I began to wonder how many other things flew under my nose daily. What if I slowed life down? What would I see? I needed to become aware of the functional and dysfunctional world both around me and within me. I wanted to be a new person, but I needed to know what I was up against first. I needed to incorporate mindfulness into my life: a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations.
A therapist might say, “let’s start” by focusing on your breath. The monk, Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, once said: “When we truly observe the breath, we are automatically placed in the present.” To achieve this state, you’re not allowed to control your breath, and you must let your breath move in its natural rhythm (like while sleeping).
Lie back, relax, and focus on your breath moving in and out like waves massaging the shore. Any time there’s a distraction—a thought about pressing projects at work, random characters on television shows you’re watching, or anything else—place the idea on a boat and let the river take it away. Listen to every sound around you: A dog barking in the distance; the subtle cracks in the wood; your neighbors yelling at each other; your neighbors yelling at you for meditating on their front lawn; whatever it is, name it and continue to focus on your breath and…
Okay, I probably lost you. You either fell asleep or struggled to relax and focus on your breath. Your breathing might have become ragged because while you’re trying not to control your breath, you feel an incessant need to force it. As you do this, it may cause you to begin breathing irregularly and move you away from a relaxed stress.
Meditation is initially stressful and the reason people avoid it. “It’s so simple though,” people will tell you. It’s not. You’ve trained yourself to multitask and do a million things at once in everyday life. It’s different to remove yourself from this mindset and slow down for a moment.
If you practice meditation, it will open your mind and help you look at your reality. Many people find that their reality is far more chaotic and disorganized than they ever imagined. You might have the same realization.
Unless you’re the musician, Sting, who can meditate for four hours, any moment of mindfulness (awareness of now with total stimulation of your senses) is a success. With practice, you’ll realize it isn’t as hard as it seems—especially if it is only 10 seconds at a time. The goal is just to wake up to life around you—and inside of you—at any given moment. The toughest part is not passing judgment. You are just naming what you see, hear, smell, and think about. You are awakening yourself to a new reality.
In my phone, I found an application (Simple Routine) that allows me to schedule alerts throughout the day. I receive a “take a breath” alert four times and do this no matter where I am at or what I am doing. These reminders help me successfully integrate a form of meditation and mindfulness with minimal effort into my life.
When you practice mindfulness, you are returning to the simplest process of you: breathing. Start with a single breath. Breathe all of the way in; all of the way out. You want to inhale fully and then exhale. If a thought infiltrates this moment, name it and allow it to escape your mind peacefully. You can place your thoughts about work and other stresses onto a boat and push it a down ‘that mental river’. You are slowing down your life for one moment. You are incorporating mindfulness into your life.
A few years ago, I first practiced meditation at the Mystical Yoga Farm on Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, just a few months after my divorce. Lake Atitlan stood in total solitude in the middle of three volcanoes. The sunrise peaked over the top of each volcano every morning and slowly lit the fog crawling over the water. It was the perfect setting for breathing and thinking about breathing.
It was also the setting for four days of alcohol-free socializing and vegetarian cooking. In between yoga and permaculture sessions, I snuck out to a hammock and wrote in my journal before falling asleep.
It was simplicity in its most natural form and freedom from the stresses of the world. It was a self-sustaining commune without the pressures from work, family, and everything else.
I pleasantly awoke every morning at 5 a.m. to the voice of a French woman singing outside of the cabins. It was a calm, gentle wake-up call—and a fitting one—before we embarked to the pier for morning meditation.
On the pier, the mix of guests from all over the world—German, Australian, South American, North American, and more—sat cross-legged and faced the sun hiding behind the volcanoes. Birds were chirping and flying toward the calm water, looking for food while a slowly rocking boat nearby made subtle sounds of wood rubbing on wood.
Now, picture me in the middle of this band of meditators, fidgeting and wondering why I am the only who can’t cross his legs comfortably. I’m closing my eyes and listening to the subtle sounds of nature.
I begin to focus on the waves of breath with the guided help of our instructor.
And now…I wonder how the Chicago Bears football team played on Sunday…I wonder when we’ll eat breakfast.
My left eye opens. I peer to my left and wonder, “Is anyone else distracted?” Then I close it before opening my right eye. “I mustn’t be the only one.” Funny enough, another American was doing the same.
I wasn’t alone, but I felt like the first morning was a failure. The next few mornings I awoke early and practiced with my new American friend.
I improved and found what works for me: staring at moving water or the flame of a candle. In fact, by day four of my “mystical” journey, I stared at the candle for over three hours while seated in the same position.
I was able to focus on some “thing” moving while letting my breath flow naturally. I found a way to jump outside of my thoughts and separate myself from them: the routine of life, the pull of my business, or any other stressors.
I still practice this in small amounts in my daily life. The best example of this takes place during disagreements with my girlfriend. I have a tendency to overreact and raise my voice. And in these metacognition moments, I remove myself from ME and focus on my breath. I concentrate on full inhalation and exhalation. It’s during these moments that I have now been able to take a breath, concentrate on the now, and remove myself from instinct and emotion – and I don’t need to meditate for hours to do this. I’m able to slow my thinking and regain control over a moment. I sometimes catch myself thinking, “Why am I overreacting?” or “Why am I saying this?” while it’s happening. I recognize the irrational words before I begin to speak them.
I found out that this was more common than I thought. I can’t say that this was the realization that I was looking for when I started this process. It does remind me of what I was overlooking, however. While mindfulness will open your world of awareness, it will also show you the good, the bad, and the ugly. You’ll need to accept what you find for the time being before creating the life you want.
Today, you’ll start by taking a breath.
Looking for other ways to redefine your life? Check out my recent article 50 Ways to Change Your Life Today too.
Michael Moody is the author of the self-improvement book Redefine Yourself: The Simple Guide to Happiness and the former fitness expert on NBC’s The Biggest Loser/MSN Chicago tour. The owner of the successful Chicago personal training business Michael Moody Fitness, his fitness and life-structure programs have helped his clients lose more than 2,500 pounds since 2005. Michael has been featured in Muscle & Fitness and Today’s Chicago Woman magazines, among others. During his time as the official trainer for PBS’s The Whitney Reynolds Show, he also produced an inspirational segment about his travels in Guatemala.
Having researched emotion and coping behaviors in university-level studies, Michael has presented various fitness, motivation, body image, and stress-management programs at Illinois State University, DePaul University, corporations, high schools, and workshops.