By Leo Babauta
The focus of my life in recent months has been living mindfully, and while I donâ€™t always remember to do that, I have learned a few things worth sharing.
The first is a mindful life is worth the effort. Itâ€™s a life where we awaken from the dream state weâ€™re most often submerged in — the state of having your mind anywhere but the present moment, locked in thoughts about what youâ€™re going to do later, about something someone else said, about something youâ€™re stressing about or angry about. The state of mind where weâ€™re lost in our smartphones and social media.
Itâ€™s worth the effort, because being awake means weâ€™re not missing life as we walk through it. Being awake means weâ€™re conscious of whatâ€™s going on inside us, as it happens, and so can make more conscious choices rather than acting on our impulses all the time.
The second thing Iâ€™ve learned is that we forget. We forget, over and over, to be awake. And thatâ€™s OK. Being mindful is a process of forgetting, and then remembering. Repeatedly. Just as breathing is a process of exhaling, and then inhaling, repeatedly.
The third is that mindful living isnâ€™t just one thing. Itâ€™s not just meditation. Nor is it just focusing on the sensations around you, right now in this moment. Iâ€™ve found mindful living to be a set of very related tools, perhaps all different ways of getting at the same thing, but each useful in its own regard.
Iâ€™ll share them in this post, and hope that youâ€™ll consider each in turn.
Why You Should Care
Why bother to spend the time learning these tools? Is it just for some ideal of living a peaceful, stress-free life?
No. A stress-free life doesnâ€™t exist, but these tools will definitely make you more prepared to deal with the stresses that will inevitably come your way.
But just as importantly, theyâ€™ll help you overcome the fear of failure and fear of discomfort thatâ€™s holding you back, thatâ€™s keeping you from making positive changes in your life.
These tools will help you launch your new blog, start a business, write a book, put out your first music album online, find your purpose in life, become the person youâ€™ve always wanted to be.
This is what Iâ€™ve found. Iâ€™m certain youâ€™ll find these tools just as useful.
This list, of course, is not complete. Itâ€™s a collection of things Iâ€™ve been learning about, and am still practicing, things Iâ€™ve found useful enough to share.
- Meditation. Meditation is where mindful living starts. And itâ€™s not complicated: you can sit still for even just 1 minute a day to start with (work up to 3-5 minutes after a week), and turn your attention to your body and then your breath. Notice when your thoughts wander from your breath, and gently return to the breath. Repeat until the minute is up.
- Be Awake. Meditation is practice for being awake, which is not being in the dream state (mind wandering into a train of thought, getting lost in the online world, thinking about past offenses, stressing about the future, etc.) but being awake to the present, to what is. Being awake is something you can do throughout the day, all the time, if you remember. Remembering is the trick.
- Watch Urges. When I quit smoking in 2005, the most useful tool I learned was watching my urges to smoke. I would sit there and watch the urge rise and fall, until it was gone, without acting on it. It taught me that I am not my urges, that I donâ€™t have to act on my urges, and this helped me change all my other habits. Watch your urge to check email or social media, to eat something sweet or fried, to drink alcohol, to watch TV, to be distracted, to procrastinate. These urges will come and go, and you donâ€™t have to act on them.
- Watch Ideals. We all have ideals, all the time. We have an ideal that our day will go perfectly, that people will be kind and respectful to us, that we will be perfect, that weâ€™ll ace an exam or important meeting, that weâ€™ll never fail. Of course, we know from experience that those ideals are not real, that they donâ€™t come true, that they arenâ€™t realistic. But we still have them, and they cause our stress and fears and grief over something/someone weâ€™ve lost. By letting go of ideals, we can let go of our suffering.
- Accept People & Life As They Are. When I stopped trying to change a loved one, and accepted him for who he was, I was able to just be with him and enjoy my time with him. This acceptance has the same effect for anything you do — accept a co-worker, a child, a spouse, but also accept a â€œbadâ€ situation, an unpleasant feeling, an annoying sound. When we stop trying to fight the way things are, when we accept what is, we are much more at peace.
- Let Go of Expectations. This is really the same thing as the previous two items, but Iâ€™ve found it useful nonetheless. Itâ€™s useful to watch your expectations with an upcoming situation, with a new project or business, and see that itâ€™s not real and that itâ€™s causing you stress and disappointment. We cause our own pain, and we can relieve it by letting go of the expectations that are causing it. Toss your expectations into the ocean.
- Become OK with Discomfort. The fear of discomfort is huge — it causes people to be stuck in their old bad habits, to not start the business they want to start, to be stuck in a job they donâ€™t really like, because we tend to stick to the known and comfortable rather than try something unknown and uncomfortable. Itâ€™s why many people donâ€™t eat vegetables or exercise, why they eat junk, why they donâ€™t start something new. But we can be OK with discomfort, with practice. Start with things that are a little uncomfortable, and keep expanding your comfort zone.
- Watch Your Resistance. When you try to do something uncomfortable, or try to give up something you like or are used to, youâ€™ll find resistance. But you can just watch the resistance, and be curious about it. Watch your resistance to things that annoy you — a loud sound that interrupts your concentration, for example. Itâ€™s not the sound thatâ€™s the problem, itâ€™s your resistance to the sound. The same is true of resistance to food we donâ€™t like, to being too cold or hot, to being hungry. The problem isnâ€™t the sensation of the food, cold, heat or hunger — itâ€™s our resistance to them. Watch the resistance, and feel it melt. This resistance, by the way, is why Iâ€™m doing my Year of Living Without.
- Be Curious. Too often we are stuck in our ways, and think we know how things should be, how people are. Instead, be curious. Find out. Experiment. Let go of what you think you know. When you start a new project or venture, if you feel the fear of failure, instead of thinking, â€œOh no, Iâ€™m going to failâ€ or â€œOh no, I donâ€™t know how this will turn outâ€, try thinking, â€œLetâ€™s see. Letâ€™s find out.â€ And then there isnâ€™t the fear of failure, but the joy of being curious and finding out. Learn to be OK with not knowing.
- Be Grateful. We complain about everything. But life is a miracle. Find something to be grateful about in everything you do. Be grateful when youâ€™re doing a new habit, and youâ€™ll stick to it longer. Be grateful when youâ€™re with someone, and youâ€™ll be happier with them. Life is amazing, if you learn to appreciate it.
- Let Go of Control. We often think we control things, but thatâ€™s only an illusion. Our obsession with organization and goals and productivity, for example, are rooted in the illusion that we can control life. But life is uncontrollable, and just when we think we have things under control, something unexpected comes up to disrupt everything. And then weâ€™re frustrated because things didnâ€™t go the way we wanted. Instead, practice letting go of control, and learn to flow.
- Be Compassionate. This sounds trite, but compassion for others can change the way you feel about the world, on a day-to-day basis. And compassion for yourself is life-changing. These two things need remembering, though, so mindful living is about remembering to be compassionate after you forget.
OK, that seems like a lot to digest and remember, right?
Well, thereâ€™s hope. I often forget all of this stuff, but then I remember, and say, â€œAh, I was doing it again!â€ And then I practice again.
And then I forget, but I reflect, and I learn, and I practice again.
This is the process of learning mindfulness. Itâ€™s forgetting, and then remembering, again and again.
And itâ€™s worth remembering, again and again.