional issues, or did you learn to deny and suppress uncomfortable thoughts and feelings? Were your parents happy and seemed to truly enjoy life, or were they constantly stressed and unhappy?
Whatever the case, consistent stimulus creates reflexive patterns of behaviour.
But we can go much farther. Basically, every reflexive behaviour you use as an adult, you learned at some point and the vast majority as a young child. How and what you eat. How and when you sleep. How you use and consume alcohol or drugs. How you treat others. How you treat yourself.
At one point all of these lessons were learned while in a consciously and mindfully connected to the moment state of mind. Those lessons now make up your current default operating system that is engaged when you are less than mindfully connected to the moment.
So, here is the good and the bad of the situation. We are designed to be in a parasympathetic state 95% of the time, and in a sympathetic state 5% of the time. That means the vast majority of the time we are designed to be in a calm, relaxed state where we are fully and consciously connected to the moment, and then for short periods of time, we can rely on our well-programmed autopilot to get us out of any trouble we come upon.
Hopefully, you can already see the two major problems that most people experience. Firstly, most people exist in exactly the opposite ratio of para to sympathetic state. That also means the unhappy, stressful, accident-prone, conflict-filled, unfair world that people complain about over their third glass of red wine, is in actuality a construct of their own mindless reactive behaviours.
How do I apply the ultimate guide to mindful living?
To practice mindful living in any capacity of your life, you first need to practice and develop the skill of being mindful. This is where a meditative practice is so important. Now, I know even the thought of sitting in meditation can send many of you reaching for a glass of wine, but stay with me for a moment.
Before you say it... meditation is not about "not thinking"! I broke down the different levels of meditation and their attributes and benefits in the article on the Misconceptions about Meditation, so for now I will simply say that conditioning your mind to stay connected to the moment builds the mental fortitude to stay there more often.
The higher level of meditation known as patriarch meditation, allows you to better understand and modify all that operant conditioning you learned as a child. So when your autopilot does kick in, it won't get you into more trouble than it is trying to get you out of.
The end goal of all that sitting in meditative practice is to turn your life into a mindful and meditative experience free from suffering and pain.
How do I practice Mindful Eating?
Meals tend to be a time when a lot is going on at the same time. We are often having conversations with other people, listening to music, watching TV, scrolling through our phones or all of the above. Of course while all that is going on we are also trying to feed ourselves.
Socialization around the dinner table has long been a staple in most households. It is where we learn many of our social norms and societal contracts. Sharing, manners, patience, using different utensils, and of course how to eat in a socially acceptable way, are all lessons learned around the table.
However, what effect do all these distractions and stimuli have on the assimilation and digestion of our food? Here is a crazy notion, what if once in a while when you ate…. You just ate…. And nothing else?
What I mean is, indulge in the fact that you have nothing else to do but eat this meal! Connect to it. Savour each bite. Fully experience the flavours and textures of the food. Does the flavour change as you chew?
Can you detect certain spices or flavours? Do you notice changes in your mind or body as you eat it? How is your digestion responding to the choices of food you made? Do the flavours trigger memories or feelings? Mindfully connect to the experience of eating and turn every bite of your dining experience into a mind and body experiential meditation….This is mindful eating.
How do I Practice Mindful Exercise?
You rock up at the gym and the music is blaring. You get changed, put your EarPods in, click on your favourite playlist and head to the treadmill. As your music plays, you hop on the machine and the screen instantly plays the local news station. Your view is filled with a news anchor speaking in closed captions, stock market ticker, side weather forecast bar, and lower news crawl all at once.
As you warm up for your workout, you listen to your tunes and read the closed caption of the latest news and events. Sounds about right?
By the time the song ends you hop off once again and head over to the weight room. As you walk, you scroll through your IG feed to find some much-needed validation from the tally of likes this morning's reel has accumulated.
You push some heavy things, and you pull others, all the while the music plays and in-between you check back in with your virtual world. 60 minutes pass by and you grab your towel and head for the showers. As you pass your buddy in the hall he asks “What did you work today?” To which you say “upper body”.
He then says “Me too! What exercises did you do?” And you stop for a second and think to yourself “Okay, what did I do????”
Exercise is healthy stress inducing stimulus. But there is a limit to which stress is productive. When visual stress is compiled with auditory stress, compiled with physical stress. All that stress can just add up to too much, and all those distractions decrease focus.
Once again there is the problem with that dang autopilot! What if our default program didn’t learn the proper form for the exercises? What if our natural stress response of holding the breath kicked in while doing them?
What if we just ended up doing too much conditioning of one muscle group and not enough of another? I mean is it possible that you did too many "curls for the girls?”
Again I ask, what if when you worked out,…. You just workout? No distractions, no mental motivators, no power anthems, just you and the task to accomplish.
Instead of mindlessly training, try this. During your warm-up walk, you connect to how your body is feeling today. Am I in pain? Is any part of me hurting? Do I feel recovered from my last workout? How does my body feel today? Are the areas I’m planning to train feel ready for the work?
As you head to the weight rack and pick out your poundage, feel how your body adapts to the added gravity. How your weight distribution changes and your core engages. How has your body changed in this moment? What parts have woken up?
For each exercise, there is only you, your breath, the movement and the muscle contraction. Nothing else exists. You take a breath in as you load up to perform your bench press. You press your heels into the floor, tip your pelvis, contract your shoulder blades, and engage your core.
As you breathe out you maintain the contracted position of your shoulder blades as you extend your arms upward, lifting the weights over your chest. As the angle of extension converges, you feel your pecs squeeze and your triceps contract. Once you reach the top, you slowly lower the weights back down to the original position as you take in another breath and prepare for the next rep.
In that moment, you ARE the bench press, there is simply nothing else and the workout has become a meditation…. This is mindful exercise.
How Do I Practice Mindful Work?
Your work day begins as you sit down at your desk. It might be in a high rise, a strip mall, or even your home office across from the bedroom. Nowadays it really doesn’t matter.
You tap the keyboard to bring the computer back to life, prop your phone up against the buddha statue that is supposed to help you find your zen and of course, you pop in your EarPods.
You wade through the myriad of emails left since you last checked an hour ago over your breaky. You switch screens to look over your calendar of today's appointments when the barrage of notifications begins to roll in.
First, it's Twitter, then Instagram, then Facebook, then WhatsApp, then Messenger. By now you have already blown 20 min, so what the hell, let’s have a scroll through TikTok.
You look up at the top of your screen to see an hour has somehow flown by and you literally have not done a thing that could be construed as anywhere constructive.
This pattern of mindless social media engagement is repeated throughout the day forcing you to not only work through your lunch hour, but it also means, like an unhappy fourth grader, you are going to have a few hours of homework tonight.
Again I ask you, what if when you went to work…. You just worked? No music, NO SOCIAL MEDIA (I know crazy!)
What if each morning when you arrived, you made a list of all that was necessary to accomplish today in order of importance and time restriction? What if you simply connected to one task at a time, gave each task your full and undivided attention?
How productive could you be? How much more could you achieve? How would your boss respond to this change? How satisfied do you think you would feel at the end of the day?
What if your work ….. could become a meditation? Nothing else in the universe, only you, your breath and your task at hand…. This is mindful working.
How do I Practice Mindful socializing
A couple of years back, I was walking by a little restaurant down the street from my clinic when I suddenly became focused on a table of young people all sitting with their heads bowed. I thought to myself. Wow I haven’t seen an entire table of young people praying before.
The next moment I chuckled to myself when I realized they were actually all on their phones. Maybe they were praying to IG gods. “All hail Zuckerberg!” Now of course this has become a regular occurrence. But those who know me, know that I don’t get out very much lol!
I find it so interesting that disconnecting from the person you are with, to connect to someone or something somewhere else has become a totally socially acceptable behaviour. Most of us don’t even give it a thought (literally).
The phone rings, beeps, plays Taylor Swift or whatever yours does, and you reach for it. The only thing that might stop you is if your caller ID doesn’t recognize the person on the other end.
When was the last time the person you were with said to you, “I’m very sorry for the interruption to your story, do you mind if I take this call?” It amazes me that we have become so conditioned to understand and accept that it would be unheard of not to find out what the person, calling (Oh wait I know, nobody calls anymore, do they?)… change that to messaging, needed to say.
God forbid we miss out!!!! It’s so prevalent in society that it is now a full social construct FOMO (fear of missing out) WHAT PLANET DO I LIVE ON! The fact is, no matter where you are, you would be hard pressed not to encounter parts of any given group of people zoned out of the conversation and glued to their phones.
My wife and I fall victim to this often. As an acupuncturist, I care for over 700 patients, all of which have my cell phone number. They know I am open to texts and calls from 8 am-8 pm Monday through Friday. By and large everyone respects the boundaries with few exceptions. In any event, I get a ton of texts and calls
As for my wife, on top of her day job she also runs an online environmental company called The Eco Hub. Because of that, she is constantly dealing with different business collaborations and social media promotions.
So all that being said, it's fair to say we can often be attached to our phones, even in our so-called off hours. It’s important for us to periodically check in with each other and say “hey I feel like you’re on your phone too much lately!” Because like so many, it's just become a part of our modern life.
I love that we have the kind of relationship after 20 years that we are open to being an honest reminder to the other when we are falling into the mindless socializing category.
No one likes or wants to feel unimportant or uninteresting, and no one wants to feel like you would rather be somewhere else, with someone else. So be mindful of that. Even after all these years I call tell you, my partner is never boring and is always most important to me.
So one last time I will pose the question to you. What if when you socialized with that certain someone…… they and they alone were the object of your focus. No one else, nothing else. Just you, your breath and that one person as the focus of your attention.
We all want to feel heard. We all want to feel important. We all want to be the centre of someone else’s attention if only for a few moments…. This is mindful Socializing.
What is Mindful Living?
Before you begin whatever it is you are about to begin, take a moment and connect your mind to your breath. Allow your breath to connect your mind to the moment. The more often you connect to the moment, the less often your autopilot can get you into trouble.
The more you can mindfully connect to your meal, the more flavour you taste and the more efficient your digestion becomes.
The more you can mindfully connect to your workout, the more efficient you train, and the healthier you become.
The more you can mindfully connect to your work, the more efficient your work process is and the more productive and successful you become.
The more you can mindfully connect to those around you, the more interesting and fulfilling your relationships become.
By applying the principles of the Ultimate Guide to Mindful Living, the more you will mindfully connect to life, and the happier, healthier and peaceful your life will become. Give it a try!
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