Category Archives: Mindfulness

What Is the Difference Between Mindfulness and Meditation?

Both of these terms regularly get tossed around on this blog. I recently realized that I’ve never defined them or talked about the subtle differences between them. It’s high time to change that!

Meditation Is an Action

Meditation requires you to arrange your body in a certain position and actively clear all of the thoughts from your head.

It is a deliberate pause in your day that has a specific beginning, middle, and end. Think of it like brushing your teeth or doing some other routine

This isn’t something that can be multi-tasked. When you meditate, it is the only thing you’re doing at that precise moment in time. There’s no room for distractions or breaks during it.

Sometimes it even requires you to willfully continue to keep your mind clear of thoughts and focus on your breathing if you’re having a lot of trouble.

Mindfulness Is a State of Mind

Mindfulness, on the other hand, does not require this level of focus. It is about remaining aware of what’s happening to you at this precise point in time without living in the past, worrying about the future, or passing judgement on what I’ve observing.

I can and have practiced mindfulness while standing in line, listening to the rain patter against my window, waiting to hear the results of medical tests, feeling annoyed by a careless stranger who wasn’t paying attention to where he or she was walking, and watching a dog chase squirrels at the park.

There are usually other thoughts floating around in my head when I practice mindfulness. As long as I remain focused on whatever is happening in the present moment and aren’t making judgements, I allow my brain to think whatever it wants to think.

Often it begins to focus on the details of the room, park, store, or other place where I happen to be that day. I like the thrill of noticing little things in those settings that many people overlook like the color of a pet’s leash or how many pigeons were wandering around while they waited for someone else to feed them. I usually tend to rush past those things myself, so slowing down enough to pay attention to them is a wonderfully healthy thing for me to do.

You Can’t Have Meditation without Mindfulness

The biggest reason why I file the meditation posts under mindfulness here is that you can’t meditate without first learning how to be mindful. Every time I pause and pay close attention to my surroundings, I get just a little better at meditating as a result.

There is something so joyful about seeing how mindfulness affects my meditation practices. As I’ve mentioned in the past, meditation is something I struggled a lot with when I first began practicing it.

My mind really hated the idea of sitting quietly and doing “nothing” for any length of time. Learning how to quiet it without physically sitting down and participating in traditional forms of meditation was eventually how I learned to slide into this practice.

Mindfulness became a habit for me long before meditation did.

(Incidentally, I’ve also pick up some fabulous ideas for poems and stories as well by watching people! You’d be surprised by how much you can learn about writing dialogue as well as human nature in by quietly observing how they interact with each other in public. Perhaps this should be the topic of a future post? What do you think?)

5 Unexpected Things that Can Make You More Mindful

I’ve been thinking about mindfulness a lot lately. It’s a habit that needs to be built up and reinforced over a long period of time. Mindfulness is not the sort of thing that you can achieve in an hour, a day, or a week.

With that being said, there are certain experiences in life that can give you valuable opportunities to become more mindful.

Waiting in Line

One of the easiest but also most surprising changes that came into my life when I started trying to be more mindful happened the next time I stood in a line.

Rather than impatiently wondering how much longer I’d be waiting or why some shoppers wait to begin to search for their wallet until every single item has been bagged and scanned, I started framing this as an opportunity to observe how people behave when they have nothing to do.

Some folks become so engrossed in their smart phones that they don’t notice anything going on around them. Others try to strike up a conversation with the first person to catch their eye. (The jokester in me wonders if the first group is always desperately trying to avoid the second one!)

You will overhear interesting snatches of conversation as well. People will talk about all sorts of things if they get bored and restless enough. The conversation I found most thought-provoking, believe it or not, had to do with whether or not a child truly needed more socks. One of the adults who was buying clothing for her thought she did. I can’t remember what the other one said, but it was fascinating to listen to them quietly discuss how many socks a child truly requires.

These days I enjoy watching the crowd move so much that I’m actually a little sorry when I reach the front of the queue and can no longer quietly pay attention to people who are standing so close to me.

Not Getting What You Want

Many years ago I interviewed for a job that I desperately wanted. It was with an organization that shared some of my biggest ideals, and so I began dreaming about what it would be like to be paid to pursue them. The hours, location, responsibilities, and salary were also exactly what I was looking for.

I thought I had a good shot at being offered it, so I was crushed when that didn’t happen.

It took me a long time to get over that dream I’d imagined. One of the things that helped the most was focusing on what I could do in that exact moment to feel better.

I couldn’t have the experiences I’d fantasized about, but there were a lot of other things I could do to cheer myself up as well as to prepare for future opportunities that were sure to come my way.

Government Bureaucracy 

Is there anything more annoying than waiting for a government agency to process your paperwork or make a decision?

I’ve had a lot of experience with this one. Becoming a Canadian citizen is a opportunity to live in the moment that literally lasts for years. There are so many steps along the way that you have no control over whatsoever.

Once you file all of the appropriate paperwork, it’s up to government employees that you’ll never meet to decide whether to approve, delay, or reject your application. They are impervious to how long it might take to process your application or how anxious you are to know the results.

If I could go through the process again, I’d be much more relaxed this time around. Waiting for the government make a decision would give anyone the patience of a saint.

There are so many other examples I could give of how dealing with bureaucracy can actually be a good mindfulness tool, but I think I’ll save them for a future blog post.

Injuries, Pain, and Illnesses

Whether you’re waiting for possibly scary test results from your family doctor or figuring out how to go grocery shopping when you’re having trouble walking, injuries and illnesses provide a wonderful opportunity to live in the moment.

There is nothing anyone can do to speed up the amount of time it takes to find out if you have a life-threatening disease or for a broken limb to fully heal. In the meantime, you are left with a body that isn’t behaving the way you’d like it to.

My experiences with this have been mild and transitory so far, but there still have been a few times when I lived in limbo for a while. I’d be lying to you if I said that I was always peaceful during those long waits. It’s frightening not to know what the future holds, and I am definitely not a mindfulness guru.

With that being said, keeping my attention on what was happening in the present moment did help me to worry less about what might or might not happen to me in the future.

Grief

Someone I knew died years ago before they had a chance to tie up all of the loose ends in their life. Our relationship had been  complex and sometimes difficult for many different reasons, so I was surprised by the grief I felt after they were buried.

There had always been a small part of me that held onto a faint hope that our relationship would eventually improve. Having that sliver of hope snatched away for good was sad.

You can’t change the past, though. It is what it is, and remaining mindful as I adjusted to this change in life helped me to accept the finality of this person’s death. Not everyone gets the chance to fix the things they could or should have tried to fix much earlier on in their story.

 

The Complete Beginner’s Guide to Meditation

There are certain stages people seem to go through when they first begin meditating. Today I’m going to walk through them with you, so buckle your seat belts and prepare for a fun ride.

Stage 1: Confusion

A lot of guides make meditation sound so easy. Sit down somewhere comfortable, close your eyes, and clear your mind, they say.

Sitting and not thinking is going feel really weird and confusing in the beginning, though. This isn’t normally how people behave. Our minds really aren’t used to it, so they need some time to figure out what is happening. While they adjust, you might feel confused or like you’re not meditating the right way.

Don’t worry, though. This is all part of the process.

The desire to move your mind or your body is strongest when you first start out. I know that I still get the urge to open my eyes or wiggle a limb when I’m meditating. In fact, I just wiggled my left foot as I was writing that last line. The mere thought of sitting perfectly still was enough to make me want to move.

This is why I recommend guided meditation for beginners. It is so much easier to stay still and stick with a routine if you have someone telling you how to breathe or which parts of your body you should focus on relaxing at a particular point in the process.

That outside guidance also reduces confusion. You don’t have to worry about where you are or when you’ll be finished if someone else is gently nudging you along.

I’m not going to be recommending any one particular guide here because I haven’t found one that is well-rounded enough to meet my expectations. I jump among a few different products depending on how I’m feeling on a particular day and what I can find online for free.

These things work well for my purposes, but you might want to take a different approach to the question. If one single program meets most or all of your needs, that’s great!

Stage 2: Boredom

This is so boring. Why aren’t I getting anything out of it?

One of the biggest reasons why I had so much trouble getting into the habit of meditating when I first tried it out is that it didn’t seem to be doing anything for me. I’d sit in mental and physical silence for X amount of time without feeling any different at the end of a session than I did beforehand.

Like losing weight, learning a new language, or beginning the long journey home after completing some kind of sacred mission, though, this isn’t the sort of thing that you’ll see quick results for.

Don’t concentrate on the end goal. Focus on your task at hand especially if nothing seems to be changing. This is how it is supposed to be. You will get better at it as you go along.

Yes, it’s going to feel repetitive and mundane some days. This is completely normal and not anything to be concerned about in the least. Boredom isn’t necessarily a bad thing in this case. Your brain will adjust and so will you if you give it some time.

I also think that our technology-obsessed society would really benefit from learning how to handle being bored again in general. I know that I get restless more quickly than I used to because my smartphone is so accessible whenever I need a distraction.

The nice thing about meditation is that it will give you the opportunity to sit with those feelings without trying to find a solution for it. Sometimes boredom can’t and shouldn’t be fixed.

Keep plugging along at it.

Stage 3: Thoughtlessness

There will eventually come a time when you clear all of the thoughts out of your mind and no new ones will rush in to fill their place.

It’s hard to describe what this kind of experience is like because there are no words or thoughts at all when you’re in the middle of it.

Have you ever woken up just as your final dream of the night was leaving your memory for good?

It feels like a calm version of that.

You’re dimly aware of your own existence and of the fact that something special is happening, but you don’t have any conscious feelings about any of it.

The other metaphor I like to use to describe it is that it is similar to floating around in a little bubble. All of your needs are being taken care of, and there is nothing you need to do, say, or think at the moment.

It is peaceful and invigorating all at once, although neither of those words come to mind when I’m in this state.

Even now this isn’t something that happens to me every single time I meditate. Some days I can’t clear my mind out fully for whatever reason, and that is okay. The nice thing about meditation is that there is no punishment for doing it “incorrectly.” The simple act of trying is enough, and there will always be another day to sit down and see if your mind is more relaxed.

One of the things that made me stick with meditation over the long haul was the fact that there’s no such thing as failure here. It is what it is.

This leads me to the last stage…

 Stage 4: Peace

Meditation can have some nice benefits for people who practice it regularly.

I recently took a break from meditating while healing from an accident. The (thankfully mild) injury I sustained during it prevented me from moving in certain ways, and the discomfort of it was also enough to cause a distraction when I attempted to quiet down my thoughts for those first few days.

There is peace to be found once you settle into a regular rhythm of meditation, though.

The first time I saw the picture on the right, I giggled.

The second time I wondered about how long the subject might have been meditating before she was captured in this precise moment.

Look at how relaxed the muscles in her face are. A small part of me wonders if someone could have gently placed the hat of leaves on her head while she was meditating without her necessarily noticing or caring what was happening.

I still see the humour in this shot, but it also reminds me of how I feel after some mediation sessions these days. It is so relaxing to open your eyes after 15 minutes of perfect stillness and slowly grow accustomed to the sights and sounds of our world again.

It will be fascinating to see how this develops the longer I practice meditation.

If you haven’t given it a try yet, I highly recommend doing so. This is one of the most positive things I’ve ever done for my mental health. I can’t praise it enough.

How to Meditate in a Noisy, Crowded Place

Over the last few weeks I’ve been practicing something that doesn’t come easily to me at all.

My spouse enjoys the energy of the crowds at the mall. He likes wandering around during the busier parts of the day and year. Here in Toronto we often have special giveaways, promotional booths, or other events put on by various companies to draw attention to their products.

As you might have already guessed, I am not a huge fan of this pastime. There is nothing relaxing to me about being surrounded by so many strangers in such a loud, bright place whose only purpose is to sell things to you that you don’t even necessarily need.
Last month I decided to take a new approach to the time we spent at the mall. Would it be possible for me to meditate in a busy mall? Would I ever learn to enjoy spending time there? Could I be as peaceful at the orangutang on the left in that environment?

The only way to answer those questions was to give it a try.

How It Went

Luckily, I had many opportunities to practice mindfulness at various malls this past month.

The first time I tried it I was sitting in a small food court that is nearly always packed full with people. There was so much background noise that I couldn’t make out what anyone was saying. The sounds of clinking dishes, chairs scraping against the floor, and dozens of private conversations were all going on at once.

One of the reasons why I dislike that kind of environment so much is that it’s impossible to pick out individuals sounds or conversations. They’re all so muddled together that my brain can’t make sense of any of it, and that annoys me.

This time I ignored my urge to think about the background noise. Instead, I closed my eyes and let it all wash over me. It felt sort of like floating down a river. You can’t control where the current goes, but you can choose to relax and allow it to carry you downstream.

The most interesting part of this experience for me was how well this metaphor worked for me. I hadn’t realized how much energy I was putting into figuring out what all of those noises meant until I consciously chose to stop interpreting them for a little while.

The food court I sat in for my second attempt at meditating in a noisy place was larger and busier than the one I’d previously visited. I kept my eyes opened this time for the sake of comparison. This experience didn’t last very long due to reasons that I’ll explain in a minute.

The other attempts I made to stay mindful at the mall happened under less controlled circumstances. I was usually walking in a crowd while trying to get my mind to slow down and focus on what was happening in that exact moment. This is something I’ve had a lot of luck with when walking outdoors at the park or in some of my favourite Toronto neighbourhoods, so I wanted to see if it would work just as well at the mall.

The Results

The first trial was the most successful one. That food court was slightly quieter than the other places I chose. Closing my eyes and purposefully allowing all of the sounds I was hearing to pass through my mind without trying to decode them also helped. It will be interesting to see if I can recreate something similar to this experience in the future.

Keeping my eyes opened in the second experiment didn’t work well for me at all. Food courts have too many distractions in them for me to stay focused on what I’m doing, especially when they’re as crowded as the one I was in. It will be interesting to see if I can reduce the amount of stimulation in this environment by focusing on a particular object the next time I try this. I’ve been thinking that something small and inconsequential like a soft drink cup might be the perfect thing to rest my eyes on if I want to keep them open in the future.

I was surprised by how little I enjoyed the experience of walking through the mall while trying to clear my mind. After thinking about it, I suspect it was because there weren’t any signs of nature there. Trees, bushes, flowers, and small animals are soothing to me. I was also so busy trying to avoid running into other people that it was difficult to keep my mind clear of thoughts.

Have I become a fan of wandering around the mall for the sake of having fun? No, I haven’t. I don’t think it’s ever going to become my idea of a good time, but this was still an interesting and worthwhile experiment.

Everyone feels uncomfortable in certain places or situations. There’s definitely something to be said for learning to relax in an environment that isn’t your cup of tea.

I’m looking forward to trying this again in other noisy, crowded places soon. It will be fascinating to see if I can get better results next time. If you’re on Twitter, I’d love to hear what your experiences have been with meditating or staying mindful in less-than-ideal circumstances.

Staying Mindful During the Holidays

santa-claus-christmas-beard-celebration-41963We’re quickly sliding into the busiest time of year for retailers and shoppers alike.

I’ve been spending some time watching strangers rush around at the mall lately. If you’re not struggling to find those last few presents, it can be a fascinating way to use up half an hour or so of your time.

There are people who seem to love the thrill of shopping and jumping from one event to the next, people who are unbelievably stressed by all of the things they’re expected to do and to attend, and people who barely give any outward indications of how they feel at all.

If I could gather them all in the same room and talk to them about remaining mindful during what is the busiest time of the year for many people, this is what I would tell them.

It’s Okay to Say No

Several years ago, I unintentionally overheard a woman talking about how tired she was of buying presents for so many different people. She had no idea what to get for any of them and didn’t enjoy the process of searching multiple stores to find something that they might not even end up needing or liking.

I wish someone could have told her that it’s okay to say no to gift exchanges, parties, reunions, and other events if they don’t bring anything positive to your life.

There’s a decent chance that at least one other person in that group feels the same way and is wishing they could find a way to simplify their life. Mentioning how you feel could be doing them a big favour!

Even if you turn out to be the only one who wants to stop or change how things are being done, being honest about what you’re feeling in this exact moment is still a good idea.

Don’t Forget to Breathe

I have a meditation app that prompts me  to stop and focus on my breathing for one minute twice a day.

reflection-water-canal-mirroring-70574Since I started using it, my average resting heart rate has gone down a little bit. I’ve also been feeling more peaceful than I was before I began this habit.

You don’t have to spend a great deal of time meditating in order to benefit from it. While I am definitely planning to get back into longer sessions in 2017, it’s nice to take these short breaks and focus on the moment regardless of where I am or what I’m doing.

I am not a big fan of the huge crowds that form at this time of year. Meditation helps me relax when I’m in a situation where I’m surrounded by them.

Ignore the Hype

One of the other things I dislike the most about this season is how hard advertisers push to convince us that buying stuff is the secret to happiness and family harmony.

While I understand that this is a critical time of year for their bottom lines, ignoring the hype is an important part of staying mindful during the holidays.

Since I don’t have cable, Youtube is where where I see most of the ads in my daily life. A while ago they started forcing viewers to watch at least a portion of them before you could watch certain videos. There are times during the year when I’m willing to watch them, but I’ve been trying to cut down on how much time I spend on that site because I really need a break from advertisements for a while.

The nice thing about reducing the number of ads you see is that it can also reduce your number of must-have items. For example,  I find myself wanting fewer electronic devices and specialty food items when I haven’t given companies a lot of opportunities to market them to me.

Sometimes what you tune out is as important as what you tune into.

May the holiday season be a peaceful and joyful one for all of you!