How to Stay Mindful

Stop to smell the flowers!
(cc) Enrico (RM), Flickr.com.

Recently I had the pleasure of attending a gathering of spiritual naturalists and similar folks at a local tea house. One in our group recommended we discuss an issue he’d been dealing with: how to stay mindful throughout the day? We all learn and read about various teachings, wisdom, and more but as the day’s events take place, we get swept up in what’s happening and forget these words of wisdom. Before long we’re getting stressed out, not stopping to smell the roses, living in the past or future, and so on.

In our discussion, I decided to present five tips I had come up with, which often help me stay mindful throughout the day…

  1. Meditate regularly: Breathing mindfulness meditation can be beneficial on a session-to-session basis, but it’s best effects can be witnessed when we cultivate a practice of doing it regularly – perhaps once every day for at least 15-20 minutes as a good minimum. I am not always on top of my game doing this, but when I am, it’s noticeable. A regular practice of meditation really starts to shape our minds and the way they work (and this has been backed up by the latest brain studies). We find it easier to maintain focus, have stillness of mind, and be mindful as a norm. So, the operative term in this is ‘regularly’. See our article on meditation for more information.
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  2. Journaling: Keeping a daily journal of your goals and progress integrating wise thoughts into your way of living can be remarkably effective. Again, it’s a habit that requires building. But making the notes at night, as well as reviewing them in the morning helps keep teachings alive throughout the day. We also build a sense of progress in our walk by doing this. For more information on Journaling, please see our article on it.
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  3. Worn or carried objects: I sometimes use mala beads to aid in counting breaths during meditation. But aside from this use I have found that when I’m wearing them on my wrist, the tangible object serves as a reminder of my practice and helps me to stay mindful. When I brought this up, a woman at our gathering produced a smooth stone which she said gave her peace by handling it. The object could be a trinket on a necklace, a string on your finger, or anything really – whatever works for you.
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  4. Reminder notes: Sometimes placing inspirational or motivational notes around your home or office can be helpful reminders for staying centered and not getting distracted. These can be simple bullet points, important concepts, or even small koans or poems. While no purchase of a product is ever a requirement for spiritual progress, Thich Nhat Hanh has released a nice little book that comes in a box with a deck of reminder note cards, called Present Moment Wonderful Moment: Mindfulness Verses for Daily Living which I have found very useful.
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  5. Mindfulness alarms: Although you may not wish to do this as a norm, setting alarms to go off at regular intervals throughout the day can be a very effective project to help kick start good mental habits. I have done this before with alarms spaced every 2 hours, but one person in our group told us about reading of someone doing it every 7 minutes! Of course, you will have to consider what is practical for you during a normal day, but trying to remain present, in the moment, and mindful between these alarms can definitely help our progress.

 

Aside from these little tips for staying mindful, it is also important to note of what we are to be mindful! This is where what the Buddhists refer to as Right Thought and Right View come into play. Often times the things that consume us during the day, like anger, worry, or frustration, comes from unwise, delusional, or misguided perspectives and value systems. Having a larger perspective than our own narrow ego is a big help to appreciation of life. My wife has a very effective practice of referring to the issues she deals with at work and on the highway as “first-world problems”, which reminds her that while she’s dealing with a malfunctioning printer, there are people in the world who don’t have access to clean water.

What can this kind of attention practice and mindfulness achieve? For thousands of years, practitioners have reported greater happiness and tranquility when we are able to stay ‘in the moment’. Recently, happiness researcher Matt Killingsworth gave a TED talk in which he shared data collected on the habits and happiness of 15,000 people in over 80 countries. I’d highly recommend watching this fascinating video on happiness (this article continues below the video)…

 

This video illustrates the kind of exciting things spiritual naturalists can do and benefit from – using rational scientific approaches to understand Nature and inform our spiritual practices. While Killingsworth’s work seems to merely confirm what the Buddha taught centuries ago, we can now see more refined information about it. For example, this project gives reason to think that we are less happy when our mind wanders – even when it wanders onto happy subjects! This remarkable result suggests that even, in general, the best fantasies are no match for the one thing we truly have – the present reality. Another useful piece of information from this project was the kinds of activities that seemed to elicit the most mind-wandering. Here, the practitioner can use this information to construct some practices that help redirect our mindfulness precisely while doing those tasks in the higher percentage ranges (for example, selecting out the reminder cards from Thich Nhat Hanh’s deck that correspond to the most likely mind-wandering activities.

What are some ways you’ve used to improve your mindfulness?

 

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Written by DT Strain. Many thanks to my friend James for suggesting this topic.

 

 


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