Go Forth & Be Mindful
Well, folks, 2017 is drawing to a close, there’s still no natural snow in my neck of the woods, and suffice it to say that spirits are dwindling here in the sere and barren mountains of San Miguel County, Colorado. Well, perhaps there’s a bit of holiday cheer going around, if you’re into that sort of thing, but otherwise we’re all waiting listlessly for that true and unassailable herald of winter proper. Until the great white room descends again upon these great mountains, we’re left plumbing the depths of our souls, searching for some semblance of motivation, inspiration, nay, ‘stoke,’ to usher us through these trying times. Which is what I wanted to talk to you about today.
Even if you’re not so simple and short-sighted as to invest your general contentment and, to some degree, your identity into something so arbitrary as the quantitative expression of certain forms of frozen precipitation – and you bet your ass I am – you may still be feeling those winter doldrums. A couple weeks ago, I graced you with some mediocre ideas on how you can get up off your keister and, you know, be active and stuff.
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That was all well and good, but after some reflection, I decided that it takes a lot more than a tepid suggestion of physical activity to break through those hiemal blues. Hell, if you’re motivated enough to go out and do something cool on a gelid winter day, then chances are you’ve got a few ideas of your own. But what if motivation itself seems to elude you? What if winter has you feeling downright dull? Well, you could try cold showers or shocking yourself with a taser to, you know, spark that inner mounting flame. But showers are ephemeral and tasers are expensive, and we need some kind of binding resolution here, something enduring. We need to forge a lasting bit of mental fortitude. I’m talkin’ ‘bout mindfulness, y’all.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last, I don’t know, thirty years, you’ve probably heard the term mindfulness. Maybe in some smug soliloquy of self-affirmation at your local Starbuck’s franchise? Did that come off a little salty? Anyway, UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center defines mindful awareness, i.e. mindfulness, as “paying attention to present moment experiences with openness, curiosity, and a willingness to be with what is.” “To be with what is.” Damn. That’s pretty deep. Really, though. That may sound a little abstract, but theoretically, it’s pretty simple. Mindfulness is all about being present in any given moment. It’s about being unencumbered by thoughts and worries about what has or what may happen. Dispelling all this peripheral chatter in your mind opens the door to a more pure and meaningful experience of the present moment.
It’s surprisingly simple, though surprisingly difficult in practice. But practice we must. Why? Because a lot of science out there says mindfulness can do all sorts of good for our mental and emotional wellbeing. Wanna know what’s more? It can actually benefit our training! A few years back, some Dutch researchers decided to look into how mindfulness can influence a person’s exercise habits by affecting their perceived satisfaction with physical activity. In their study, published in the Journal of Health Psychology in 2015, the researchers conducted a survey of 398 Dutch folks on their exercise habits. They found that people who reported being more mindful during exercise were more satisfied with exercising. Previous research has established that being satisfied with a new behavior makes us want to pursue it further. So, the researchers deduced that mindfulness can help us get into and maintain an exercise routine by increasing our satisfaction with exercise. Exciting stuff, don’t you think? I do.
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So, now that we know mindfulness can help us enjoy exercise more and just feel better in general, how do we reach that higher level of mindfulness? Well, meditation, basically. The whole idea behind meditating is that, by focusing on something simple and constant, like our breath, we can calm our frenzied mind and be truly present. Through repetitive practice, we can draw that presence into the quotidiana of our lives. But how exactly should we meditate? Well, there’s a pretty amazing thing out there called “guided meditation,” in which you’re, you know, guided through the meditation process. You can search Youtube for guided meditation videos, if you wish, but I’m a little wary of most … actually, scratch that. I’m wary of EVERYTHING I see on Youtube, considering that, you know, ANYONE IN THE WORLD can publish a video on Youtube. Luckily, there are some legit guided meditation resources out there. My favorite? The aforementioned UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center.
These are actual academics, y’all. They’re people with M.D.s and Ph.D.s, veritable experts in psychiatry and related fields, that publish all kinds of sweet resources for people like us. Their free guided meditations are my favorite. They range anywhere from a few to almost 20 minutes in length, and they take all the guesswork out of this meditation stuff. Did I mention they even have guided meditations in Spanish? Gah, these guys are great. One of the most important parts of maintaining your mindfulness practice is, well, maintaining it. Stickin’ with it. Persevering, you might say.
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I try to meditate every day if I can, but it can be difficult. Not because I’m a particularly busy person, but because I’m so disorganized that the lion’s share of my time is consumed by figuring out just what the hell I’m supposed to be doing at any particular moment. But a three-minute guided meditation? Even a bumbling idiot like me can find three unoccupied minutes in a 24-hour day. Once you get the hang of meditating, meaning you can actually focus for an extended amount of time on breathing or whatever, you can incorporate that into physical activity like, say, running. I mean running is already pretty meditative, but actually making an effort to be present during your run can, as we’ve already discussed, make the experience more satisfying.
Aside from meditation, yoga is another great way to advance your mindfulness practice. I mean, have you ever been to a yoga class? That’s all those instructors talk about! “Focus on your breath.” “Bring your awareness into your body.” “Be present with the excruciating pain in your noodly legs.” “Hank, please stop crying.” I wasn’t crying, for the record. There was sweat in my eyes. Or my eyes were sweating. One of the two. Anyway, yoga is great. It strengthens you physically, it fosters mindful awareness, and it makes you feel really good afterward.
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A WORD ON THE JOURNEY
I’ve only really scratched the surface on this whole mindfulness thing because, as with most things I write about on the Internet, my knowledge of it is cursory at best. I encourage you to delve deeper into UCLA MARC’s online resources. Check out their podcast. One thing I would like to harp on is how I’ve gone about my own pursuit of a more mindful life. First off, we all have different reasons for wanting to be more mindful. Personally, I want to squeeze a little more satisfaction out of life, approach situations with a little more equanimity and so on. Lots of people want to find happiness, fulfillment and a better understanding of themselves.
I was reading an article in the Times the other day about these kinds of undertakings and, specifically, how they tend to be very solitary. We see ourselves as embarking upon some personal journey in which we intend to discover happiness and fulfillment within ourselves. While that’s part of it, the article made the excellent point that, according to LOTS of science, one of the best predictors of our overall health and well-being is the quality of our relationships with other people. In other words, happiness and fulfillment are very often of external provenance.
I think this is important to keep in mind when delving into mindfulness practice. Think of ways you can incorporate others into your practice. Go to yoga classes. Find a guided meditation group. Organize a group meditation with friends. Dedicate time to interacting with those close to you, and make an effort to be mindful during those interactions. I’m no expert, but in my limited experience, doing so makes the journey a lot more effective and meaningful.
(Eds. note: It snowed immediately after this article was completed – a veritable Christmas miracle.)
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