Every time I talk about mindfulness, I hear a few common responses:
“My brain is way too busy to be mindful.”
“My ADD is so bad; I just can’t focus.”
“The last thing I need is something else on my to-do list. I already feel guilty for everything I don’t get done.”
I understand. I really do. I forget to be mindful all the time. My mind wanders constantly. I get to the end of a shower and my hair is wet but I’ve been so busy planning my day that I have no idea if I’ve washed it or not. I spill blueberries all over the kitchen floor and forget to answer emails and lose my keys and pinch my little girl’s chin into the buckle of her car seat because I’m just not paying attention.
And yet I still maintain that I practice mindfulness on a daily basis.
Mindfulness is about choosing to pay attention to the present moment with kindness and curiosity.
The difference between me and my friends who insist they can’t? It’s certainly not that I’m some sort of blissed-out Dalai Mama. It’s that I understand what mindfulness is, what it’s not, and what it means to practice it.
Here are a few reasons you might be having a hard time getting started, and what you can do about:
1. You don’t understand what mindfulness is. Mindfulness is not about being perfectly present and focused at all times, or even being able to sustain one’s attention for extended periods (although that’s nice when it happens). It’s not about moving through life in a happy haze, either. Mindfulness is about choosing to pay attention to the present moment with kindness and curiosity. It’s about noticing when your mind has wandered (seeing as how you are a member of the human race, your mind is wandering more often than you realize) and making a choice to come back to what is actually happening right in front of you, and then getting interested in it. If you find yourself corralling your attention 50 times a minute, you’re not failing at mindfulness. You’re practicing it.
2. You’re forgetting to be curious. Here’s the rough part about mindfulness: Sometimes the present moment sucks. It’s easy to pay attention to a blazing pink sky or a fresh strawberry or a sleeping child, but many of the details of daily life are far less enjoyable. Traffic is boring, the news is depressing, your colleague at work is annoying, and the damn dishes have once again failed to wash themselves. And so our attempts to pay attention can quickly devolve. But that’s not mindfulness. That’s just our mind thinking and judging, because that’s what our minds were meant to do. But what if we decide to stop wishing our reality was different, and instead notice what’s happening and maybe even get curious about it? I’ll tell you what happens. We don’t miss our exit on the freeway. We learn that our coworker is going through a messy divorce, and we feel a bit more empathy for him. We remember that we were up all night with a fussy kid and we give ourselves a break. Life feels just a little bit easier.
3. You’re making it a bigger thing than it needs to be. Yes, meditation (formal practice) helps strengthen your mindfulness muscles, but you don’t have to spend six weeks at an ashram to learn how to do it. You don’t have to get up at the crack of dawn to twist yourself into a pretzel and chant for an hour (although if you want to, go for it!). You can notice a wandering mind in the shower, or while you’re drinking your coffee or stirring the soup. You can take a deep breath before you hit send on that text message or snap at your spouse. You can focus on your breathing for three minutes while you’re in line at the grocery store. And you can remember that no matter how spacey, forgetful, impulsive or reactive you have been, you can always begin again. Mindfulness isn’t about perfection. It’s about noticing and being kind. That’s all.
You’re swimming against your mind’s tide here, people, and you can’t do it alone. None of us can.
4. You’re only practicing when you’re upset. Many of us come to mindfulness because we want to change something about ourselves. I wanted to yell less at my kids. And while mindfulness can certainly be helpful in difficult moments, our brains have a hard time learning or doing something new when they’re under stress or flooded with emotion. The more you practice paying attention to the present moment when you’re calm and happy, the easier and more effective your mindfulness practice will be when you’re freaking out.
5. You’re trying to do it alone. There’s a saying in the mindfulness world: “Practicing mindfulness is easy. Remembering to practice mindfulness is hard.” Our brains are wired to think, worry, remember, predict, plan, and regret. Any time our neural networks get a chance to light up with a memory of an old boyfriend or a reminder to email a colleague, they’re going to flip that switch even if we’re sitting with a sobbing child who needs our full attention. We need support in this practice, through conversations with like-minded friends, relevant books, lectures, and classes, and maybe even weekend retreats. You’re swimming against your mind’s tide here, people, and you can’t do it alone. None of us can.
The next time you notice yourself thinking that you can’t practice mindfulness because you’re too distracted or busy, remember this: those are just thoughts. That’s all. You can either choose to take them seriously and make them your new reality, or you can notice them, maybe get curious about them, and then let them go in favor of more useful ideas.
Meanwhile, I’ll be over here spilling my blueberries and breathing my way back to the present moment.