Mindfulness 101

The notion of “living in the present moment” is all the rage. Everywhere you turn, you’ll find articles, books, workshops, retreats, conferences, and talk show segments about how to be mindful of “the now.”

But how can you achieve this state of mind?
I’ve read countless books, attended numerous workshops, and tuned into hundreds of talk shows and podcasts on the topic—and here’s the crux of it. 

Being mindful isn’t about having a full mind; it’s about having an empty one.

Personally, I think the practice should be called “emptymindedness,” but let’s not argue with what is.

To achieve mindfulness, you must try to empty your racing mind, which will positively affect your mood, health, well-being and, probably, the frequency with which you yell at your children. That means choosing to not dwell on all that happened yesterday or what might happen tomorrow.

The end goal of mindfulness is inner peace: a sense of serenity and solitude inside your heart and mind, regardless of what’s going on around you. Calm in the chaos. That’s the goal.

Here’s what will prevent you from achieving that goal: regretting your choice of college degree, feeling sorry for what you did or didn’t say to your mother-in-law last night, kicking yourself for not helping your daughter study for her spelling test, worrying about next week’s spelling test, or fretting over when you’re going to get your next promotion/salary increase/fancy new title at work. Oh, and looking forward to the day when there are no spelling tests.

What do all those scenarios have in common? None are happening right now.

The key to living in the present moment is…wait for it…to live in the present moment.

 Author and mindfulness guru, Eckhart Tolle, explains how to do this in The Power of Now.

 Here, Tolle suggests you think about a problem you’re dealing with right now. If you’re like me, you can probably think of a half-dozen in six seconds. 

But what’s fascinating about each problem is that I’ll bet not one of them is happening right now, at this exact moment. They’re likely all based in the past or in the future.

Let’s look at a few examples.

 If right now, one of your problems is that you’re stressed about a presentation you have to give later today, that problem is based in the future. If one of your problems is that you feel guilty about snapping at your partner this morning for not taking out the trash, that problem is in the past.

 You cannot name a problem you have at this moment because you don’t have any. Every problem you can possibly list is either:

  1. What you shoulda/coulda/woulda done better yesterday. 
  2. What you need/must/wish you could do tomorrow. 

Try it. Try to name one problem that you have at this very moment, one that’s not based in the past or the future.

 Hard, right? 

Chaos and turmoil exist in your mind because you’re thinking about — and often living in — the past or the future. 

If you live your life in the present moment, you can live your life with a calmer mind and, therefore, more inner peace.

This will help: 

  1. Adopt a mantra. When you find yourself racing into the future (What am I going to make for dinner tonight?) or reliving the past (I cannot believe I called that woman the wrong name today. I’m such an idiot.), start silently repeating the mantra “right here, right now” in your mind. You’re not in your kitchen yet, and you’re not standing in front of your former colleague, frantically searching for a name tag. You are right here, right now. Take a few deep breaths and repeat the mantra. Inhale: “Right Here.” Exhale: “Right now.” Do it until you arrive promptly back in the present moment. Here’s an example of when this mantra worked like a charm for me in a challenging situation.
  2. Embrace a metaphor. To maintain calm among chaos, think of yourself as the deepest part of the ocean. The wind and weather might cause turmoil on the surface, but 99% of the ocean is beneath the part that’s getting roughed up. Storms (the chaos in your life) will come and go, but the depths beneath the surface stay smooth. It’s always calm, always quiet, always stable. Let the winds blow — you cannot stop them — but dive down and remember to dwell below the surface.
  3. Get some guidance. Meditation can help you train your mind to stay in the present moment. If the thought of sitting on a cushion in the corner while staring out the window scares the crap out of you, get a coach. Download the app Headspace or try a 21-day meditation challenge with Deepak Chopra. Like a lot of life skills, there’s a learning curve for meditation, but you don’t have to go it alone.
  4. Pick up a book. The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle is the bible of mindfulness. It changed my life every which way to Sunday. It’s provocative and powerful. And deep. If you’re looking for a lighter read, check out 10% Happier by Dan Harris, an ABC news anchor whose spiritual journey was inspired by a nationally televised panic attack. And if you want to read an amazing transformation story by a party girl who became a meditation guru, buy Spirit Junkie by Gabrielle Bernstein pronto. There are a lot of gems packed into that skinny book.

Clearly, mindfulness is a practice you can learn, with habits you can adopt. There are behaviors you can change, with simple things you can start doing right now to give yourself peace of mind. 

Katherine Wintsch