Tag Archives: Self-improvement

Now Is the Perfect Time to Start Practicing Mindfulness

The autumn and winter holiday season is right around the corner.

In the past, I’ve felt kind of like discombobulated like the glass of water in the picture on the left for several different reasons: I’ve felt pressured to participate in religious rituals I disagreed with; I do not enjoy the wasteful, commercialistic side of the holiday season; I miss the sun when sunset begins to happen before 5 pm in November and December.

Whether you love the extra hours of darkness and the festivities of this portion of the year or, like me, are not a big fan of them, they’ll be here before we know it.

This will the first holiday season I will have ever been through as someone who meditates and practices mindfulness regularly. I have already seen positive changes in my life as a result of these new habits. It’s going to be fascinating to see if they make the end of the year more enjoyable for me. My best guess is that they will be!

If you haven’t started practicing mindfulness yet, now is the perfect time to begin. Let’s talk about why this is so and what to expect if you decide to add this habit to your daily routine.

Mindfulness Isn’t a Quick Fix

No, this isn’t going to be one of those blog posts that promises to improve every part of your life in five easy steps. I don’t know about you, but I’m not a big fan of that writing style or of the idea that reading a single article is all someone needs to make big changes in their life. Few people are that simple or that easily swayed.

There is also the fact that learning how to stop and focus on the present moment takes time. While I am gradually getting better at brushing away unhelpful thoughts and keeping my mind focused on what is currently going on, I still have a long way to go.

This is by far the biggest reason why I strongly recommend getting started with this habit as soon as possible if it’s something you’re hoping to get benefits from over the next few months.

If you want to be able to live in the moment at the end of the year when you’re at an event that you find stressful or over-stimulating, practicing now will make that day easier than it might have otherwise been because you will have already gotten into the habit of quietly focusing on the moment instead of thinking about what happened in the past or what might happen in the future.

Mindfulness Is a Lifestyle Change

Think about practicing mindfulness the same way you would if you wanted to learn a new language, strengthen your muscles, or play a new instrument.

All of these skills take time and effort to master. I’ve never heard of anyone becoming fluent in a new language in a day or a week. The same can be said for learning to play the piano or swing a kettlebell.

While the basics can be figured out fairly quickly if you’re motivated, it will take sustained effort over much longer periods of time to really reap the rewards of your hard work.

Mindfulness requires that same attention to detail. When I first began meditating and doing my best to remain in the present moment when I wasn’t meditating, I didn’t notice any major changes in how I thought or felt.

It took a while for me to fall into the habit of doing it regularly, and even longer for me to learn how to use it to relax consistently.

Mindfulness Is Worth It

I wish I’d started practicing mindfulness regularly many years ago. There were several false starts over the years as I slowly figured out what did and didn’t work for me.

While I understand why it took me a while to where I am today, I sure wish I could have had a cheat sheet to both warn me about the techniques my brain would not find helpful well as to tantalize me with all of the positive effects of mindfulness if I kept plugging away at it.

If there were a way for me to give you a tour of my mind and show you all of the small but still wonderful improvements I’ve made as a result of this habit, I’d do it in a heartbeat.

Since that isn’t currently possible, I’ll tell you that my mind wanders a little less now than it used to. It’s easier to return to the present moment when it does go scampering off into the furthest recesses of my brain.

I’ve also come to love my daily meditation sessions and mindful moments. They are such a nice way to pause and immerse myself in the moment before moving on with my regular routines. It’s going to be interesting to see what other benefits I discover over the next few months as I become even better at the skills i’m currently practicing.

In short, mindfulness is worth every ounce of effort you put into it.

Can You Be Mindful and Angry at the Same Time?

One of the things I find most challenging about practicing mindfulness is doing it when I’m angry. While I’m not the kind of person who loses their temper easily, I do have a tendency to ruminate on whatever is making me mad beyond the point where such an act still remains useful.

There was a time when I felt guilty about this. I wished I didn’t feel angry in those situations and that I could find  it easier to brush those feelings aside when they did pop up.  Even though I’m pretty good at responding to those things calmly when they are happening, I saw others looking far calmer than I felt when they were in the same kind of situation.

You see, I was comparing how I felt on the inside to how other people were acting. The interesting thing about this is that I had no idea what those other people were thinking about when they responded so calmly.

How someone behaves doesn’t always match up with how they’re feeling inside. For all I know, they could have been looking at my response and wondering the same thing about me. The first time I realized this, I literally laughed out loud.

The cool thing about practicing mindfulness is that it doesn’t require you to change how you feel. In fact, changing how you feel isn’t the point of it at all.

There’s No Such Thing as a “Bad” Emotion

Anger in and of itself isn’t helpful or harmful. Everything depends on what you do with that emotion and what thoughts you entertain when you feel it.

Do you jump to conclusions about what will happen in the future because you’re mad right now? Do you try to suppress it? Do you look for someone to blame for it? Do you assume it will last forever?

On the positive side, can you embrace the fact that this is how you’re feeling right now? Do you think back to other times in your life when you felt this way and remember how you dealt with them? Does your anger prompt you to do something to improve the situation if that’s possible?

There are healthy and unhealthy ways to handle every negative emotion that exists.

Mindfulness Isn’t About Always Being Zen

If the only people in this world who were allowed to practice mindfulness were the ones who are always patient and understanding when they were irritated by the people, places, or circumstances in their lives, there would only be about three of them on the entire planet…and I wouldn’t be one of them.

When I’m angry, I do my best to stop and experience that emotion without judging it or making any assumptions about what it means, whether it’s justified, how I’ll feel in the future, or how I think I should be feeling about it instead.

This is a much easier thing to talk about than it is to actually practice. I’m not going to tell you that I always succeed at simply feeling my emotions without assigning value to them or wishing they were different. Like you, I’m a human being. I have days when I live in the moment really well, and other days when I feel much more like this cat:

(I don’t normally include gifs in my posts, but this one was the perfect illustration for this point. It’s fun to imagine that this cat is a master of mindfulness when she’s not pushing everything off of the desk she’s sitting on. Who knows? Maybe she’s even figured out how to live in the moment while being mischievous!)

You’re in Control of the Process

There have been times when I’ve brushed an emotion aside not because I’m trying to avoid feeling it but because I’ve sat with it long enough.

Just because you’re mad right now doesn’t mean you’ll feel the same way five minutes, two days, or a month from now.

This is by far one of my favourite things about remembering to be mindful when I’m pissed off about something.

There is no handbook that says you can’t change your mind or that you’re only allowed to feel mad for X number of minutes at a time. The freedom of knowing I can sit with my anger for as long as is necessary actually makes me less likely to hold onto it.

It’s like telling a child that they’re only ever allowed to have one cookie regardless of how old they’ve become versus slowly allowing them to decide for themselves what they do and don’t eat.

By letting go of all expectations of what you’re support to do, it becomes much easier to stop after one cookie (or one wave of ire, in this case).

What Mindful Anger Looks Like

Mindful anger is…

  • Non-judgemental
  • Not attached to any one particular outcome
  • Open to change
  • Focused on what has already happened, not what might happen in the future
  • Honest
  • Aware and accepting of other emotions like fear or envy that could be the cause of it
  • Not vengeful

I hope you found this post helpful. If you have anything to add to this post, please let me know!

What Cheesy Ghost Movies Can Teach You About Getting (and Staying) in Shape

One of my favourite things to do during a boring workout routine is to watch the kinds of ghost movies on Netflix that desperately try to be scary but end up being predictable and silly instead.

The nice part about these films is that they don’t require your full attention. Paying attention to 80% of the things happening on the screen is more than enough to figure out the plot twists well in advance, so they’re perfect for watching while you exercise.

The other reason why I watch these films is because there are lessons in every single one of them that would honestly work as well, and maybe even a little better, if you applied them to your workout routine instead of waiting until you move into a haunted house or accidentally knock over a gravestone to see how useful they’d be. Figuring out what those lessons are have also provided me endless amounts of entertainment on cardio days.

Lesson #1: Don’t Be Afraid to Take Advice from Others Who Have Already Been There

No one is ever too old to learn something new, and no one is ever too young to teach you something you didn’t know before.

I’m slowly forming a small group of fellow exercise enthusiasts who bounce ideas off of each other and ask for advice when there’s something we find challenging or confusing about our workouts.

Not everyone in this loosely-associated club of sorts practices the exact same routines, but we share enough in common that we can find those areas where we overlap and trade information about what does and doesn’t work.

There have been a few times when I’ve considered something and decided that it isn’t something that I should worry about for a wide variety of reasons, but I always listen to the reasons why someone gives for recommending or not recommending it before making my final decision.

Lesson #2: Always Tie Your Shoes

Have you ever noticed how often characters in horror movies forget to tie their shoes securely? Sometimes they have to do that in order to give a menacing ghost the chance to catch up with them once they run away, but the last thing you want to do while running or walking is step on your own shoelace and trip over your own foot.

I always double-check my shoes and anything else I’m wearing that could potentially cause an accident before I start working out. Sometimes I have even been known to double-knot my laces if I’ll be going somewhere muddy or cold. It isn’t much fun to tie laces when they’re covered in dirt or slush.

Lesson #3: If Something Feels Wrong, Don’t Ignore It

There’s a fine line between pushing yourself to do better and injuring yourself because you overlooked pain while you were exercising.

If a specific move sends a tingle down your spine in a bad way, stop immediately. Most people wouldn’t wander into a dark basement in the middle of the night to investigate a strange noise if their flashlight kept dying at the top of the steps.

Use that same common sense when you’re working out. There will be more opportunities to try that move again  once you’ve gained more experience or moved on to better equipment.

Lesson #4: Some Days Are Going to Suck No Matter What You Do

Just like some houses are so deeply haunted that you won’t ever find enough holy water to cleanse them, some workouts are going to falter for reasons you couldn’t possibly predict or prevent.

For example, I’ve had multiple workouts that were interrupted by fire alarms. Obviously, fire alarms can’t be ignored for all kinds of safety and noise reasons. When that alarm sounds, the only thing you can do is get to somewhere safe and wait for someone to turn it off.

On a less urgent note, there have been times when my workouts were cut short because I was recovering from an illness or injury that turned out to be further back in the healing process than I originally thought it would be. My spirit might be willing to push it to the limit, but my body is a completely different story in that scenario.

Your mental health matters, too. Occasionally I have a day when my workouts are begrudging at absolute best due to other things that are going on in my life at that point. The faster I accept that I won’t be breaking any personal records those days, the faster I can get through the routine and put as much effort into it as I can reasonably manage for that particular day.

Lesson #5: Practice More than One Kind of Exercise

Could you outrun a vengeful spirit? Could you pick up an injured friend and carry them to the car? Are you limber enough to turn to the side, stretch backwards, and unhook your jacket from that rusty nail sticking out of the door before the ghost comes back again?

Obviously these things aren’t literally going to happen, but the failure of many horror movie characters to stay in good shape is a reminder that there’s more than one way to be fit. Ideally, we should all be practicing as many of them as we can.

I have been walking long distances for a decade and lifting weights for a few years now. Yoga is the next form of exercise to check off my list in 2017. I hope I’d be able to do all of the things listed above in an emergency.

Lesson #6: Try, Try Again

Not everything in life happens right away. As I blogged a few weeks ago, yoga wasn’t something I liked the first or even the second time I tried it.

Even now I’m not entirely sure what I think about this form of exercise, but I continue giving it chances to change my mind. Just like it can take horror movie characters more than one visit with a psychic to convince a restless spirit to move onto the next world, sometimes new workout routines need some time to settle into a groove as well.

If you truly don’t like it, there’s nothing wrong with admitting that and moving onto something new.  Don’t assume that your first impression of something will be your last one, though. People’s opinions change every day if they give themselves enough chances to decide what they really think about a specific form of exercise.

Lesson #7: It Never Ends

There will always be something new to learn.

You could always be a little stronger, faster, or more flexible.

Someone else will always need your advice.

There will always be other people who will have good advice for you if you open yourself up to it.

What about the spirits?

Yes, they will always return in the sequel regardless of how well you think you vanquished them at the end of the third act in the original film.

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.

 

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.