I am so excited about the Summer Olympic Games. Despite all the controversy surrounding Rio, I feel we owe it to these dedicated, passionate and very gifted athletes, to at least pay attention to what they’re doing! They’re incredible! And beyond the sheer physical strength and stamina that’s necessary for these athletes to arrive at the Olympic Games, is their psychological capacity to handle the stress of it all. This is why so many elite athletes are turning to mindfulness practice to get on top of their psychological game, and reaping the rewards.
While any of us would be hard pressed to know the intense pressure Olympians must experience as they train and compete, we all definitely experience our own pressures and anxieties that challenge us day in and day out. If mindfulness practice is helping top athletes handle the enormous psychological strain they endure, it’s likely it will help you, too.
For instance, I work with a client at Citron Hennessey Private Therapy who has recently shifted into what she calls having “a bird’s-eye view” of her inner and outer experiences. After months of practicing diffusing from her judgmental and unhelpful thoughts and taking a curious and open stance to her beliefs and emotions, she has gained the capacity to “witness” herself without getting negatively triggered the way she used to. She still has unhelpful, automatic thoughts and difficult feelings, but she no longer identifies with them. This shift in her capacity to be more self-aware and self-reflective has reduced her anxiety, improved her relationships, and increased her productivity.
Without actually meditating, my client has been practicing informal mindfulness and is reaping the rewards. She has found the practice to be so helpful, she recently wondered in a session why more of us don’t use these skills to navigate the high-stress environment in which we live and work.
I’ve written about mindfulness in the past, and I know how hard it is for us New Yorkers to shift gears and set our minds on trying something like mindfulness that goes against our habitual tendency to “go go go!” and strive relentlessly. Practicing mindfulness requires slowing down long enough to be able to step off the hamster wheel of life and reorient ourselves to a different way of functioning – indeed succeeding – at work and at home.
“But I don’t have time to sit and meditate!” is a common rebuttal I hear from clients when I suggest they try incorporating mindfulness into their lives. And I get it! The beauty of developing the skill of mindfulness is that it doesn’t require that you become a Buddhist or even sit in uncomfortable, cross-legged positions for long periods of time.
Informal mindfulness, or “everyday mindfulness” can be an effective way to reduce the internal experience of stress and anxiety, without the added pressure of having to formally sit down to meditate. So what does “informal practice” look like and what does it entail?
Informal mindfulness practice means practicing mindfulness in the midst of your daily life.
Mindfulness is simply paying attention on purpose to the present moment as it is, with curiosity and non-judgment. And seriously, you can learn to do this throughout your busy day for maximum benefits.
1. Notice you’re thinking.
This is harder than it sounds, but an important first step. For instance, you’ve probably had the experience of riding the train and arriving at your stop without any real memory of the ride because you were lost in thought. Or while getting ready in the morning, you’re automatically going through the motions, while your mind is incessantly replaying the pitch you’ve prepared over and over ad nauseam. Or your mind is replaying an argument you had with your spouse last week. Or replaying the awesome sex you had the night before. In any case, our minds think all the time, and unless we become aware of our thoughts, they run the show, unbeknownst to us, and we’re all caught up in the drama.
Just make a point to notice that you’re thinking, and suddenly you’ll find yourself standing in your bathroom brushing your teeth, instead of in the boardroom pitching your idea. Don’t judge yourself. Don’t fret. Just notice: thinking.
2. Notice your body.
Our bodies are always in the present moment; it is our minds that are always racing to the past or future. But now that you’ve done Step 1 and you’ve noticed the nonstop chatter of your mind, I want you to come to your senses. Focus your attention away from those thoughts and towards your sensory input. See what’s right in front of you, whether it’s your own reflection in the bathroom mirror, or a stranger’s face sitting across from you on the train. Pay attention to what you hear. How often do we New Yorkers block out sounds? We barely register when a fire truck blares by, let alone the subtle symphony of the city’s sounds. Open your ears and listen, even if just to the sound of your own breathing. Notice your skin; what do you feel? If you’re in the shower, feel the water on your body. Notice if you’re feeling hot or cold, anxious, angry or calm. What smells are you aware of?
Just take a few seconds and pay attention to what you’re aware of in your body. Do this for 3 slow breaths. If your mind pulls you away immediately back to your thoughts, just notice thinking again and bring your attention back to your body.
3. Get on with your day, and repeat steps 1 and 2 as often as you can remember.
If you’re interested in reaping the benefits of mindfulness and improving your state of mind, your mood, your relationships, or – like Olympians – your performance, and you’re concerned about finding time, I encourage you to practice everyday mindfulness. And just like top athletes, the more often you practice, the more likely you are to succeed.