I think the self-care tips on this list are available to most everybody, but please feel free to change and adapt them according to your specific limitations/environment/situation. This was written specifically for the time under quarantine, but I think it is useful anytime we may be in the house for an extended period of time, or on a day off when we are feeling down.
1. Don’t sleep all day. Our bodies seem to like it when we get up at a certain time, and by our very nature we are meant to be awake during the day. Get up like you have something to do, because you do. This one thing changed my life more than anything else and now I look forward to the morning. Self-care sometimes means training ourselves into a habit we may not like at first.
2. Move around, even if only for a little while. Stretch, do some squats, do some jumping jacks, do some yoga. Walk around your neighborhood if that is wise. As I mentioned in the video on this topic, with chronic pain this is probably even more important. The ego will keep us stationary to conserve calories, but that’s a holdover from back when survival was the primary problem. These days, not moving is the villain.
3. Take care of your hygiene. Pretend like you have somewhere to go – shave, shower or bathe, brush your teeth, comb your hair. It’s shocking how much better these little things can make us feel. We dismiss this because we feel compelled (or even coerced) to get up and get dressed every day, so laying around in our pajamas feels like a privilege. One way to take our power back is to take care of ourselves every day – we shouldn’t reserve our best self-care only for our employers,
4. Get some natural light in your life. Just taking a walk outside is fantastic if you can, but something as simple as opening the curtains or blinds or sitting on your front step can make a huge difference if you are homebound. I do think that one good thing that will come out of this pandemic is a general understanding that we need the things that are most basic to our nature as a species, and the sun is one of them.
5. Keep your space clean. It’s a strange paradox, but the more free time we have the less we get done for some reason. Pick up the trash, do the laundry, do the dishes, vacuum, and then see if you don’t feel a little bit better. This is one of my go-to ways to deal with depression and anxiety and I always feel a little better after.
6. Stay as social as possible. Video chatting or calling someone feels a lot more connected than texting them – make a point to do this, especially if you live alone, or if they live alone. Get out of your own head and reach out. It’s easy to turn in on ourselves in times of stress or crisis, but this only magnifies the problem. Think about it: we are obsessed with thoughts and feelings about what is going on, and our natural tendency is to focus on these very same things. Talking to other people is an easy way to remember that there is a larger world out there, and doing something kind for them will always bring us to a better place mentally and emotionally.
None of these are meant to come from a place of judgment or criticism and it’s not some rise & grind bullshit. These things are basic to our existence as humans and they will make you feel better – that’s the nature of self-care and that’s what matters right now.
Take care of yourself, this is temporary and the world needs you at your best.
I think the self-care tips on this list are available to most everybody, but please feel free to change and adapt them according to your specific limitations/environment/situation. This was written specifically for the time under quarantine, but I think it is useful anytime we may be in the house for an extended period of time, or on a day off when we are feeling down.
Mindfulness and Ethics
Mindfulness can be defined as a nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment. This sounds simple, and it is, but it’s also super not-simple. There’s a lot that goes into returning to our most natural state being, especially in a very unnatural world.
Mindfulness is cool and lifechanging and all that, but it’s also a word we so often right now that it has started to lose its meaning and potency as that force for change in our lives. This sucks, but it makes sense. Any time something is re-processed and re-purposed to make it more palatable (and profitable) many of the most beneficial parts of it will be stripped away.
Mindfulness as a fad (I’ve seen it called McMindfulness, which is apt) has led to the deeper meaning being stripped away, and has seen what is a practice of wisdom and compassion be co-opted by corporations as a way to keep employees happy in jobs that no healthy human would be happy in. This is the unfortunate side effect of anything we want without doing the work, and it is the problem with removing a practice from its ethical roots for the sake of making it more broadly palatable.
So what is unpalatable about mindfulness? There are a few things.
- Mindfulness is not always easy and requires discipline.
- Mindfulness angles us into a dialogue with wisdom and compassion, and the necessity of both
- Mindfulness begins to wear away at many of the things we hold most dear, many of which society leverages for the good of society.
- Mindfulness forces us to re-examine one of our most sacred and sentimental assumptions – the idea that there is a “me”.
What Mindfulness Is Not
Mindfulness is not a simple tool for making everything more tolerable.
Mindfulness is not a quick fix for everything in your life.
Mindfulness is not a way of becoming numb to the world around you.
Mindfulness is not an excuse to avoid evolving because “everything is perfect as it is.”
Mindfulness is not a relaxation technique.
Mindfulness is not an amoral or neutral practice.
If any of these statements are surprising, you should not blame yourself. Mindfulness, when presented as an exclusively secular/mental health practice does often claim these things. Part of this is to make it presentable to everyone – atheist, Christian, agnostic, and everyone else, part of it is from a desire to avoid morality-oriented positions, and part of it is either from a desire to avoid the word meditation and all the associations that come with it or an ignorance of mindfulness’ place within the world of meditation.
It is essential to understand that mindfulness and meditation are not only not interchangeable words, mindfulness is a type, and only one of many, of meditation, and it is not even the type that is generally best to start with.
The most important thing to understand is that mindfulness will not make you perfect, it will not make all of life’s experiences equal or neutral, and you will still be human – maybe even more human. You will still experience anxiety and pain and anger and jealousy and heartache and heartbreak and sickness and death.
If you only remember one thing, please remember this:
Mindfulness is not about changing or improving our experience, but learning to observe and accept and embrace it exactly as it is.
Mindfulness and Meditation
At its core, mindfulness is about learning to observe your experience as a human without attachment or judgment. We mostly see this directed outwardly in the context of mindfulness-as-self-help, but it applies to our internal experience as well, and this is where things can get complicated. As we come face-to-face with the swirling and shifting ground of our thoughts, emotions, judgments, opinions, fears, worries, expectations, assumptions, stories, identities, physical sensations, aches, pains, and everything else that arises in us we find that it isn’t easy to be a human, and this isn’t relaxing.
This requires a steady mind, so many meditation traditions start off by teaching us how to focus on the breath until we learn how to maintain it for at least a little while. This is important because the mind isn’t used to staying on one thing, so mindfulness of our experience is very frustrating as we get pulled away over and over again. Focus takes practice.
It is also vital that we understand how to turn toward refuge when the internal stream becomes too overwhelming or chaotic for us. We spend a lot of our lives escaping what’s going on inside of us, and this seems to be more and more prevalent as the rates of anxiety, depression and general stress are on the rise. It can be overwhelming when we immerse ourselves in everything we have been avoiding. Being able to rest on the breath or a mantra is a way of turning away from the sharp edges of our experience for a few moments until we are ready to begin wearing them down and desensitizing ourselves to them again.
The Shortcomings of Secular Mindfulness
This started out as an exploration of mindfulness as a practice inextricable from the Buddhism from which it emerged. As I wrote, I realized that it was less about this, and more about the problem of mindfulness being promoted as nothing more than a tool to help us feel better or to make a boring corporate meeting less miserable. Mindfulness and ethics is what we’re really talking about here.
While it is unarguable that mindfulness has its roots as a Buddhist practice and there some aspects of mindfulness best understood in a Buddhist context, the more significant issue can be addressed through acknowledging the spiritual or moral character of mindfulness. I put spiritual in italics because it is a squirmy word – I am not sure it is the correct one, but I cannot think of something more appropriate.
Keep this idea in mind: mindfulness cannot be divorced from wisdom, compassion, and the idea of no-self. Wisdom and compassion are not unique to this practice and are present in any valid ethical system. The idea of no-self is somewhat uniquely Buddhist. There are notions of no-self in the mystical traditions of every religion, though often not as explicitly as it is in Buddhism. This is important because the observation of the impermanence of self cannot be avoided in mindfulness practice.
A quick note on citations: this is all I read, write, and talk about so I cannot remember where different bits of information came from. Because of this, I am including my ongoing and often-updated reading list at the end. I assume everything I talk about here is on that list somewhere, though podcasts are another avenue I utilize but have not listed on a per episode basis.
Starving to Death Instead of Drowning
I don’t really like writing things like this. I don’t like to seem like I am sniping at people who do work similar to me, or claiming to be the expert that has everything right. I also dislike the easy credibility/legitimacy that can be found by criticizing others, and I am not seeking that.
That being said, I cannot help but have some concern and even worry over the presentation of mindfulness I see in our society, specifically, the fad/cure-all nature of its presentation.
I’m a fan of mindfulness as a lifestyle. I’m a fan of mindfulness as a way of being. I’m a fan of mindfulness in (what I see as) it’s proper context of an ethically-directed practice or, at the very least, as part of a more profound discipline.
I am not a fan of mindfulness as the silver bullet, easy fix it is being offered as, especially in the field of mental health or personal development. I have seen it bring harm to people, and I have seen it make things harder for others. This makes sense – you cannot divorce something from its foundations and still expect it to work as well as it did when it was built on something completely different.
Let’s say someone is going to the lake for the weekend. They don’t know how to swim, so they decide to learn beforehand. Instead of finding an instructor who will teach them everything, they take the quickest route and learn to float because it’s the easiest way – the body already knows how, so why not. They don’t want to bother with actually learning to actually swim, they just want to not drown.
So, they go to the lake, and the boat sinks. They manage to escape the debris and begin to float. And they float, and they float, and they float, hoping to make it to shore eventually, though when and where they land is out of their control. Eventually, they starve to death floating around in the water rather than drowning.
I see this happening a lot with mindfulness. People read a book or two and begin to teach others, or people read a book or two that’s the extent of their self-education. Some even get a certification and start teaching, but certifications are unregulated and do not guarantee any foundational teaching or depth of study. As I mentioned at the beginning, some fail to even explain that mindfulness is a type of meditation, rather than being synonymous with meditation. This is problematic.
Look, I get it. I had to learn about this all through books and certifications as well. I was lucky to come to it through the lens of Buddhist teaching and philosophy but I still approached from a secular/mental health perspective. I saw it as a cure-all for a while, and I sought ways to strip it of its Buddhist constraints to make it more palatable to everyone. I wasn’t ever able to see it as amoral, but, years back, I did not address the morality and ethics as necessary or essential. This was a mistake.
Mindfulness without its ethical underpinnings is just a slower death through suffering – it is not enough to simply be aware of the present moment. We cannot use mindfulness to numb ourselves to very real social problems, but we run the risk of doing exactly that if we remove the ethical foundations of the practice in the name of making it more palatable for everyone.
I’ve avoided this word for quite a while.
I live in West Texas. From what I understand, we are more Christian than Pakistan is Muslim, and we are dominated by a strict sect of Christianity. This is not a welcoming ground to talk about Buddhism.
And I get it. People have their beliefs, and that’s cool. People want to believe that their belief system encompasses all the wisdom the universe has to offer, and that makes sense.
It makes sense, but it doesn’t make it True.
There is a functionality and correspondence to everyday experience in Buddhism that I have not found in other religions. Buddhism offers an understanding of the human condition that is verifiable and action-oriented. I am not even sure you have to believe anything at all to find the truths of Buddhism useful – it is a grounded practice, one anyone can do. You don’t need to be a Buddhist in any sense.
But, all that said, I do not think it is wise or beneficial to completely divorce mindfulness from its Buddhist roots.
Mindfulness is rooted in Buddhism whether we like it or not. This may or not be a problem for you. Where I live, it has been a problem for some people, so let’s break a few things down.
It’s important to consider the idea that many of the core tenets of Buddhism can be explored and even accepted without compromising whatever your current religious or lack-of-religious belief is. Most every faith embraces psychology to some extent these days, and Buddhism is, in many ways, a psychology, and maybe the best one I’ve come across.
Let’s set one thing aside at the very beginning: we are not going to talk about reincarnation. I don’t have an opinion on it because I haven’t died yet (that I know of – rimshot), and, it’s actually the subject of some debate even among religious Buddhists. It is unnecessary to our conversation here either way.
I’m also not going to go into many of the mystical or magical aspects of the story of the Buddha, who was a real person named Siddhartha Gautama and lived about 2500 years ago. The backstory is also not really necessary, neither is the supernatural stuff, that is also a subject of some debate, even among religious Buddhists.
You may see a pattern here: religious Buddhists, like people of every faith, have a wide and varied perspective on what is and is not necessary and true within their faith.
Here are the things that I see as necessary, and that I know a million people would have million different ideas about:
The Four Noble Truths
Gautama tried a lot of different ways to understand our lot in life. After years of arduous practices, he had a moment of realization, and arrived at 4 Truths about the nature of the mind, the self, and being human. It’s important to note that these are things to reflect on rather than ideas to accept as absolutes. This isn’t a set of rules so much as a set of explanations that you have to apply to your own life and practice.
The First Noble Truth
This one seems simple, but it’s also not-so-simple. The most common way I’ve heard this phrased is that “life is suffering.” From what I’ve read, this is accurate, but it also needs clarification. The word Gautama used was dukkha, a Pali word with a lot of different meanings. These include satisfactoriness, pain, imperfect, impermanent, empty, unsubstantial. You get a general idea. More than anything these all engage some notion of change or being ungraspable. We don’t like things like that.
This is not meant to be optimistic or pessimistic, it’s meant to be a statement about reality. This world dukkha applies to all aspect of human life, including times of happiness, because they too are impermanent and will shift on us.
The Second Noble Truth
So the first Noble Truth tells us that life is inherently and inescapably unsatisfactory, and the Second Noble Truth tells us why: attachment. This isn’t the healthy kind of secure attachment we talk about in counseling, but the pathological desire we have for things that we think we will make us happy. Some of these are easy to see: wealth, sex, prestige, fame, etc. There are some less tangible things we use to comfort ourselves as well – beliefs, opinions, concepts, theories, identity, and a host of other mental constructions that we try to solidify into something we can hold on to.
We are in a constant struggle to fulfill cravings, but there’s a problem with this: they cannot be satisfied in any real way or for any length of time.
You are excited to see a movie, you see it, and it’s no longer new.
You are hungry, you eat, you are no longer hungry, but you will be again.
You are tired, you sleep, you feel rested, but you will get tired again.
You meet someone you love, you have a life together, they will die and so will you.
Everything we think is stable is actually dependent on something else. You cannot be hot without the idea of cold, you cannot be bored without the concept of interested, you cannot fear death without seeing life as the right way of being. These are not solid, they only exist in relationship to each other.
In short: Everything, everything, everything changes in this life, there is nothing to hold on to, nothing that will not shift. I hear people say God is unchanging and eternal, and maybe he is, but our understanding and relationship to him through this understanding changes throughout our life, so there is no permanence in that perspective or relationship. There is nothing to grasp on to in the way that we want to grasp on to things.
Learning to observe this impermanence also brings us into close contact with one of the deepest roots of our suffering: a misapprehension of what we are. At the heart of a mindfulness practice is the observation of the impermanence of everything. This is seen in the world as people, places, fads, countries and entire cultures come and go. We can see this in ourselves as well: thoughts, feelings, physical sensations, everything that makes up this idea of “me” is an endless flow of change. This solid self, this “me” we spend so much time defending and providing for is actually very hard to find. At the very core of all of this, even this person I am so invested in is hard to find.
The Third Noble Truth
This one is pretty simple: attachment and desire cause suffering, but there is a way out of it. We do this weird thing where we take our desires and our wants and our beliefs as True and real and us.
Why do I want a cookie? Because I want it.
Why do I desire sex with that person? Because I feel like I do.
Why do I believe what I believe? Because it’s what I believe.
We like to think these things are substantial, but there’s not much more reflection than we see here. So much of our lives are lived chasing one thing and then another and another, always looking for that small bit of satisfaction that immediately turns into the search for something else.
So, what’s the way out?
Learning to reflect on these things, without attachment. Cultivating an understanding of the inherent emptiness of these desires, and letting them come and go without clinging or rejecting.
This doesn’t mean nothing matters, and we don’t have anything to look forward to, only that the things external to us don’t get to drive us, they don’t get to run the show and keep us locked in the rollercoaster cycle of craving-attainment-joy-despair-craving.
The Fourth Noble Truth
So, we have the truth of suffering, the truth of why we suffer, the truth that there is a way out, and then we arrive at the actual path itself. It’s important to note that this path has a clear ethical direction to it – there is nothing amoral about it. Called the Noble Eightfold Path, it consists of a series of nonlinear, non-rule-oriented areas of proper behavior:
- Right Understanding
- Right Thought
- Right Speech
- Right Action
- Right Livelihood
- Right Effort
- Right Mindfulness
- Right Concentration
The use of the word “right” here is essential – it has a deeper meaning and context than our ordinary understanding of it as an absolute or the simple opposite of wrong. Terms like appropriate, complete or well-directed may be a better fit, as these 8 ideas have a lot of space in them for interpretation and application. Let’s look at that.
The Noble Eightfold Path
In no particular order:
Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood seem to pertain to things we do. How we speak of others, whether or not we gossip, how we behave, the things we do and things we avoid, and how we make our living – whether or not we do this in a way that helps others or harms them.
Right Thought and Right Understanding seem to point toward wisdom as being important. The thoughts we cultivate and nourish matter, and it is important that we see the world and the mind and cravings and desires as they are if we are to walk this path. Thoughts of selflessness and compassion are more skillful than selfish or self-absorbed thoughts, and we should focus on compassion and gratitude more than their opposites.
Lastly, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration point toward inherently positive things, but seem to imply that there are correct ways of doing even things that are good. We need to direct our effort toward skillful mind states, so mindfulness and concentration are not necessarily useful in and of themselves. Concentration on things like greed, hatred, lust, and a host of other things will not benefit us or anyone around us, and mindfully cultivating and planning things that bring harm is not skillful.
Why Mindfulness and Ethics Matters
Mindfulness emerged from a tradition with a deep sense of ethics. Compassion was central, as was wisdom and ethical behavior. This is important because mindfulness divorced from these things becomes a liability – to ourselves and to society at large.
The important thing here is the clearly implied and inherent direction to all of this – it is not amoral or neutral, it is not just a tool to cultivate peace and equanimity to everything. There are things that are helpful and things that are not helpful, there are things that are skillful, and there are things that are not skillful.
Being mindful of the destruction one’s drinking problem is wreaking on their children and having equanimity toward the damage and long-term scarring this behavior brings is not okay. One needs to learn to steady the mind enough to bring mindfulness to the things that might drive the compulsive drinking, put in the effort to seek out help, and try to find a more skillful way to live. Things are not all neutral, some things bring suffering and destruction to those who depend on us. There is something in the nature of this world, in the nature of the mind that keeps us from growing and evolving amid this kind of behavior.
Wisdom and Compassion
Mindfulness needs wisdom and compassion and wisdom and compassion need each other.
Wisdom without compassion leads to arid intellectualism. Many acts can be done mindfully, but are not necessarily good acts to be performing. It would take a high degree of mindfulness to plan and execute a robbery, blackmail or even a murder, but we should not cultivate a desire to perform these acts well. Psychopathic behavior may be mindful, but it is not skillful.
On the other hand, compassion without wisdom leads to foolish people with good intentions (I recently heard this called “idiot compassion”). Working as a counselor, these were often the most destructive people I would encounter, though usually indirectly as I worked with someone to repair the damage the compassionate fool had done. We see this in society at large in policies that bring harm to people in the name of feeling good for a moment, and in religion, as well-meaning leaders step into places they do not have the skill or training to be.
We need both wisdom and compassion in our mindfulness to avoid making a mess one way or another, this is implicit and essential in the Buddhist path, and that offers us a guardrail against these two ditches.
This one is more difficult and pushes back at something we all believe, though we do so without much examination. I do not think there is a religious problem here, and this can even be verified for those who are more scientifically minded.
If someone is using a mindfulness practice to find peace or be happier, then this part of the equation – this no-self – becomes a problem. It can, in fact, be terrifying or mentally harmful if you are not ready for this. It is difficult even when you are looking for it!
This idea of the self very much matters because so much of what we do emerges from it.
I need this, even if it means others cannot have it.
I deserve this more than him/her/them.
My family is especially important. \
My city/state/country has a divine right to prosper, even if its at the expense of others.
It’s not that explicit, of course, but the self, this ego we cart around with us, very much creates an us/them mentality in everything we do. When everything goes through the filter of “me”, we will always assess everything based on what it does for us, at the expense of everyone else.
Swim and Float
None of this is to say that there’s no benefit to an amoral mindfulness. I’ve seen it help people when used as a simple tool to help with the smaller trials of everyday life. It’s helped people deal with stress at their work, their screaming kids, and not to throw a fit in traffic. These are good and decent things.
That being said, I do think there is value in exploring and understanding, if not embracing, the spiritual and ethical roots of the practice, especially if one is going to dive into it in any real way.
It seems indisputable that mindfulness has its roots in Buddhist thought, which traces itself back to Hindu/Vedic roots. There are mindfulness orienting practices in every tradition though, from the mysticism of Christianity to Sufi Islam.
The unifying principle in all of these is the idea of there being an underlying ethical perspective that emphasizes wisdom and compassion – if we are honest these other traditions speak of love as the most significant aspect of these practices. These are not only beneficial characteristics, but they may also be necessary for a complete practice.
Informal practices weave into our lives seamlessly. We like taking a mindful walk, doing the dishes without all the stories, and watching our breath during that boring meeting at work that you have every Monday even though nothing has ever been accomplished in any meeting, ever, much less one that happens every single Monday without fail. We like these fun, peaceful moments into our lives and being all Zen for a few seconds before returning to the hustle and bustle and struggle of being a human.
This is all well and cool, but there is a lot more to this practice of mindfulness. Learning to steady our mind through concentration meditation allows us to experience a more continuous mindfulness throughout our day, and investing in a formal practice of mindfulness itself helps us process through so many of the difficult things in our lives.
Neither of these is easy, but I’m not sure that many things are easy in life that are worth having. I am also not sure that we can be mindful – that we can dig down into the deeper aspects of being a person on this planet – without a formal sitting practice. There are too many distractions for us these days.
Think of how many worlds we live in: the world of our mind, work world, other people’s perceptions world, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Bumble, Tinder, eHarmony, Match, (etc., etc.) world, the worlds of our television shows, and all the things I am missing. Our minds shift from one world to the next to the next, and a few moments of quiet observation on the bus ride to work or school is not going to help us parse this in any significant way.
A formal practice gives us a set amount of time – 20-30 minutes – where we aren’t doing anything else except focusing and watching the mind. It’s the difference between taking the stairs instead of the elevator versus having a dedicated eating and workout plan that we stick to daily. The results speak for themselves.
There is another, more subtle benefit to a formal sitting practice: it is a rare thing in this world to do one thing, and doing one thing is good for us. We tend to sit, looking at our phones – texting, Snapchatting, scrolling Reddit, playing a game (maybe all at the same time) while also watching Netflix, and even having a conversation if someone happens to be nearby (and they are probably doing all of these things as well). Sitting, doing one thing, for a small part of our day, can actually be life-changing in and of itself.
So, What is Mindfulness?
We haven’t really answered this question in any real way, and I am not sure I can. We can go with all the standard definitions like “a nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment” (still my favorite), but this definition leaves a lot to be desired.
Mindfulness is a nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment, but this applies to everything. A nonjudgmental awareness of the traffic jam, the neighbor and their thumping stereo or stomping footsteps, the barking dog, the rain on our day off. But it also a nonjudgmental awareness of our own beliefs and opinions, of the shifting seascape inside of us – thoughts and emotions and aches and pains, and all with the understanding that these things are impermanent and insubstantial.
Mindfulness is about allowing ourselves to move with the unceasing flow of time around us, not getting stuck on any one thing. As we’ve discussed already, this might be pleasant during a difficult meeting or boring bus ride, but it still applies equally when looking at the things we like and cherish and love – our opinion on something does not imbue it with permanence.
Mindfulness is an informal practice, a formal practice, a way of being, all at once, and each feeds into the other. It is difficult to be truly skillful in any of these without investing in all three.
Mindfulness is an ancient practice, with its roots tracing back into the traditions of India, but being clearly delineated in the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama 2500 years ago, and having been refined, elaborated on, and, unfortunately, twisted and dumbed-down since then. Mindfulness is inherently an ethically-oriented practice, emphasizing wisdom and compassion, most clearly laid out in the Noble Eightfold Path.
All that being said, mindfulness is a practice that is compatible with any of the great moral and ethical systems that occupy our hearts and minds in modern times. Whether we call it centering prayer or choiceless awareness, mindfulness can adapt itself to our lives, provided we are willing to act skillfully and with love.
How Do We Practice?
As mentioned, there are formal and informal practices, I encourage people to begin with a formal practice, make it a habit, and stick with it. Here’s how to build mindfulness and concentration:
- Set a timer for however long you want to practice – 5 or 10 minutes might be a good place to start.
- Take up a dignified posture. This can be in a chair or on a cushion on the floor. Sit in a way that you can do so comfortably for 20 minutes or so. Let your spine be straight but relaxed.
- Let your hands rest comfortably, let your eyes close naturally.
- Take a moment to notice everything coming in through your senses:
- What do you hear?
- What do you smell?
- What can you taste?
- What do you see (we are at least seeing the backs of our eyelids)?
- What does the temperature feel like on your skin?
- Notice the places where your body makes contact with the chair or floor.
- Let yourself explore these things, see what they feel like.
- Turn your attention to your breath, let yourself watch it come and go. When you get distracted, return to the breath – there is no one there who needs the distraction analyzed or explained.
- After a few moments of this, begin counting the breath – one on the inbreath, two on the outbreath, and so on. If you get distracted, go back to one. If you make it to ten, go back to one. If you find yourself striving to get to ten, count one/two, one/two. This isn’t a competition or a performance – it’s about focusing the mind.
- When your timer goes off don’t jump up. Take a moment to observe the mind and body, accepting it all exactly as it is. Then, move your fingers and your toes to ease your nervous system back into wakefulness, and, when it is comfortable, open your eyes.
Mindfulness, Mindfulness, Mindfulness
Over the last few years, I’ve written a bunch of words (around 400k), made a bunch of podcast episodes, led a bunch of groups, had a few speaking engagements, and made a small number of videos, and almost all of this was about mindfulness in one way or another.
Most of what I read, watch, and listen to is about mindfulness. Right now, I’m listening to The Science of Mindfulness by Dr. Daniel Siegel and Practicing Mindfulness: An Introduction to Meditation by Professor Mark W. Muesse on Audible. I’m re-reading Mindfulness and Psychotherapy, Sitting Together: Essential Skills for Mindfulness-Based Psychotherapy. I spoke about mindfulness in schools in June, and I still have a mindfulness meditation group that meets every Monday evening.
Even now, as I switch the focus of what I blog and podcast and make videos about from mindfulness to living intentionally and as a full human being, I start with mindfulness.
The question seems obvious: why do I care about mindfulness so much that I’m willing to dedicate so much time to it?
Mindfulness for a Mindless Person
The answer seems obvious (to me at least): I’ve lived mindlessly, and it brings nothing but pain.
Mindless is actually a pretty good way to describe me for the majority of my life.
When I was 11, I cleaned out the fireplace and put the ashes in a plastic bucket. It burst into flames and ruined my mom’s antique rug.
When I was 16, I ripped the water pump out of my car, driving too fast over a low water crossing.
When I was 22, I drove 2 ½ hours in the wrong direction because I didn’t pay attention to where I was going on what had already been a long trip.
Things like that.
But also not like that, because these are all pretty minor in the long run.
A lot of my mindlessness had more dire consequences, for myself and others.
It’s important for me to say that I am resolved to everything I write about here. I’ve made apologies and amends where I could, I’ve sorted out compassion and forgiveness for myself and the mindless being that I was. I’m aware of how unreliable our memories are, how much they rewrite and re-interpret past experiences so I cannot say everything is the Truth, but I can say it is the truth as I remember it.
So, I’m resolved to younger James, I’ve forgiven him and tried to understand where he was coming from, but I’ll be damned if he doesn’t still annoy me. His mindlessness made a lot of things very difficult, for myself and others.
I treated people poorly because I didn’t know how to deal with myself. I talked too much and only about myself, I bailed on people for the smallest things, and when I sensed that people just didn’t understand how cool I was, I made things up. This created an odd cycle where the more I tried, the fewer people liked me, so I tried harder and harder. It was messy.
Not knowing how to deal with emotions and thoughts and (once again), myself, ended up in drug addiction and a pretty decent drinking issue. This led to other problems, as you can imagine.
I was rarely mindful of my time, so I wasted a lot of it. I was rarely intentional, so a lot of my choices were made by default or by path-of-least-resistance. This inevitably led to outcomes that were not planned well in the long-term.
More than anything, I lived a lot like a toddler – I reacted to things and responded from a place of emotional distress a majority of the time. Pain was channeled into anger, so I spent a lot of time lashing out without even meaning to. I was on fire a lot of the time, and I burned everyone around me.
An odd series of coincidences led me to learn about mindfulness as a way of being. Once I realized that there was a better way of living life, I was obsessed with learning and evolving. I got super fascinated with things like samurais and cryptozoology, but one day the book I was looking for was missing and Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time was in its place. I got absorbed into quantum mechanics and physics but did not have the foundations to understand it. I happened across a book called The Dancing Wu-Li Masters, which opened me up to the world of Eastern thought, and I found myself drawn to the stripped-down, non-magical clarity of Zen Buddhism, and began trying to meditate.
This is where things got complicated for me. I had been running from my emotions, and the noise in my head for so long that sitting with all of it was unbearable. I had distracted myself from being on fire for so long that is was difficult to come to terms with what a mess I was.
I couldn’t sit for more than 30 or 40 seconds when I first started. I tried to make it more comfortable, I tried classical music (because that’s what it seemed like fancy, enlightened people would like), I even ordered this binaural beats CD off of the internet because it promised me a better experience. It didn’t work.
I finally made my way to the local Buddhist center – not so much because I was looking to become a Buddhist, but because I knew they meditated and that I would be too embarrassed to walk out in front of everyone. I leveraged that ego that had driven me crazy for so long against my lack of discipline, and it worked.
It wasn’t easy or amazing, but little by little I began to know how to sit with myself, how to watch the thoughts and emotions come and go, how not to invest in every little thing that floated through my awareness. It was slow, but it was also life-changing.
It’s odd as I write this because I don’t enjoy thinking about earlier times in my life. I still remember what it was like to be so overwhelmingly angry and sad all the time. I haven’t lost sight of what it’s like to be driven by these things inside of me that always push for more and more to escape from the fire. I know that suffering is real, and this is what drives me to help others – this and the fact that I know there is a way out of suffering if we are willing to lay down our egos and move forward with existence.
That’s what this next year is all about: the person I was, the mistakes I made, the consequences that ensued, and how mindfulness and meditation helped me deal with and step away from all of it.
What is Mindfulness?
The shortest answer is surprisingly accurate: mindfulness is a nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment. This, not-so-surprisingly, gets more and more complicated as we break it down and dig deeper though.
Think about your awareness at this moment, how many things are involved in it. We all have the things immediately in front of us, the things we can see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. These things are all neutral in and of themselves – if there were no humans around to have an opinion on them, they wouldn’t be a problem.
But there are two more things we experience concerning all of this. We have thoughts and emotions about these things, as well.
The dog smells bad, I need to bathe her.
This room is a wreck, why are toddlers such a mess?
It’s freezing outside, I wish I lived in Florida.
Ugh, that thumping sound! Who needs speakers that loud in their car?
I know broccoli is healthy for me, but it tastes like body odor.
You’ll notice all of these things are neutral:
A dog smells a certain way, things are in one place instead of another in a room, the weather is consistent with the season, sound waves hit an eardrum, broccoli tastes like broccoli. There is no objective measure of them being okay or not okay, they just are.
A mindful perspective allows us to understand the neutrality of all this while exploring our reasons for not liking it.
I never even wanted this dog, and she’s so much work.
Why am I such a bad parent? Everyone on Instagram has such a clean house.
My body hurts more in the cold. I want to go ride my bike.
I think it’s rude to impose your noise on other people.
My mom forced me to eat broccoli when I was a kid.
We can, with practice, dig even deeper into all of this. Is there resentment or fear present? Do we feel ignored or taken advantage of? Did we fail to draw boundaries, or are we not using our time wisely?
Mindfulness can help us dig all of this up, while also providing the resources and equanimity we need to deal with it when it hits the surface. It’s a way of living beyond our basic petty thoughts and emotions and delving into the truth of life.
A hammer is a useful tool when used for its proper purpose. If you are hammering a nail in or pulling one out, cool, the hammer can do its job. If you use a hammer to turn off your television or discipline your child, then you have a problem on your hands.
The mind is the same way. It is beneficial for planning things, making decisions, logical analysis – stuff like that. It’s not omniscient, though. It doesn’t have access to the future, any real access to the past, or to other people’s minds. We know this, we all recognize the limits of the mind, but we continuously invest in these things that the mind cannot do, whether we mean to or not.
Mindfulness is a way of stepping away from these things, from letting the mind do its job, and leaving the rest where it belongs: out of our hands. This allows us to focus on what matters and what’s possible.
Why Mindfulness Matters
We have to know why we are doing anything if we are going to do it well. Everything we do can go wrong if we do it mindlessly. Driving, eating, exercising, sleeping, working – all of these things need intention behind them or they can backfire on us and bring us suffering.
When we are mindful of what we are doing, we make wise decisions – decisions born of thought and intention instead of fear or anger.
We can all try to be mindful right now:
Take a deep breath.
Rest your attention on the breath, watch it come and watch it go.
When you get distracted (and you will), just redirect your attention to the breath.
There doesn’t need to be any discussion or judgment. By noticing distraction, you are no longer distracted.
Do this over and over again – every noticed distraction is a moment of mindfulness.
This is a basic practice. You can do it anytime, anywhere, but there is a strong reason to make this a formal practice, which we’ll touch on in posts to come.
I talk about this kind of stuff more regularly on Instagram – connect with me over there too!
The Value of Concentration
Concentration isn’t something we hear a lot about these days. It’s not really cool in a world geared toward multitasking (which isn’t real) and distraction (which is actually really stressful).
Mindfulness is all the rage these days. I don’t have too much of an issue with that.
Really, barring intense trauma or deep depression, mindfulness is useful and helpful for just about everybody, even if it only helps them be present with other people or be more intentional with their time and energy.
Here’s the thing though: an authentic mindfulness practice is not possible without some degree of concentration, which most of us don’t naturally have. This is probably worse these days with all of the things seeking to distract us.
Consider this line of distraction:
I’m writing a blog or doing something constructive on my computer.
I wonder what time it is, and decide to check my phone.
It scans my face, automatically opens.
I see my banking app, remember that I have a chiropractic appointment this morning and decide to check my balance even though there is more than enough money in there.
I check it, then wonder what kinds of deposits I have coming from the app I use for billing at my office. I open that app.
Speaking of my office, I remember that I need to order a diffuser and more tea for the meditation group. I click over to my Amazon app and start searching for both. I decide to order the tea, but hold off on the diffuser until I research a little more.
I open my Chrome app and read up on diffusers, which leads to reading up on which oils to use. Before I know it, I’m looking at memes on Reddit.
We are all somewhat familiar with this kind of chain that leads us away from what we are doing. Even if you are one of those rare superhumans who doesn’t have a smartphone, you will be familiar with this in terms of your thoughts leading you astray.
What time is it? Oh, I better get ready.
I think I’ll take the loop to get there.
I wonder if that is actually faster – Indiana Ave. is a straight shot, but it goes through town. It is three lanes, though.
But I hate stopping at red lights. They seem to be really mistimed lately.
Do they get off-kilter because fire trucks and ambulances change their pattern when they are rushing somewhere?
How often do they readjust them?
I wonder whose job that is?
Do they have to adjust lights individually, or is it done by a computer located somewhere?
If it’s a computer, then it seems like they could constantly adjust themselves and not get so off-kilter.
Do they have to climb up there and change them?
That would probably be a good job – Randy (my dad) always told me working for the city was a good way to make a living without a college degree.
Like Wooderson on Dazed and Confused – “Keeping a little change in my pocket.”
(A feeling of mild anxiety arises in response to remembering a movie I used to watch almost daily when I was using drugs)
Remember the $100 fine I had from Blockbuster in Georgetown because I rented that and kept it? I got lucky when they closed.
That was dishonest, I wouldn’t do that now.
I couldn’t do that now because all the video stores are bankrupt.
And, with that, I am reminiscing about how things were in the ’90s.
We spend a lot of our time lost in things -thoughts, memories, judgments, fantasies about how things “should” be, mindless internet scrolling, mindless Instagram scrolling, and everything else that arises. This is why concentration – the ability to keep our mind on one thing, matters.
Concentration and the Stress of “Multitasking”
Let’s get one thing out of the way: multitasking is a myth, none of us are good at it, and it causes us stress and unhappiness. We get overwhelmed any time we try to do two things at once, and there is a deep peace in doing what we are doing and giving it our full attention.
This isn’t easy for us because we so often do two or three things at once on purpose – scrolling through our phone while watching Netflix or trying to keep typing when our spouse is talking to us. It’s a habit and way of life now, but life is better, life is easier, life is more fun when we just do what we are doing.
When you are driving, just drive. There’s no need to plan what you are going to do when you get there, to wonder about where you are going to park, to prepare for a conversation you may have later in the day.
When you watch Netflix or Hulu or YouTube videos, just watch them. Notice how the mind wants to scroll through Reddit or Instagram at the same time, but also notice how the mind will slow down and enjoy the show once it eases into doing so. If you want to screw around on the internet, cool, do that, but only do that. See how it feels to give yourself over to whatever you are doing consciously.
When talking to your partner or friend or whoever, just do that. If something is getting in the way of you doing this, set it aside, gladly and with intention – people are always more important than tasks. See what happens when you give full attention to the other person, see how the experience of being with them changes – see how their response to you also changes when they don’t feel like a burden or a nuisance.
All of this is easy, right?
Except that it’s not.
A World of Distraction
So how do we do this in a world so intent on distracting us?
We practice, just like we do with anything we want to learn.
The cool thing about this is that it’s available to us anytime, anywhere.
Here’s the problem we are working with: the part of our brain that controls our spontaneous flights of attention is not under our direct control, but we send it “messages” through what we focus on.
It’s like those creepy Facebook and Instagram ads we get – how we spend our time while browsing around tells those apps that “watch” us what matters to us. If you are browsing around looking up football scores, football jerseys, and checking what time the Cowboys play on Sunday, Facebook or IG is probably going to hit you with football-related ads.
We are, unknowingly and unwittingly, constantly training the part of our brain that controls attention to be scattered, to jump from one thing to the next, and to pursue little spritzes of dopamine all the time.
We can see this everywhere.
When I write, I try to confine it to five lines or less before starting a new paragraph, and I try to keep my posts short (I’d like to be publishing 5,000-10,000 word blogs) so people won’t give up on them.
This isn’t me saying it’s everyone else either – at one point I had 224 unread books on my Kindle, was reading 62 of them, and that’s not counting the books I had scattered around my house, office, and in my backpack. I had dozens and dozens of unfinished movies, documentaries, and television series spread out between Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime, and I was continually listening to 4 -6 different audiobooks and about a dozen different podcasts. We all have an issue with focusing on one thing these days.
Training in Concentration
So, what’s the answer? (people who work with me in person are laughing right now, they say this is my answer to everything).
At its heart, meditation is all about two things: training our mind to stay focused (steady attention) and being aware of our experience without judgment (mindfulness).
Here’s how to start training in concentration so that we can work on being more mindful:
Let yourself feel your breath wherever it’s most noticeable. To make it easier, take a short, sharp inhale through your nose, and see where you feel it the most. Let your attention rest there.
On the in-breath, count one.
On the out-breath, count two.
On the in-breath, count three.
On the out-breath, count four.
And so on.
If you get distracted, just go back to one. Don’t examine the distraction, don’t judge it, don’t assess – there’s no one there to hear these discussions. Just go back to one.
If you make to ten, just go back to one. There’s no striving or accomplishment here, just return.
Do this for 5 or 10 minutes, then take your time standing up and going back to your day. (Here’s a quick guide)
Over time, you’ll notice your attention becoming more and more steady as your brain starts to see that you value focus, that you want to cultivate concentration, and that you want to anchor your awareness in the present and what you are doing in it.
Invest in monotasking.
Be where you are.
Cultivate an awareness of the present because it’s the only thing that exists.
We’ll start our deep dive into mindfulness in the next post. See you then.
At some point in my life, I got tired of being recognized as a loser, so instead of sabotaging situations that intimidated me (like getting thrown off the track team for smoking), I began to hide behind perfection.
Here’s how you do it:
State a goal. Let’s use starting this blog as an example.
Next, you do a whole, whole bunch of work on that goal. So, I wrote a bunch of blog posts, edited them, and polished them up,
Lastly, you scrap all your work because “it just isn’t good enough.”
You’re done! Super easy.
And here’s the magic: you get to create things and feel accomplished and look like you have these high standards, all while never subjecting yourself to any sort of potential criticism!
Unless you actually want to accomplish all those goals and achieve those stupid dreams you have floating around inside your head (my first podcast was all about this). If you actually want to make something of your life and do the things you feel called to do, then you have to address the lies and illusions that come with perfectionism.
Perfection Isn’t Real
This is the primary problem with perfection: it doesn’t exist. We touched on this in the last blog, but we’ll dig into it a little deeper here.
Let’s stick with the example of the blog.
What would a perfect blog post look like?
Would it draw in a bunch of readers?
Inspire people to change their lives?
Tell people how to do something with complete accuracy?
Catapult me to a book deal?
Now, let’s say these aren’t outlandish hopes. What would happen when I accomplished them?
What good is drawing in a bunch of readers if they will be looking for another perfect blog post next week?
In what way would I want to inspire people to change their lives?
Is there a one-size-fits-all life change that will help everyone?
What would I want to tell people how to do with perfect accuracy?
What good is a book deal if I cannot escape the need for a simple blog post to be perfect?
What does a perfect book look like?
This is where the idea of perfect falls apart –it leads to an endless chain of new things that need answering, and those lead to more things that need answering. It’s an infinite regress that prevents us from doing anything.
This matters because we can use it to avoid ever doing anything. I wrote dozens and dozens of blogs posts before publishing them. The fear of criticism, masked by an aspiration for perfection, could have kept me writing letters to myself for years and years. It can do that with anything we hope to do if we don’t address it.
Perfection isn’t Universal
If we ask 10 people what a perfect blog post for them would be, we’ll get 10 different answers.
Oh, I would love a post about how to make lasagna in my Instant Pot.
Please write about how to meditate when you have roommates.
Could you do a post that breaks down how to change a tire? I got stranded on the loop for two hours the other day.
How do I budget for groceries as a waiter? My income varies from day to day.
Please write something that really explains mindfulness! I am interested but can’t quite understand the concept.
And we’re already back in the weeds – there are hundreds of potential answers to these questions, and we are still only addressing my stupid little blog. I don’t even want to think about what would happen if we expand this into all the things that concern real life.
There are so many topics and interests to explore, the idea of a perfect post is idiotic. And, this doesn’t even address the fact that no post on any of these particular topics would satisfy most people, much less everybody, thus achieving perfection.
Oh, I don’t like fennel, I wish you hadn’t put that in the recipe, and I have a 6oz Instant Pot, not 8.
But my roommate watches the news in the morning – you didn’t address how to not get caught up in the things I hear on there.
My jack isn’t in my trunk. Where is it?
Ummmmm, you didn’t write this post for vegans. I’m a vegan. How do I shop?
I still don’t understand what mindfulness is.
This goes on and on.
Perfection is not a real thing, so it cannot be universal. None of us will ever do anything that makes everyone happy.
Perfection isn’t Interesting
We don’t like perfect people. There’s no place for connection or understanding or resonance with them. This is why we have flawed characters in everything we read and watch, and we tend to shy away from the people who pretend to be perfect. Superman needs his kryptonite to remain exciting, and Dumbledore made a bunch mistakes – we wouldn’t have much interest in them without this.
Our imperfections are where other people can see themselves in us, and this drives connection. I cannot think of any character, real or invented, who embodied perfection. The moments where people connect with Jesus are the ones where he is most human – defending a woman accused of adultery, crying and mourning over Lazarus, experiencing crippling doubt in the Garden of Gethsemane. This is true of all the significant figures in history and literature and film.
Perfection indicates the lack of need for growth and evolution, and this is really, really boring. When striving for perfection, we are striving to be above it all, to hover like a faceless god, observing life with a detached equanimity.
There is nothing interesting about that, but it sure is safe.
Perfection is Stagnation
And that sums up why we seek perfection: to be free of all the sad little things that could bring criticism or blame into our lives – to be safe. I wanted perfection in my blog posts so that no one would have anything mean to say.
Think about it: perfection would mean no criticism because there was no room for improvement. By refusing to publish anything that wasn’t perfect, I was shielding myself from criticism, and therefore never improving at all. I could sit there, happy and stupid, never growing, never changing, never doing anything.
Perfection is an old, boring idea, that doesn’t exist and shields us from all the best (but messy) things in life like growth and connection. It strangles new ideas in their crib and prevents real relationship with other people. It’s a perfectly bad idea.
So perfection isn’t helpful.
What do we do about it? How do we get away from it?
It’s actually easy to escape the trap of perfection, and it’s also hard and scary, but it’s also not scary at all, and we can start right now.
The key is doing things we are not perfect at, risking failure, failing, being criticized, learning that none of that is so bad, evolving, and then taking on the next challenge that scares us.
It’s the only way to grow, so the choice is between risking and growing or being safe and staying where we are. This is fine if we are perfectly happy with our life and cannot envision anything we might want to create or achieve. I assume that if you are reading a blog like this in the first place, you aren’t content to stay where you are.
So start today. Pick something that you’ve wanted to do that entails moderate risk, and do it.
Fail to achieve perfection. Fail to do things exactly right, and keep doing that. Eventually, you’ll be doing all those things you want to do, and you’ll be surprised when you look back and realize how many successes have emerged from the failures.
Do this well, don’t seek failure, it will show up all on its own. Diligence is the key: doing our best, learning at every step, failing and getting right back up, always taking steps forward.
Diligence, not perfection.
Who do I most admire in the world?
Have they been perfect in their lives?
Where would they be if they only did things that were guaranteed to be perfect?
Do I use perfection to mask a fear of failure?
Do I believe perfection exists?
What am I not doing that I want to be doing?
How can I start today?
We’ll look at training in concentration in the next post. See you then.