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The beginners guide to mindfulness in real life

In today’s world, you’ve probably heard of mindfulness, meditation or even mindfulness meditation.

The practices of mindfulness, meditation, and mindfulness meditation are more important than ever.

If for no other reason than to manage the anxiety and worry that comes with the incessant stream of information.

Along with a growth mindset, developing mindfulness is the most impactful thing you can do to improve your chances of success.

It is not just important to success.  Developing mindfulness is foundational.  Because without it, you will operate on autopilot and continue to get the same results.

Mindfulness is similar but not identical to meditation

Mindfulness is something we either are or aren’t being. Meditation is something we either are or aren’t doing.

In other words, we can’t do mindfulness and we can’t be meditation.

Mindfulness is about paying attention

For starters, paying attention to what’s going on with the body, thoughts, and emotions. Additionally, any other phenomena we experience as human beings.

It’s about awakening to the constant state of change and understanding that no phenomena we experience is permanent.

Additionally, the awareness that nothing at all is permanent.

Most of us know these things intellectually, but we often aren’t mindful of it. This lack of awareness causes us to cling to that which feels good and push away anything that doesn’t.

When we develop better attention, we don’t need to cling to or push away anything. We recognize each moment as a passing show.

Pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral, we know that every experience has an expiration date.

Mindfulness can also help us concentrate and give more care to what we’re doing in the moment.

When participating in an activity, we can fully participate instead of being there physically but somewhere else mentally.

Perhaps the biggest benefit of mindfulness is that is gives us freedom of choice.

We begin to realize the underlying thoughts behind our actions. Our behaviors can become conscious choices rather than habituated functions.

Meditation is a practice

Meditation is an ancient practice that helps us move beyond our egos and personalities into a place of exploration.

The term mindfulness doesn’t generally mean a formal practice. Meditation usually does.

With meditation you make an intentional focus inward to increase calmness, concentration, and emotional balance. 

While meditation can occur anywhere just as mindfulness can, meditation is always a planned activity. One where you dedicate a specific amount of time.

It could be a minute or an hour. The amount of time isn’t important, but it is dedicated specifically to turning your focus inward.

For example, If you’re walking down the street and you feel the wind against your face, hear the birds chirping, and feel the sensations in each step, you’re naturally being mindful.

If your mind is jumping from one anxious thought to another, you aren’t being mindful.

We’ve all experienced walks or drives that we remember little to nothing about once we reach our destination.

If you made a conscious choice, prior to the walk, to focus on one or more aspects of your experience, you could call it mindfulness meditation.

What is mindfulness in real life?

The above example of taking a walk is a good example. For most of us, the majority of the time we’re walking from one place to another, we’re anything but mindful.

Since mindfulness is all about awareness regarding our experience, the opportunities for it exist in every moment of every day.

Mindfulness in real life is experiencing whatever is going on in the moment.

Whether it’s eating, talking to someone, taking a shower, or any other normal activity.

So many of these simple things we don’t truly experience because our minds aren’t present.

It’s not that we do it intentionally, but our minds are often focused on the next thing or a prior thing. We never get to really enjoy the present.

Mindfulness in real life takes effort

This day and age, mindfulness likely won’t happen spontaneously. You’ll have to put in some effort.

I say this day and age because there are more distractions than ever before. And the amount of distractions are only going to increase.

We’re constantly exposed to an overwhelming amount of data and information. There’s always something else to think about.

Something that’s completely unrelated to what we should be engaged in at the moment.

Being mindful in everyday life can be developed through repetition.

Like anything else, it can become a habit. Planned meditation sessions can accelerate the process but isn’t necessary.

Here are a few ways you can start being mindful in real life:

  1. Choose a meal and commit to eat slowly for that meal. Focus and see if you can taste all the different flavors coming together.
  2. When walking from one place to another, try to focus on the feeling of each step as you make contact with the ground.
  3. Next time you take a shower, pay full attention to the feeling of the water hitting your body and the sensation of the soap & washcloth/pouf/loofah cleaning your skin. And nothing else.
  4. Next time you’re driving, turn off the radio. Focus only on the sites in front of you, the sounds you hear, and the feeling of your body in the seat.

There are endless other ways to be mindful in everyday life, but at least try one or more of these to begin with.

It won’t take long before you find that mindfulness can be incorporated into your life all day, every day.

Mindfulness and the space between

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Viktor E. Frankl, From Man’s Search for Meaning

This space is typically very small, even unrecognizable to most.  Operating out of habit, we are prone to react to stimuli immediately.

Not recognizing the space in between, we don’t choose our reactions. Our reactions become a manifestation of whatever emotion the stimulus makes us feel.

A simple example is someone saying something cruel, we feel anger, then respond with something equally or more cruel.

Mindfulness can help us become aware of this space and allow it to be as large as we need it to be.

As Frankl said, this space gives us the power to choose our response.

This space is where fear and avoidance live. 

If we’re prone to react in fearful, avoidant ways, we have to first recognize when this feeling arises before we can modify our habitual reactions.

This recognition helps us to not behave in a way that’s counterproductive to what we want to achieve.

Many times our habitual reactions feel pleasant and comfortable in the moment, but bad afterwards.

Common examples of fearful and avoidant reactions are:

  • Not speaking up when you have an opinion
  • Skillfully changing the subject when a difficult conversation comes up
  • Going along with the crowd when you secretly disagree

Being aware doesn’t automatically mean we’ll behave differently, but the space at least gives us options.

In the beginning, we might still make poor choices because knowing the correct choice isn’t enough. Sometimes it takes confidence to execute the correct choice.

We might not have built up this kind of confidence, but we can through taking courageous actions. Over time, courage builds confidence.

The space also give us the opportunity to recognize common situations, and prepare a response ahead of time.

This is where you imagine the scenario before it happens the next time, and decide how you will respond in advance.

It still might take confidence to do it in the moment, but at least you have a plan. The plan is this:

  1. There is some kind of situation (stimulus)
    • Ex: During arguments, your partner occasionally says “You’re just so inconsiderate all the time!”
  2. You become aware of the space
    • Ex: You feel the need to react defensively, but instead you pause. Realizing you can use the space to choose your response.
  3. You respond
    • Ex: You use your prepared response, “I’m really sorry you feel that way, can you help me understand why?”

In the above scenario, it isn’t likely to be a one and done thing.

There will probably be a series of stimuli. Recognizing the space and choosing an effective response consistently can lead to better outcomes.

With enough practice, it will become a habit and you will become more of a responder than a reactor. More mindful than heedless.

Mindfulness, dissatisfaction, and the law of impermanence

Much peace can be found in the realization that you will never be fully satisfied in this life.

Additionally, knowing that nothing in this life is permanent can bring peace as well.

Mindfulness can help you come to realize these two things and to remember them on a regular basis.

Dissatisfaction

There is a word in the buddhist tradition called Dukkha. Traditionally, this word can be translated into the English word “suffering”.

However, a more fitting and better understood translation is “dissatisfaction”.

As human beings, we will never be fully satisfied. There will always be desire or want for something. Nothing can create a sense of fulfillment that will last forever.

That is one burden of being a human being.

Goals should still be pursued, however, we need to be careful not to fall into the trap. Specifically, the trap of believing any one goal will be THE goal that brings unending happiness.

Mindfulness helps us avoid this trap.

When we stop believing that some goal or achievement will bring an unending joy, it allows us to fully participate in the process.

Therefore we aren’t attached to the outcome because we know that either way, it isn’t the end. We’ll eventually want something else.

Not attached to the outcome, we are less prone to anxiety and worry. Furthermore, we’re more likely to have a growth mindset and push through obstacles and challenges.

Our motive is to get better, not to get to some destination as quickly as possible.

In a paradoxical way, being mindful of the reality of perpetual dissatisfaction can be gratifying in itself.

Impermanence

“Life would be much easier and substantially less painful if we lived with the knowledge of impermanence as the only constant.”

– Donna Farhi

When I think of impermanence, I think of it as a law as simple as the law of gravity.

What goes up, must come down. It’s a reality in our world, and from an early age we all understand and accept it.

Impermanence is largely the same way. Yet the difference is most of us understand it intellectually but few accept it emotionally.

Non-acceptance causes us to cling to good experiences, wanting them to stay forever. This grasping causes unnecessary pain once the experience ends.

We also feel more pain than necessary from unpleasant experiences, feeling like they are fixed and will never end.

With mindfulness, we can enjoy good experiences and not suffer as much once they are gone. Namely because we’re prepared for them to be gone.

Mindfulness also helps us deal with negative experiences better because we know that they will pass.

Sometimes just knowing that you won’t feel a certain way or be in a certain situation forever helps with the experience of the situation in the present.

Here is an example to ponder about impermanence in everyday life:

  • Relationships
    • If you are in a good relationship or just started a new relationship, consider the fact that it will eventually end. No matter what. Even if you stay together, both of you will eventually pass away. This isn’t a cause for sadness, but motivation to appreciate the moments you have together.
    • Recently gone through a breakup? Consider how you or someone you know has gotten through a breakup previously. You may feel terrible now but the feeling will pass. That realization won’t eliminate the feeling, but it can provide solace.

Nothing in our lives is permanent and mindfulness can help us remember that.

The most impactful thing a person can ponder regarding impermanence is the reality of death. Rather than cause sadness, it can actually inspire more life.

Mindfulness is essential for improvement

We should all strive to improve because none of us is perfect.

None of us will ever be perfect and life should be about growth and discovery.

If we aren’t mindful, we won’t improve. Moreover, we can’t improve.

Improvement in any area regarding our thoughts and behaviors can be summarized in these steps:

  1. Awareness that we need to improve
  2. Knowledge of the thoughts or behaviors impeding improvement
  3. Noticing when we have these thoughts or act out behaviors
  4. Choosing different thoughts or behaviors (or at least behaviors)

We can’t improve without mindfulness because it’s mindfulness that allows us to notice our thoughts and behaviors.

Most importantly, the thoughts and behaviors that aren’t conducive to producing what we want.

Awareness and knowledge is necessary, but the active noticing is critical for change to happen.

Change is hard for adults because we have many habits that are deeply rooted. Without mindfulness, we just act these habits out over and over again, unaware.

This is true even when we know what these thoughts and behaviors are. It’s also true even when we take time to reflect on them.

We make an effort to change but the behavior doesn’t change.

Mindfulness gives us the opportunity to recognize things in the moment rather than just reflecting on it later on. This is a game changer.

When we know what thoughts and behaviors are holding us back AND can recognize them in the moment, that provides the impetus for real change.

It is mindfulness that allows us to choose better actions in real time.

Knowledge is imperative, but only the application of it in our lives will bring change and improvement.

Mindfulness is beneficial regardless of goals

No matter what your goals are, mindfulness will always be an asset.

Mindfulness is not only awareness of present events and experiences, it is also the acceptance of them.

Acceptance of the present allows you to focus on what you want to achieve. In contrast to focusing on what you don’t have and all the reasons it will be difficult.

Research also shows that mindfulness can improve your ability to reach goals.

A study published in the International Journal of Well-being found that mindfulness:

  • Positively influenced personal goals
  • Gave people a greater degree of independence, and
  • Increased their well-being

The study indicates that those who practice mindfulness frequently report feeling less stressed, anxious, depressed, or impulsive.

Additionally, they report being more optimistic and positive in everyday life.

When you’re more optimistic you are more likely to work towards your goals, even in difficult times.

Pessimism and a negative outlook can make it easier to turn toward distractions such as TV and mindless social media surfing.

Mindfulness can help recognize the urge to do these things when the urge arises. Instead of acting these urges out, mindfulness provides the space to choose other, more productive activities.

Mindfulness and productivity

The distracted mind is one of the biggest challenges for all of us with regard to getting things done.

We are constantly doing one thing and somehow reminded of something else that needs to be done.

A common example is when we are working on a task that requires focused effort. Then some sort of notification comes in and completely disrupts our flow.

The most familiar culprit is email, but it could be any number of notifications such as a text, instant message, social media notification. You name it.

We tend to treat these notifications as urgent, as if they must be tended to right away.

We fail to realize that most of the time it’s only our perception that something needs to be done right away.

What’s important is that we finish what we had already started working on.

One of the most critical components of being productive is staying on task and managing time effectively.

Mindfulness can help us resist the urge to switch tasks. Additionally, mindfulness can help bring us back if we have already lost focus.

Mindfulness is fluid

It’s important to remember that we can’t be mindful all of the time, or even most of the time.

Sometimes we are mindful, other times we aren’t. Mindfulness is impermanent like anything else. It is subject to movement and change.

Focusing on your lack of skill being mindful will only cause unnecessary stress.

The interesting thing is, when we notice that we aren’t being mindful, that noticing is a form of mindfulness.

When we realize we’ve been lost in unproductive thought or activity, we can appreciate it instead of admonish it.

At least for that moment, we are mindful because we have stopped the train of thought in its tracks. Furthermore, we can begin again from there.

The more we consistently practice being mindful in everyday situations, the more it happens spontaneously.

It will be come a habit and we will eventually be mindful more often than not.

“If we keep on going, the intention and energy of perseverance eventually bear fruit.”

Joseph Goldstein. From Mindfulness, a Practical Guide to Awakening

Mindfulness brings clarity

It isn’t hard to see that a lack of mindfulness is closely associated with a lack of clarity.

Devoid of mindfulness, life can feel like moving in overdrive all the time.

Constantly jumping from one thing to the next, we never stop to examine what we’re really doing. Or why we’re doing it.

Without mindfulness it’s hard to understand what’s truly important because it all feels important.

We feel like we can’t slow down at all. As if we’ll miss one thing and plummet into ruin.

On top of that, we have the delusion that there is a finish line. Like if we push hard enough we will “get it all done”.

The clarity that mindfulness brings is the truth that:

  • Very few things are truly important
  • Ignoring some things or putting them off won’t cause disaster
  • We will never get everything done

This shouldn’t make you complacent or lazy. On the contrary, realizing time is limited and you can never get everything done should inspire fortitude to recognize the few important things, and make sure they get done.

The more we can bring this clarity into our everyday lives, the more we can appreciate each moment.

Conclusion

If you haven’t decided to develop mindfulness yet, it’s time to do so sooner than later.

Being an adult in the modern world is chaotic. It isn’t easy for anyone and if you have a family you’ll need mindfulness even more.

Along with developing a growth mindset, mindfulness is a non-negotiable skill that you need to become the best version of yourself.

“If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.”

– Henry Ford

Henry Ford wasn’t the only person quoted as saying this, but the point is that it speaks a simple truth.

If you continue to do the same things that you always have, you can’t expect different results.

The only thing guaranteed to impact how the world responds to you is how you show up in the world.

The actions you take, conversations you have, choices you make, and many other things that YOU personally do.

Mindfulness can’t take the actions for us, but it does create the space which gives us a choice.

A choice to act in the best interest of ourselves and others rather than acting or reacting based on how we feel.

Mindfulness opens the doors for improvement. We must then take courageous steps through those doors over and over again.

Next: The Ultimate Guide to Self Improvement

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