Mindfulness has been featured recently on the cover of Time magazine, at the World Economic Forum at Davos, in The New York Times, and in just about every yoga studio around the globe. Google is holding mindfulness conferences, and so are General Mills and Twitter. Celebrities like Goldie Hawn, Lena Dunham and Kobe Bryant are singing its praises. Mindfulness experts like Jon Kabat-Zinn are more popular than ever.
We're all reading about its extraordinary health benefits -- physical, psychological and emotional -- and some of us are even attending the conferences, but the real question remains...
Are we actually doing it?
Apparently not as much as we're talking and reading about it.
Mindfulness sessions today are what stress management seminars were in the early 1990s. I know this because they were my most popular seminars then, and mindfulness sessions are my most requested now. Even though we may be living in a more high-tech, high-stress world today, the basic issues are the same. We feel overwhelmed and overworked.
Many years ago, I had the pleasure of attending clinical training programs in mind/body medicine through Harvard Medical School with Dr. Herbert Benson and UMass Medical School with Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn. We studied the science behind the relaxation response and participated in mindfulness exercises. We learned that mindfulness was about "maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment." We ate raisins mindfully, we walked mindfully, and we breathed mindfully. We were taught to be hyperaware of all of our sensory experiences in the moment while we were doing these activities. It was all quite enlightening and lovely. I felt calm and rejuvenated. I vowed that I would continue my practice.
And then I went back to my life and did everything exactly the opposite of what I was taught. I gulped down my food, pushed my way through the crowds on NYC sidewalks, and held my breath whenever I felt stressed.
The irony is that I also taught stress management seminars at that time. Interestingly enough, when I taught those seminars, I actually practiced what I preached. By being completely present and mindful, I was able to share with my clients all of the knowledge that I'd acquired. They (and I) felt inspired and more relaxed and refreshed during and after each session.
But what happened in between that initial seminar and my follow-up sessions?
I discovered that my clients were not practicing stress management and mindfulness techniques.
The truth is, neither was I.
So the challenge became: What would motivate my stressed-out, Type A, competitive, always-on-the-go clients and my stressed-out, Type A, competitive, always-on-the-go self to actually practice mindfulness?
I decided to come up with bite-size exercises that could be more easily digestible for my clients and myself. As I tried them out, I found that they were easy for my clients to follow and incorporate into their day-to-day lives. Over the years, I found that I expanded these bite-size mindfulness exercises into full-blown practices in my own life. Now I sit and meditate every morning, and try to approach life in a more mindful way. I encourage my clients to practice mindfulness in whatever way is best for them.
Still don't think it's for you? Perhaps, like many of my clients, you'll recognize yourself as using one of the excuses below, and perhaps you'll find one or two tips that will motivate you to incorporate some mindfulness and meditation into your life.
What's in it for you? Practicing mindfulness and meditation can allow you to experience less stress and depression, a sounder night's sleep, a boost in your immune system, higher productivity, better sex, improved relationships, and an overall enjoyment of life.
Here are the top five excuses why people don't practice mindfulness or mindfulness meditation and how to overcome them:
1. I don't have time.
It's not that you don't have time, you just don't make time. Ask yourself: Do I have five minutes, or even five seconds, to stop and pay attention to my breath? Then sit quietly in your office/home/car and breathe. If you're experiencing monkey mind, that incessant mental chatter, then try the 4-4-4 technique. Close your eyes (unless you're driving), inhale slowly to the count of four, calmly hold your breath for four counts, and then exhale slowly to the count of four. Just try it for one round. When you're comfortable with this, then try it for five rounds once or twice a day.
2. I tried it and it doesn't work.
Did you ever take up a sport for the first time, only to discover that you weren't Serena Williams or Derek Jeter? Just like sports, mindfulness and meditation require practice. When I first started learning, I cheated and opened my eyes during the "eyes closed" part of the seminar. Everyone else seemed to be getting it and I wasn't! It wasn't until after we finished the meditation and the discussion opened up, that I realized that many other people were feeling as unsuccessful as I was. The only way to get better at mindfulness and meditation is to practice. If it doesn't work out for you the first or second or even tenth time, just keep at it. You'll get it.
3. I'm too stressed.
Eat a Kiss. No joke. Jon Kabat-Zinn used raisins, I use Hershey's kisses. Take the Kiss in your hand, mindfully open the foil wrapper, put it to your nose and inhale that chocolaty goodness, and then place it in your mouth, close your eyes, and slowly eat it. While you are doing this, notice the texture and taste. Just focus on doing that with one Kiss, and you can gradually increase the amount (although I don't recommend the whole bag). You can also do this with other foods. Instead of inhaling your lunch while simultaneously checking emails and talking on your cellphone, take a moment to pay attention to your food and just eat. Even something as simple as mindfully eating can help to reduce your stress level.
4. It's too "New Agey" for me.
No one says that you have to sit on a mountaintop in full monk robes or a meditation cushion (although they are really comfortable!). If you're not a fan of spirituality, then focus on the science. Mindfulness has been proven to have physiological, psychological, and emotional benefits. Some of the benefits of mindfulness and meditation include: lower cortisol levels (which lead to less stress), a boost in the immune system, and a significant change in our brains that leads to better memory, higher attention skills, and better emotional regulation.
5. I'm too busy to add even one more thing to my plate.
Then don't. Keep on doing what you're doing, just do it mindfully. Pay attention to that one thing that you're doing, and just do that. If you're in a meeting, then listen mindfully (don't text under the table), and when it's your turn to speak, speak mindfully (don't text under the table). If you're listening to music, then listen mindfully. When you walk/drive/sit on the train on your way to work, then just breathe (and don't text!). Work, cook, eat, exercise -- do whatever it is that you do during your busy day, just do it mindfully. What you may find is that by practicing this, you're more productive and have more time in your daily schedule to actually schedule in some meditation. Maybe not today, but with practice, hopefully one day soon.
Have you experimented with a mindfulness practice? What have been your challenges? Share with us in the comments below.