Mindfulness is great. I’m sure you’ve heard the benefits – increased focused, maintaining an open mind, responding instead of reacting, separating thoughts from facts, building healthy habits… really, it’s great1. This post is not about convincing you that mindfulness is great. If you’re reading this article, you’re probably already on that train.
The thing is, living mindfully takes more than intellectual understanding, it takes embodied experience. We can’t just “get it,” we have to do it – even when it’s not the default, not fun, and not easy. For example –
I can conceptually explain to you how mindfulness works. I can tell you that the next time you receive a passive-aggressive email that blames you for something that definitely wasn’t your fault, your amygdala is reacting to this trigger as a primitive threat and sending messages through the limbic system that put the body into fight/flight/freeze reaction mode more quickly than the message can travel to your prefrontal cortex to be thoughtfully processed. You’re reacting before you can think. And when you practice mindfulness, you learn to create a pause before reacting just long enough for the message to travel to the prefrontal cortex, search for the best possible outcome, then cascade that decision down to be acted upon when you have enough control and stability to stick to the plan.
And if intellectual understanding was enough, you would never react to a triggering email again. Because you “get it” now, right?
Wrong, apparently. It takes practice and effort to undo the old ways and act from a completely new space. In yoga, we call this tapas; the continual burning away of old impressions so that we can act freely – in a way that’s not constrained by the past.
How do you live a mindful life? You start integrating mindfulness into more and more aspects of your life. Everyone does it differently. At the highest level, it looks something like this:
There are basic skills that unlock your ability to be mindful. Let’s call these the keys. You may pick these up from the people around you, find them in moments of hardship when other options are exhausted, stumble upon them in deep reflection, or read about them in a book. A few fundamental keys to mindfulness include attentional control, the ability to pause, self-awareness, self-regulation, and skillful decision making (among many, many more).
These keys then unlock different doors – leading to different domains where you can integrate practice. You could eat mindfully, practice mindful movement, mindfully self-reflect, engage in mindful relationships, or apply mindfulness to any of a thousand lived experiences. Life gives us endless domains to practice in – it’s a giant mindfulness playground.
Behind each door are more keys, and each key continues to open future doors. We develop our skills, apply them to life, life teaches us more skills, we apply those skills to new areas of life. It’s a journey of growth that builds from your first key through the rest of your life.
Mindfulness plays out most strongly in four domains of my life; practicing yoga, mindful self-reflection, bullet journaling, and (most recently) eating. These are the four subject areas of my site, the four places I explore in greater depth and try to describe in words to you.
You may be further down this path than me. You may just be starting. Maybe you want to hold hands for a bit with someone right beside you. I offer reflection and practice suggestions in my monthly newsletter, 1:1 coaching to work through challenges together, public yoga classes and private yoga lessons, and periodic workshops so we can deep dive into a topic with others.
Mindfulness takes practice. I’d like to practice together.