You know them when you see them: people who radiate joy, don’t sweat the small stuff, naturally attract people to them and who seem to be in a pretty constant state of peace.
What do these people have in common? Well, they’ve all worked hard to tame the beast within and turn their minds into their greatest allies. For the rest of us, life might look a little bit like this: worrying, regretting past actions, stressing out about potential future events, spinning out of control, retreating to worlds of fantasy and distraction … sound familiar?
You don’t want to feel like this. You might be thinking about starting meditation and mindfulness practices, to become more Zen, but don’t know how where to start. As you work up to your Namaste, then, it can be helpful to try a few practical things aimed at familiarizing yourself with the lifelong companion that is your mind, which you definitely want on your team!
1: Recognize that you are not your mind.
Here’s a telltale sign: you can actually observe your thoughts and feelings as they come up, which means you are not inextricably bound with them. This awareness is truly a revolution, and the first step toward empowering yourself to begin the work of calming the mind down and getting it on your side.
“To find out what is truly individual in ourselves, profound reflection is needed; and suddenly we realize how uncommonly difficult the discovery of individuality is.” – C.G. Jung
2: Become a witness of your mind.
Your mind is capable of extraordinary things once you learn to take the reins. One of the main purposes of meditation is to connect to the present moment by accessing your inner witness. Rest quietly and become aware of your body and immediate surroundings. Observe thoughts as they arise and slip away; they will do this over and over. As you distance yourself from your thoughts and feelings, you’ll start to wonder you we attach so deeply to ephemera that come and go like clouds in the sky.
“To enjoy good health, to bring true happiness to one’s family, to bring peace to all, one must first discipline and control one’s own mind. If a man can control his mind he can find the way to Enlightenment, and all wisdom and virtue will naturally come to him.” – attributed to Buddha
3: Be careful what you put into your mind.
In some ways, the mind is very simple: it builds on what you feed it. If you funnel negativity into it, it will soon be hard not to feel negative, because the mind – which is not your enemy, just doing its job – adjusts and happily works with what it’s given. This is known in neuroscience as “plasticity” : our brains work with new stimuli no matter how old we are. Letting the good stuff in will actually, if slowly, make it easier for you to feel positive over time.
“I will not let anyone walk through my mind with their dirty feet.” – Mahatma Gandhi
4: Explore your mind like it’s a foreign country
The best kind of travel is all about being curious, having no expectations, and being ready to be dazzled, even enlightened by what we find. Take the time to be in stillness with your mind and contemplate the thoughts and feelings you find there; they have a lot to teach you about your coping patterns and how you have come to view the world over time. In short: discover yourself!
“We are shaped by our thoughts; we become what we think. When the mind is pure, joy follows like a shadow that never leaves.” – Dalai Lama
5: Distinguish between knowledge and wisdom
Knowledge involves learning facts and developing the intellect. You might come to realize that accumulating knowledge does not make you feel any happier. Wisdom, on the other hand, involves learning from our life’s experiences about what is meaningful so we can live our best possible lives with heart. Learning things is great, but acquiring wisdom is invaluable.
‘Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers.’ – Lord Alfred Tennyson
6: Embrace compassion, the gateway to happiness
As we focus more on wisdom than gathering information, we come to understand whey we are really here: to benefit others and know deep within that we don’t want anyone to suffer, as we ourselves don’t want to suffer. Cultivating empathy compassion through meditation and contemplation is one of the best things we can do by encouraging the mind to serve our purpose of being agents of good in a world that badly needs it.
“More smiling, less worrying. More compassion, less judgment. More blessed, less stressed. More love, less hate.” – Roy T. Bennett
7: Seek truths that thought cannot produce
The rational mind computes, analyzes, discriminates and assesses very well, but left to its own devices, it does not naturally guide you toward greater consciousness. But that doesn’t mean we can’t get there! The mind just need some coaxing. Attempt to remember your dreams. Comb your mind for things people have said to you in the past that struck you as wise. Don’t dismiss insights; write them down. Embrace synchronicities that seem to fall on your lap. Recognize wisdom and deeper truth for what it is and let it support your conscious life.
“To understand the immeasurable, the mind must be extraordinarily quiet, still.” – Jiddu Krishmanurti
8: Listen to your heart and your gut and let them win
Contrary to conventional belief, it’s been shown that reason and emotions are not two passing trains in the night. Our emotions actually guide our rational and cognitive functioning to a large extent, and our “gut” area has come be known as our second brain. Don’t rationalize your gut instincts away: take the time to listen to the messages you receive from your body and inner wisdom.
“When the heart speaks, the mind finds it indecent to object.” – Milan Kundera, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being
9: Tend to your mind like a garden
Before we start on the garden, it looks like a mess of jumbled weeds and dried clumps of earth. Who wants to go there? But with effort, you end up with a gorgeous kingdom of your creation, full of beauty, nutrients and wonder. So it is with the mind – with a little pruning, love and care, persistently attended to every day, it can grow into a gorgeous and fruitful splendor.
“The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.” – Plutarch
10: Develop equanimity
Equanimity means regarding the things you experience without judgment. Stop liking things so much that you can’t live without them, and stop focusing energy on despising things, which only strengthens their iron grip on you. Practice observing your reactions to things, and notice how naming and being aware of these reactions helps make them less intense over time.
“It is simply sitting silently, witnessing the thoughts, passing before you. Just witnessing, not interfering not even judging, because the moment you judge you have lost the pure witness. The moment you say “this is good, this is bad,” you have already jumped onto the thought process.” – Osho
11: Allow wonder in
Little kids are so full of awe at everything they encounter – we can be that way again too! The world is really a playground, and we are infinitely lucky to be in it. Life isn’t always going to be easy, but you can access that innocent, childlike wonder anytime by opening eye and heart to the magic all around us. Trust me, you’ll thank yourself for it!
“There are no seven wonders of the world in the eyes of a child. There are seven million.” – Walt Streightiff
12: Slow down and be silent
We’ve all experienced the overwhelm that comes with trying to be productive all the time. It’s time to stop burning yourself out. Carve time in the day to spend time with loved ones, enjoy the rewards of your labor and reflect on your life. There’s a reason we’re afraid of silence; here we are forced to confront ourselves, and it’s not always pretty. But in coming face to face with our demons, you can overcome them and ease through to peace and harmony.
“Silence is the language of Om. We need silence to be able to reach our Self. Both internal and external silence is very important to feel the presence of that supreme Love.” – Amit Ray
13: Know that you don’t have to be defined by your stories.
Humans have an amazing capacity for storytelling and to create identities based on the stories we tell. It’s key to keep in mind that in choosing which stories you tell and whih memories you latch onto, you are reinforcing certain aspects of your identity, for better or worse. Stories are fluid and can always be rewritten.
“A student, filled with emotion and crying, implored, “Why is there so much suffering?”
Suzuki Roshi replied, “No reason.” – Shunryu Suzuki
14: Replace “what ifs” for “thank you’s”
One of the “best” ways we waste time is to pine over mistakes and wonder, what if we’d done things differently? Well, we didn’t! The life we are living now is a product of the decisions we’ve made, and the best antidote to regret is gratitude. Express thanks for all the million ways in which your life is awesome and worth celebrating, and more of that is bound to come
“Let gratitude be the pillow upon which you kneel to say your nightly prayer. And let faith be the bridge you build to overcome evil and welcome good.” – Maya Angelou
15: Take a walk in nature, be wild and write a poem about it
You don’t have to literally write a poem, but tapping into your creativity is also tapping into your nature. Nature and creation go hand in hand. Humans are among nature’s most awe-inspiring creations, and so much of the discord we feel comes from how far we’ve strayed from our roots. We are designed to think and feel more clearly when aligned with nature’s rhythms. Doing things like breathing clean forest air, sitting under trees and using our natural-born creativity – whether you think you are “good” or not – will do wonders to restore the mind and get it working in your best interest.
“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity.” – John Muir
This is always your power. Hold onto it with your whole heart, with everything you’ve got. The world depends on it. The world needs you! xo
Over a decade ago, a colleague who’d been purging his closet tossed me a VHS tape and said, “Have you ever tried yoga? You might like it.”
It was 20 minutes of power yoga led by Rodney Yee, who was completely unknown to me at the time. “Twenty minutes? Sounds manageable,” I thought to myself. It wasn’t. I desperately tried to keep up. I fell over with a thud a few times and worried I was harassing the downstairs neighbors with my klutziness. I had no idea yoga would make my heart feel it was falling out of my chest and throw me this much off-kilter. I plopped onto the couch and vowed that yoga and I were done—until the next day, when a combination of stubbornness and determination got the better of me.
I had about a month-long affair with VHS-Rodney Yee before one day off the mat led to another and then another… you know the drill.
While I had no concept of the greater world yoga offered, of what yoga was all about beyond “gets into poses without falling over,” something brought me to yoga and sustained my interest, if even for a while. That was something.
I think it’s immensely important to pay close attention to what leaps out of the void to say hello and tug at the heart.
I’m still not sure I can pinpoint exactly what that something is, to this day. It wasn’t love at first sight for me and yoga. I didn’t go the way of Lululemon or start seeking out classes around town. I had no idea what a mala was or that yoga positions were commonly referred to in Sanskrit. I had never even contemplated breath’s connection to movement.
So it goes without saying, I felt far from a warrior.
Warriors are one of the personas we aim to embody in yoga. Others include kings, mermaids, divine vessels and open-chested channels for love. You can see picture-perfect representations of these all over social media in various shades of ocean and sunset. Of course, I know that people cannot possibly walk around in a perpetual state of bliss, but we shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. It’s equally evident to me, through reading awakened works like the Bhagavad Gita, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and BKS Iyengar’s writings, that it’s possible to feel much more connected to the universe than I do most of the time.
“You do not need to seek freedom in a different land, for it exists with your own body, heart, mind, and soul.” ~ BKS Iyengar
I long to understand this state of existence, not intellectually, but in my own heart and from direct experience. This is my motivation for embracing a committed yoga practice.
I couldn’t have conceived of this goal when I clumsily tried to follow along to that Rodney Yee VHS tape years ago. At some point after becoming acquainted with yoga, even if our initial target was to get fit or flexible, we come to an “ah-ha” moment, even if for a few seconds, and catch on to a wider world we could not have anticipated. That offers thrilling possibilities.
When this happens, yoga starts to feel less about doing and more about a way of being.
The word “yogi” starts to sound less ethereal and remote and more like something to which we can aspire. To me, this was in some ways a return to the beginning, to that initial attraction to yoga, but with a deeper and more informed awareness of how far it’s possible to go. It has also had the effect of highlighting how distant we can feel from our goal, how imperfect we are in our practice.
We might, as I became, be plagued by doubt; incidentally known in Buddhism as one of the “five hindrances” to a meditation practice, which I think perfectly applies well here. In order to sabotage our practice before it can bloom, we might doubt the authenticity of our teachers, of the practice of yoga itself and our own ability to embody the yogic principles. I’ve also found in my own experience where doubt thrives, guilt is not far behind. I’m sure many can relate to the guilt and feelings of failure I’ve experienced when I’ve allowed my asana or meditation practice to lapse.
Despite the strong feelings of doubt that we really deserve to be considered yogis, I’ve come to realize from years of experience that the seeds which were already within us when we first encountered yoga do not disappear, but grow each time we have the authentic intention to develop our practice. These seeds are not easily destroyed by doubt and guilt; it’s been a complete joy to realize that they are much stronger than that.
I believe that we all have the seeds for awakening within us. The ways in which we discover and nourish them will differ because we are all different. It is up to each of us to find within ourselves the kindness and compassion that most help these seeds to grow, so that we can come to our practice with invigoration and happiness, no matter how long it takes us to get there.
There will be winters when the growth seems to stop altogether, when every last part of our being seems to wilt and atrophy. However, if we are patient and persistent, we will come to spring and summer, and we’ll see that winter is part of the nature of things.
Becoming a yogi, I think, is about surrendering the ego that creates doubt and guilt and immersing into the deep well of wisdom the ancient tradition of yoga offers us. The more open we are to discovery, the more we’ll understand that we are not and have never been alone in our perfectly flawed humanity. Love and support are always within reach and grow every time we consciously breathe into them.
*This article was published on The Tattooed Buddha.
Before mindfulness became a household word, and far before I had any idea why I was writing, or that writing could be used as part of a therapeutic or spiritual practice, I was journaling.
It was an instant love affair. My first diary had yellowy lined paper crusted with gold at the edges and a plush leathery cover with an illustration of a bear holding bright balloons. It came with a gold (well, probably brass) lock and key that I coveted as the gateway to a world of secrets and confessions I treasured like gems in a treasure chest. That the gems probably consisted of irritation with my little sister and my favourite boys and girls names is beside the point. If I needed to vent and dream in private, it was my freedom and my choice!
“It’s an odd idea for someone like me to keep a diary; not only because I have never done so before, but because it seems to me that neither I—nor for that matter anyone else—will be interested in the unbosomings of a thirteen-year-old schoolgirl. Still, what does that matter? I want to write, but more than that, I want to bring out all kinds of things that lie buried deep in my heart.” – Anne Frank
Over the years, I made journals out of composition books and notebooks I’d compile in burgundy and grey three-ringed binders I pilfered from my dad’s home office. These pages were my sacred space—a home—where I would visit whenever my thoughts and emotions were on the brink of spilling over. It was also a sphere of sorts, a bubble enveloping me where I existed in my own special universe of person and page, where I could continually return the way we do with great, juicy books.
As I wrote, I could feel the world outside passing by without me, until I was ready to catch up and rejoin it.
“Journaling is like whispering to one’s self and listening at the same time.” – Mina Murray, Dracula
Journaling, a very particular mode of writing, for me grew into a way of rendering life—the often-hard living of it—palatable, manageable, and even exciting. It’s never been so much about needing to record daily events for fear they’ll “go on slipping like sand through our fingers,” as Salman Rushdie has put it. I actually rarely write down details of time, place and event, unless they’re attached to a specific emotion I need to explore.
Rather, I’ve always felt nothing is real until it’s been written down; I synthesize new happenings into my understanding of life and discover nuances about myself and my reality. Processing events and feelings is much easier for me once they’ve been filtered through the journaling process—this is how I find my way through riddles of emotion. Written down, they became something I can regard with a measure of distance. I can start to accept and befriend them. Journaling allows me to simultaneously take a step back from overwhelming feelings, while paradoxically, becoming more intimate with them.
“There are a thousand thoughts lying within a man that he does not know till he takes up the pen to write.” – William Makepeace Thackeray
It’s like having a conversation with a best friend; analyzing problems from every single angle with someone we love and trust who can offer new points of view and render the problem more tangible. What we don’t process or put out there stands a good chance of disappearing from the realm of our consciousness. Intimate chats and journaling, among other tools, help frame our existence and give it meaning: they help us become aware of thoughts, fears and desires that might remain obscured if we don’t honour them with attention.
I write daily, but I admit it came as a revelation that I’ve been inadvertently engaging with a practice that was not only a precursor, but would prove integral to mindfulness training.
Chronicling fluctuations in mood, naming and dissecting my emotions and fears, writing interior-based poetry, jotting down scenes or bits of conversation that sparked awe in me. These second-nature practices were, I realized, slowly helping me merge closer to my own life and find my place in a world I felt more connected to.
“Nature may have done something, but I am sure it must be essentially assisted by the practice of keeping a journal.” ― Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey
The term mindfulness has slowly entered the zeitgeist, more so after January 23, 2014, when TIME magazine ran a cover story called, “The Mindful Revolution.” The proliferation of words/concepts like mindfulness, meditation, and spirituality are reflective of a, largely Western, society crushed under the stresses of modern living, in desperate need of change. We know—and if we don’t know, we learn the hard way, that easing stress and finding peace and happiness cannot be achieved by latching onto a fad, taking a weekend course, or decorating ourselves with the material trappings of wellness.
I believe, though, that being surrounded by these catchwords can only help take us in the general direction of non-violence and harmony, if only by calling attention to our awareness that something is wrong.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, creator of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society, defines mindfulness this way:
“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way;
in the present moment,
I love how this definition encompasses so much of what feels right about being in the world as our best selves. We generally understand mindfulness to be about being present, but how do we do it, and if we’re being honest, why. Meditation helps train our minds to focus on the breath or an object of attention to enhance our concentration skills and direct the mind to the now. But to what end? What is mindfulness really about?
For me, on purpose is the vital quality of having intention along with our awareness. We are not blindly adhering to the present, but willfully encouraging ourselves away from places (past and future) that we understand do not logically exist, because we genuinely want to progress and be happier. In the present moment amounts to the revolution of living fully and richly now, the only time frame we have at our disposal. Nonjudgmentally, as I see it, teaches us that we can’t criticize or hate our way to personal growth; we can gently and gracefully move toward peace by accepting things as they are, and acknowledging with attention and compassion how everything that comes, also goes. In short, it’s all okay.
“As the number of studies increased, it became clear that writing was a far more powerful tool for healing than anyone had ever imagined.” – James W. Pennebaker
It’s been such a joyful discovery to find journaling’s place within the larger arena of mindfulness and to understand how much of a therapeutic tool it’s been, which makes me feel passionate about wanting to inspire others to journal. If we apply Kabat-Zinn’s mindfulness definition to journaling as way of paying attention, we find journaling is invariably something we do on purpose: we are often so distracted in day-to-day life, letting our mind wander here and there, but we willingly and actively come to our journal. We want or need to explore something that is weighing on, unsettling or exciting us, that needs our loving attention. We want to make sense of it all.
Journaling is always placing us in the present moment.
Even as we wax nostalgic or panic about upcoming events, we are pausing and carving out the time, here and now, to explore these feelings. The act of writing keeps us tethered to the present and allows us to take a step back from what preoccupies us as we become acutely aware of our selves as witness or agent of the memories, worries, desires or concerns we experience. To worry is to be lost in the chaos of an emotion. To know or articulate that I’m worried is one step removed – I am aware, I have the choice of breaking it down and taking action. Or maybe there’s no solution, but still I write until the feeling’s intensity subsides; I hold a space for the emotion so it can weaken its grasp on me, as all things do when confronted with our gentle attention. Journaling and meditation both allow for this very healing ability to show our selves love, to observe and hold space for our emotions.
“Mindfulness does not fight anger or despair. Mindfulness is there in order to recognize … Breathing in, I know that anger has manifested in me; breathing out, I smile towards my anger… This is not an act of suppression or of fighting. It is an act of recognizing. Once we recognize our anger, we embrace it with a lot of awareness, a lot of tenderness.” – Thich Nhat Hanh
Nonjudgmentally might be the trickiest one. It’s hard not to judge ourselves, and if we’re honest, others. When we sit down to meditate, or approach our journal, we are ultimately making a choice to be in a safe zone for the unfolding of whatever arises: crazed thoughts, difficult emotions, confusing combinations of the two. We are acknowledging that we are complex beings with myriad concerns; we are granting ourselves the space to observe the swirl of our interior worlds in motion, to feel what we are feeling with compassion and, I’d say, hope.
“Writing is medicine. It is an appropriate antidote to injury. It is an appropriate companion for any difficult change.” – Julia Cameron
Journaling is a beautiful tool for self-knowledge and awakening; we become actively acquainted with our stories and how we construct them without attachment or judgment. We engage with who we are right now as we reflect on and celebrate our beautiful complexities and the wondrous world we are connected to. With every word, with every line we scrawl with our favourite pen, we are stripping away the layers that confound or threaten to overtake us by being mindful of them, and we are left with a simplified and more integrative way of being.
*This article was published on The Tattooed Buddha.