It’s one thing to wake up in the morning and set the intention to be aware throughout the day of your thoughts, emotions, speech, and actions. It’s quite another to be able to do it. Most of us tend to get lost in stories about the past and the future, without being aware of what we’re thinking or feeling. And most of us speak and act at times without being aware of whether we’re about to help or harm ourselves or others.
“Mindfulness” is the skill of being aware of our present moment experience. To help me develop my mindfulness skills, I’ve been using a technique in which I take a few minutes at the end of the day to reflect on how I fared at being aware of the present moment, specifically my thoughts, emotions, words, and actions. (This practice is adapted from a section in the book, The Mind Illuminated, by John Yates.)
The purpose of pausing at day’s end for a mindful review is not to grade ourselves, but to learn. The review is a mindfulness practice in itself. The more we become aware of the ways in which our thoughts, emotions, speech, and actions haven’t served us or others well, the more likely we’ll be able to change our behavior in the future. I base this on a simple principle I learned from the Buddha:
Whatever a person frequently thinks and ponders upon, that becomes the inclination of his mind. (MN19)
The key word is “inclination.” Each time we respond to something with anger, our inclination to respond with anger is strengthened. In other words, we’re more likely to respond with anger in the future. Conversely, each time we respond with kindness and care, our inclination to respond that way in the future is strengthened. At day’s end, assessing how mindful we were helps us see where we need to work on responding more skillfully to our experience.
To begin a mindful review of your day, think about a couple of your responses that stand out as not having been caring or helpful to yourself or others. Then think about a couple of your responses that were skillful, caring, and helpful. You could bring to mind something you said or did (your speech and actions) or your mental response to a situation (your thoughts and emotions). Any of these are fruitful subjects for review.
As you recall each incident, think about how aware you were at the time of what you were thinking, feeling, saying, or doing—and how that mindfulness or lack thereof affected how you felt in the minutes and hours that followed.
I’ll give an example of when I acted unskillfully and an example of when I acted skillfully. With each one, I’ll describe how conducting a mindful review at the end of the day was helpful to me. (If I were out and about more, I’d have examples of my speech and action that involved other people…but these examples will do.)
An example of an unskillful response
A few months ago, one of my doctors asked me to use my medical provider’s online message system to check in with her in a week to report on how I was doing on a new medication.
At the one-week point, I logged into the website so I could “message” her that, although I was experiencing some side-effects, so far, they were manageable. I carefully composed my message, editing it over and over so that I stayed within the allotted character limit. Then I clicked “Send.” The site crashed and I lost everything I’d written.
I logged in again and went through the same steps. This time, though, after composing my message, I copied and pasted it into a Word Document in case the site crashed again. I clicked “Send” and, although the site didn’t crash, the Send button froze in the clicked position, not sending anything. I logged out and logged back in at least a dozen times to try again, but always got the same result. Finally, in a fit of anger and frustration, I gave up.
That evening, when I began a mindful review of my day, this incident immediately popped into my mind . I asked myself how mindful I’d been of my mental reactions during this time. The answer was: not at all. I’d been blindly reactive the entire time. It was only when I gave up the task that I became aware that I’d been angry and frustrated since the site first crash—a good 30 minutes before I stopped trying to make it work.
I realized that the anger and frustration had led me to generate exaggerated and stressful stories, such as “Doing this is a huge waste of my time,” and “This is interfering with everything I planned to do this morning.” These stories just made me feel worse. Even after I gave up trying to send the message, the anger lingered for a couple of hours in the form of a very bad mood.
As I was doing this mindful review, I realized there’d been alternatives to the way I’d reacted. I simply wasn’t aware of them at the time because I never stopped what I was doing to try and become mindful of what was happening. I could have paused and mindfully paid attention to a few in- and out-breaths and then noted: “I’m angry and frustrated, and I can feel it affecting my body in a harmful way. Maybe there’s a more skillful way to handle this.”
If I had paused in this way, I could have seen those alternatives. For one thing, this was not an urgent message, so I could have put the task aside for a while—even for the rest of the day. (The next day, the “Send” button worked fine.) Or, if I’d wanted to continue trying to send the message, I could have change my attitude about it, seeing as an adventure that might or might not work.
Reviewing the incident in this way gave me the opportunity to set the intention to change how I’d react in the future to a similar situation. I decided to work on becoming aware of when a task was giving rise to anger and frustration. I told myself that when that happened, I’d stop what I was doing, take a few conscious breaths, and see if there was a more skillful way to handle the situation—a way that would be kinder to myself, both mentally and physically.
I haven’t always succeeded in carrying out this intention—I can still mindlessly become caught up in anger and frustration—but I’m doing better as a result of having undertaken a mindful review of this incident.
An example of a skillful response
This may be a mundane example, but I’m using it because recalling it as part of my mindful review of the day internalized my skillful response, making it easier to act skillfully in the future when a similar event occurred, and that’s not so mundane! Here’s what happened.
I was reaching into the cupboard for some cinnamon and accidently knocked a box of oatmeal off the shelf. When it hit the floor, not only did it spread out all over the linoleum, it also fell into the crevices between a bunch of boxes and bins that were sitting on the floor.
My immediate reaction was the same as when I couldn’t get the online medical site to work—anger and frustration. (I won’t repeat the words that came out of my mouth.) But fortunately, I caught myself almost immediately and was able to keep that aversive reaction from turning into a string of self-recriminating and exaggerated stories, such as “You’re such a klutz,” and “This will take forever to clean up.” Instead, I brought myself into the present moment by consciously paying attention to a few in- and out-breaths; then I said to myself: “Oatmeal has spilled all over. No big deal. Just clean it up.”
And, you know what? I actually enjoyed myself. Trying to find every piece of oatmeal was like solving a puzzle. I was amazed at how many single pieces managed to lodge between this box and that bin. What could have been an unpleasant fifteen minutes, filled with anger and resentment, turned into an interesting task.
That evening, when I did my mindful review, I reflected on this event. I realized what a tremendous difference it had made to my experience and to my mood in the hours that followed to have simply given in to what had happened instead of feeding my initial aversive reaction. I thought about how anger and frustration would have quickly become the vehicles for stress-filled stories, and I was grateful that I’d avoided that unnecessary mental suffering. I set the intention to react the same way in the future when one of life’s inevitable little accidents occurs.
I hope you’ll try this mindful review of your day. If you do, remember not to hold yourself to too high a standard. The purpose of this exercise is to learn not to judge yourself . And let’s face it, you’re not always going to react skillfully when things don’t go your way. You won’t always stop, take a few conscious breaths, and become mindful of the best way to proceed. But you can work on it, and a mindful review of your day is a good way to start.
© 2016 Toni Bernhard. Thank you for reading my work. I’m the author of three books:
All of my books are available in audio format from Amazon, audible.com, and iTunes.
Visit www.tonibernhard.com for more information.
You might also like these two pieces: "Mindfulness: The Gift of Taking Refuge in the Present Moment" and “7 Myths About Mindfulness.”