Are you Mindful?
An Illustrated Guide

When I first started to write this post, I ended up checking Facebook.

not mindful

Mindfulness is popular. As a concept, term, and (sometimes) a practice, it’s grown rapidly in popularity the last few years. Google trends shows this steady increase in attention over the last few years:

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There are a lot of ideas and misunderstanding about mindfulness and meditation.

yoga woman

To put it simply:

john kabat zinn

Does that sound simple? It’s deceptive. Paying attention on purpose is hard. It’s the opposite of checking Facebook when you mean to be writing a blog post. It’s the opposite of daydreaming, worrying, having pretend conversations in your head. It’s the opposite of autopilot, like when you find yourself on the wrong train, or saying “you too!” when someone says “safe travels.”

* * *

I had a mindfulness victory recently. Last week I had a bad day. What started as a typical, 1-hour meeting with my boss turned into a 5-hour long extravaganza.  I was not pleased to be in this long meeting. But I didn’t say that. I just tried to barrel through, ignoring my feelings and needs.

not mindful meeting

I left with a headache, grumpy about the day.  Walking home, I immediately thought “This is horrible! My job is horrible! My boss is disorganized!”

Usually, this thinking leads to brainstorming what kind of job I should look for on LinkedIn or Idealist when I get home. But that day, for some reason, for the first time, something different happened. I was aware that the feelings in my body, my headache and frustration, did not mean that the thoughts in my head were true.

being mindful

I could stop judging, pause, and be patient. No response was needed. Instead of trolling LinkedIn, I vented to my boyfriend, stretched out my back, and took care of myself. And the next day was much better (I did not need a new job).

* * *

You might go to the gym and lift weights to train your muscles. Similarly, meditation is training for mindfulness, the “in-life” practice of being aware, present and non-judgemental.

The point of mindfulness is to give ourselves more room to choose our responses, to go from thinking you need to quit your job to realizing that you just had a bad day. Holocaust survivor and psychologist Viktor Frankl said:

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.”

stimulus and response

That space is what mindfulness opens up. It allows us to choose who we want to be in that moment, to pause and take stock, regain perspective, and make a wise choice that assumes the best of yourself and others. My coworker described wisdom as “just what is,” stripping away our assumptions, our ego, and all of the invisible scripts.

David Foster Wallace, in his commencement speech “This is Water” describes that it is easy to be pissed off and miserable, especially in the traffic jams, checkout lines and other annoyances we contend with in our daily lives. Instead of being annoyed, Wallace suggests:

If you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down. Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re gonna try to see it.”


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