When Meditation Is Not Enough
Strategies for bringing mindfulness into everyday life
Posted Mar 19, 2017
I've been a runner all my life. I learned to run at 9 months, and to walk a bit later. That made life stressful for my parents (a running toddler is a nightmare), but it set me on a wonderful path from which I’ve never strayed.
I noticed some years ago that I’d feel a sense of elation at that the start of my runs, but that within about 10 minutes, the joy would start to fade. Whatever worries or tension I’d felt before the run would slowly return, and my enthusiasm would gradually dip. I’d keep on running, but it was more effortful and less of a pleasure. The pattern was consistent. When I took a closer look, I realized something: during those precious first ten minutes, I’d be noticing the bounce in my step, the trees around me, the smell and feel of the fresh air. I’d be wholly in the “now," in the moment and experience of my running. But after about 10 minutes, my mind would leave the present and return to wherever it had been before the run—to whatever worries or concerns I’d been preoccupied with before lacing up my shoes. And that’s precisely when my energy would drop and my anxiety would return.
And so I made an effort to notice when my mind was shifting during a run, and to bring it back to the present each time it wandered away. I'd refocus on my breath, or the feel of my feet landing and lifting, or the sights and smells and sounds around me. The impact was dramatic: my anxiety would dissipate, my sense of pleasure would return, and I’d suddenly see the trees and flowers or interesting buildings I was running past. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was experiencing the power of running mindfully. This was long before I discovered the world of meditation and the concept of mindfulness. It was just something that worked wonders for my runs.
The power of doing everyday activities mindfully is what I want to write about today. But first, a quick detour into the world of meditation.
There is a fast-growing scientific literature on the psychological and physical benefits of a regular meditation practice (Goyal et al., 2014; Grossman et al., 2004). Although recent meta-analyses suggest caution in uncritically accepting the findings of this literature for a variety of reasons (lack of control groups in some studies, small effect sizes in others, and researcher bias), the data do collectively point to the benefits of a regular meditation practice of some sort. In fact, the evidence suggests that meditation and other mindfulness practices may be as effective in reducing depression and anxiety as psychiatric medication and roughly comparable to various psychotherapies. To be clear, meditation is not a panacea (despite sometimes being marketed as such), but it can be a powerful way to slow down and quiet the mind, step back from distressing and recurrent thoughts, and learn to sit with powerful emotions as they rise and fall, gradually losing their power. And given the lack of side effects and the cost-effectiveness of meditation compared with psychiatric and psychological treatments, meditation presents a compelling alternative to professional mental health care for people unable or unwilling to access such care.
That's good news for people who work in low-income settings where mental health professionals are scarce. For organizations that work with refugees and other war-affected communities, the effectiveness and affordability of mindfulness techniques are especially promising. A recent study in Sri Lanka found that a simple meditation practice was as effective as trauma-focused therapy in reducing symptoms of PTSD among children. Similar results were found in a study using meditation for PTSD among Congolese refugees. And in the NGO where I work, War Child Holland, we’re now incorporating simple meditative techniques into our work with parents affected by war and displacement, and assessing their impact on stress, mood, and parenting. Preliminary results are promising, with parents reporting reduced stress levels and a shift from away from harsh parenting to more empathic, supportive practices.
Mindfulness is more than meditation
The terms "meditation" and "mindfulness" are often used interchangeably, but they are actually different concepts: Meditation is a practice in which we set aside time on a regular basis to cultivate a state of mindfulness: a state of mind in which we disengage from our thoughts, notice them without getting pulled into them, notice other sensations or feelings or sounds in the environment, all with a gentle curiosity and openness. It’s a state of being wholly present. In some types of meditation, we use the breath as an anchor, a home port to which we gently return each time we notice we’re caught up in a train of thought, or gotten pulled into powerful feelings. Of course, we may wish to observe our thoughts for a moment, or to stay with our feelings, particularly if we’ve been avoiding them, and experience them for a time, then return to the breath and the calmer waters it affords.
Meditation can be wonderful, but it’s also time set apart from the rest of life. And whatever equanimity we find in our meditation practice may quickly dissipate as the demands of our daily lives, or our usual anxiety-producing thought processes, kick in again after the meditation bell sounds and our session comes to an end. The state of mindfulness we entered may dissipate like the benefits of a good massage. It’s remarkable how quickly the transformation can occur, from a calm and focused state to once again feeling anxious or worried or stressed or distracted.
And so the real challenge is this: How can we integrate that state of mindfulness into our everyday routine, into the tasks of everyday life, and not limit our mindfulness to our set-aside periods of formal meditation? How can we develop informal mindfulness practices that extend the benefits of meditation, or that offer benefits on their own, even without a meditation practice? If meditation is about training the mind, then how can we apply that training in the rest of our lives?
Happily, life offers us endless opportunities.
- Daily shower: Try noticing the sensations of the water, its coolness or warmth, the feeling of it hitting your skin. When you notice your mind wandering, gently come back to the experience of the shower.
- Social interactions: Try really focusing on the other person, what they are saying, without multi-tasking or planning your response. This means doing nothing else but focusing on the conversation you are having. When your thoughts wander, simply come back, without judging yourself for having wandered away, and refocus on the conversation you are having. Notice what the other person’s words evoke in you, without getting pulled into a reflexive response.
- Here's a great technique taken from Richard Carlson's wonderful Don't Sweat the Small Stuff. I call it the "Take a Breath" technique: When you're in a conversation with someone and they finish speaking, take a breath—a regular old normal breath—before you start talking. See what happens. Do you change what you decide to stay? Does the other person continue talking, using the space you've created? Do you find you interrupt less often? Does the experience make you uncomfortable? Play with it--it seems so simple, but many people find it more difficult than they expected.
- Walking, running, or biking: Try focusing solely on what you see and hear around you, without getting lost in thought. Or try focusing on the physical sensations you experience as you move. Each time you become aware that your mind has wandered off, ask yourself gently, “Where am I now?” Notice, and then come back to the ride, or walk, or run. Checking your mobile phone while you bike/run/walk? See what happens when you put it away for just a little while and focus on the present moment.
- Mini-mindfulness breaks: Take a one or two minute break now and then during the day to scan your body: are you holding any tension? Can you relax your jaw, unclench your shoulders, take a few deep slow breaths? Try relaxing the muscles in your abdomen. Notice your posture and shift it in a way that releases tension, a way that lets you feel more at ease. Research shows that long slow breaths in through the nose and out through the nose or mouth help shift the body into a parasympathetic or relaxed state quite quickly.
- Having a meal: Try turning off the TV, closing the laptop, putting away the newspaper, and really focusing on the food: how it tastes, looks, smells. Eating with someone? Focus on the experience of sharing the meal: the conversation, the food, the here and now.
- Trouble falling asleep because of worrying thoughts: Try focusing on the breath, or tensing and relaxing each muscle group, from your feet to your head or the other way around … disengage from the thoughts. If you have a meditation practice, this is a great opportunity to apply the skill you’ve been developing at disengaging from recurrent, distressing thoughts. Use your breath or the tensing and releasing muscle tension as a different focus to calm your active mind.
You get the picture. These are all examples of “informal” mindfulness practices. Think of mindfulness as being wholly present in this moment. If that’s our goal, we can practice it throughout the day, in whatever we’re doing, from washing clothes, to cooking, to making love, to going for a run. It's nothing we need to put time aside for; it's simply bringing a fresh approach to activities we already do. And if we are truly in the present moment, then we are not in the future—worrying about bad things that might happen; nor are we in the past, ruminating about things we wish we had or hadn’t done, or wondering what someone meant by something they said, or didn’t say.
Meditation is a wonderful way to cultivate mindfulness. And the rest of life is an endless opportunity to work at being mindful in the real world of our everyday activities. No time to meditate? No problem. Try being mindful in one or two of your daily activities. You might be surprised at just how rewarding it can be.
Time for a run now. I’ll try not to get lost in thought…
Grossman, P., Niemann. L., Schmidt, S., & Wallach, H. (2004). Mindfulness-based stress reduction and benefits: A meta-analysis. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 57, 35-43.
Goyal, M. et al. (2014). Meditation programs for psychological stress and wellbeing. Comparative Effectiveness Reviews, No. 124. Rockville, MD: Agency for Health care Review and Quality