Perfect Times for a Deep Breath

One wonderful benefit of cultivating mindfulness is you start to recognize times that are perfect for taking a moment to check in and relax. After you begin to notice these moments, you can take the next step of making it a habit to center yourself whenever you are in those same situations. Habits are very powerful for shaping how we interact with the world. New York Times bestselling author and happiness guru, Gretchen Rubin, has written extensively about this and has some great resources on her website exploring how to improve your habits. As a start, here are my favorite times to stop, roll back my shoulders, take a deep breath, and drop into the present moment:

Making Coffee

I fill up the coffee carafe using the purified water from my refrigerator tap. It comes out very slowly. I used to spend this time being irritated that it came out so slowly. What’s the point of this anyway? When was this filter even changed? Do these low-grade filters even work? No more. Now, I square off my shoulders, put my feet hip distance apart and take a few deep breaths. Soon enough, the carafe is filled and I feel better.

Blow Drying My Hair

There I am, staring myself in the mirror, with a noisy blow dryer in my ear. But you know what’s great about the blow dryer? Nobody can talk to me. Great time to stretch my neck from side to side a few times. And, since I’m staring at the mirror, I try to give myself some positive self-talk. Whenever I see my daughter staring at herself in the mirror, I tell her how beautiful she is. Don’t worry, I’m a good feminist and she gets lots of affirmation about how intelligent and brave and strong she is. But, I want her to look at herself in the mirror and see her the way that I see her, not through the ridiculous filter for female beauty that is so pervasive in our media. I suspect my mom would like the same of me, so I try to be kind to myself as I stare at the mirror each morning. And stretch my neck.

Waiting in Line
Lines are fascinating. I have personally embodied all the different line characters at one point or another. Crazy toe tapper. Check. Quietly muttering threats to her children. Check. Daydreamer. Check. MIT Professor Richard Larson is the world’s foremost expert in line management and he has estimated that Americans spend 37 billion hours in line each year. How will you spend that time? How about a little loving kindness meditation? You don’t have to close your eyes and nobody has to know you are doing it. It will probably make you start smiling, which will encourage others around you to be positive and kind. 

In the Elevator

Perfect for taking a few deep breaths. And the great thing about the elevator is that nobody will think it’s strange for you to close your eyes. They will just assume you are claustrophobic. Elevators are super awkward. There have been entire academic studies devoted to exploring awkward elevator interaction. I say lean into it. Close your eyes, breath deeply, and smile. It will definitely not be the weirdest thing someone has seen on an elevator.

At a Stoplight

I’m mostly a pedestrian. An impatient pedestrian. But the great thing about stoplights is that I am for sure going to encounter them every day and I am definitely going to stop and wait, because I’d rather not be hit by a car. So, it’s a perfect time to roll my shoulders back, look around, smile, and think about something for which I’m grateful. 

During a Tantrum

I have learned two things about my children’s temper tantrums. First, I cannot reason with them when they are in that state of mind. Second, getting angry with them only escalates the problem. So, I try (I try, I try) to stop, breath deeply, and keep calm. I do not always succeed, but when I do, they calm down more quickly. In addition to keeping myself centered, I am modeling a positive way to maintain composure in adversity, which is a skill I want them to learn.

Before I Eat

I blame the New Mexico public schools for my tendency to rush through every meal as though I’m working against a clock. We are teaching our kids today this bad habit, I’m afraid. Many kids have lunch periods that are less than 20 minutes, with adverse effects on their health and well-being. I still have a bad habit of rushing through my meals, which is terrible for digestion, weight gain, etc. Mostly, though, it means that I miss out on the pleasure of eating. I really enjoy food. Food, for me, is not a utilitarian exercise, but rather a robust sensory experience that brings me a lot of pleasure and happiness. Why rush through that? So I’m trying a new trick of taking a couple of deep breaths and slowing down before I dive in. I still finish my dinner before the rest of my family. What can I say…I’m a work in progress.

What unexpected moments do you find to stay mindful?

Running Mindfully

I am a runner. It took me about 2 years to own those words. I started running in my mid-thirties in an attempt to get back in shape after having two kids. As a younger person, I definitely scoffed at running…why do it unless someone is chasing you? Then, I got hooked, I mean really HOOKED. Now, I am training for the 2017 NYC Marathon after being sidelined from last year’s race due to an IT band injury. This blog will, in part, share my running adventures and my very first running post  will address the why of running. 

I call this blog Mindful Striver because I feel that it capsulates the sometimes opposing, often complementary parts of my psyche– a duality to which I think a lot of people can relate. On the one hand, I am a striver. I’ve worn the label ambitious as a badge of honor, knowing full well the the contempt it ascribes when given to a woman. I went to school part-time for an advanced degree and take my job very seriously. At home, I’m always casting about for what needs to be done. Even when I’m left to my own devices entirely, I’ll make a list of things to do and get going. If you have ever put “take a bath,” “take a nap,” or “paint nails” on an actual to-do list, then we are spirit animals. This aspect of who I am serves me very well much of the time, but it can also get in my way. I find it very difficult to slow down and quiet my busy mind. And that, my friends, is where running is so perfect for a Mindful Striver. Running is the very definition of doing something. It scratches all of my itches for goal achievement, measurable success, demonstrative improvement etc. But, it is also a meditation in and of itself. I know, I know, it’s not Oooomfindacomfortableseatandcomeintoyourbreath meditation, but it is definitely a meditation. Consider this:

Running Clears Your Mind

There is nothing like a hard run to drown out everything but your feet hitting the pavement. The first mile or two of a run I’m pretty focused on the discomfort in my body or calculating how long I’ll be out. But, after about 1-2 miles, I calm down and just run. Sometimes I’ll start out a run feeling especially worried or stressed about something and after a few miles it all just seems so much clearer. And, it turns out, there is good science behind this head-clearing feeling. Your brain functioning really does improve markedly from aerobic exercise, with benefits ranging from improved memory to actual brain growth.

Running Focuses Your Breath

So much of meditation is about focusing on your breath and letting everything else slip away. Running gives you this in spades. The breath is a runner’s touchstone. If I can breath comfortably, I know that I’m in the right zone to go the distance. Sometimes, I’ll take out the headphones and just listen to my own breath and my feet hitting the ground. It’s rhythmic, hypnotic even. And the great thing is that endurance training improves your lung capacity and helps your body create a more robust circulatory system. Who doesn’t want more Prana in their system?

Running Binds You to Nature

Meditation helps me to feel connected to the earth and all living things. So does running, in a very tangible way. I live in a very pretty area with stately old trees, beautiful gardens, and wooded areas teeming with wildlife. Running brings me up close and personal. Early morning runs have put me face to face with all manner of creatures, including deer, raccoons (creepy, but alluring), skunks (they look just like they do on TV!), and hedgehogs (those guys are big). I once took a run through a nearby nature preserve and felt like Snow White with all the birds singing and squirrels running around. It is more than just taking in the scenery, my runs remind me that I am part of an delicate and vibrant ecosystem. I finish my runs feeling truly connected to, and more responsible for, my local environment.

Running=Lightness

Runner’s high. Endorphins. Prana. Connectedness. No matter what words I use, it comes back to the same thing. I feel the same way after a run that I do after a meditation session. Because running is meditation. That’s not to say that I don’t get something qualitatively different and important from sitting quietly and breathing. It’s just a reminder that really anything you do with total focus and devotion is a meditation.

Mindfulness is not narrowly defined. It’s a way of thinking. Of being present and unattached. Running is just one way that I get there. How do you get there?

A Practice of Gratitude

This is a post about how to create a practice of gratitude. I have a great deal for which to be grateful. I live in a beautiful place, I’m healthy, my children are thriving, I have enough to eat, and I have a warm, lovely home. But, still, I sometimes find myself wallowing in self-pity and frustration. Over the past year or so, I’ve been consciously trying to strengthen my gratitude muscle and I’ve found that the more I do it, the more naturally it comes. It really is amazing how gratitude can change your whole outlook on life. Here’s a few tips to get started:

Reframe Your Comparative Set
The first and most important recommendation I have for gratitude is to reframe your comparative set. If you are a striver like me, you may have a competitive streak. You may be drawn to compare your life to your colleagues, your college friends, your family members. That’s all good and well and the subject of a different post for the future about the power of being aspirational. But, it is also really important to remember how great you have it. I find that reflecting a bit on what life is like for so many people in the world who lack access to clean water or medical care, live in war-torn places, or struggle to provide for their children, reminds me how basically awesome my life is. I have won the life lottery in so many ways. If people who have struggled and suffered can rise above their circumstances and contribute to the world (e.g.Malala), then I can let go of the fact that my commute took too long. Along those lines, finding a way to spend helping time with people whose challenges surpass your own can be a wonderful way to be of service and put your own woes in perspective.

Write it Down

About a year ago, I started a Gratitude Journal. There are a lot of great apps out for this. I like the “Gratitude Journal – The Life-changing app” because after I make an entry it gives me a gratitude related quote and I LOVE a good quote. It’s very simple and straightforward and I usually end up writing about the same things – my kids, my health, etc. I also end up listing people in the journal. I’ve had a couple of times at work where I’ve told someone that they make it to my gratitude journal and they emit a palpable  warm glow. I try to do my journal entry on my morning commute and I’ve noticed a qualitative difference in my mental outlook on the days that I’ve written in the journal. 

Share Gratitude with Your Kids

Shortly after she started school, we noticed that it was hard to get my then 6-year old daughter to tell us much about what had happened during her day. So, we started a new practice with her that we call What Went Well. Right before bed, we each list three things that went well on that day. Because of What Went Well, she has told me about people and situations at school that I would not have heard about otherwise and it has helped her to focus on all the wonderful things in her life. And, it usually gives me a good chance to tell her about some way in which I am grateful for her. She loves to be listed on our What Went Wells!

Meditate on It

Meditation is awesome and if you are reading this blog, maybe you’ve tried it. If not, no time like the present to be present. I use the Calm app, which I love. They have a 7-days of gratitude series that I highly recommend. The single most helpful tip I’ve used in meditating is to focus on a particular idea or word or feeling. That helps to quiet my busy mind. Gratitude is a particularly powerful idea on which to meditate because it infuses you with such a sense of abundance and well-being. And, you don’t have to be sitting on a cushion in a quiet place to do it. You can stop anywhere, anytime, and spend a few moments of quiet breathing, focusing on all the wonderful things in your life.

Say Thank You

Maybe the most foundational move in the gratitude playbook is to share your gratitude with the people in your life. This practice has the dual impact of uplifting both you and the recipient of your gratitude. At the suggestion of the Calm 7-days of gratitude series, I recently sent my husband an email articulating all the things about him for which I am grateful (or at least a lot of them). He loved it, and I loved sending it. When we really reflect on the people in our lives, we find that there is much in them that we love and cherish. Tell them! It will strengthen your relationships in profound ways.

I believe that a practice of gratitude is the foundation for a happy outlook on life. Thank you for reading this post. For what or whom are you grateful today?