This year’s grind has begun.
For the first time since college, my days are filled to the brim with stuff I want to accomplish. Among my many to-dos’s are English lessons to prepare, videos to film and edit, blog posts to write, and plenty of books to read. In addition to all of that, I decided to join a gym here in Seville, adding three workouts and tracking my diet to my weekly schedule. Oh, and I want to maintain an active social life as well.
I can already hear that little voice in my head saying, “you’re biting off way more than you can chew.” That voice may have a point. But I figure it’s better to aim too high than too low. Whether I manage it all or end up burning out before the year is up, I’ll be happy knowing I pushed myself harder than any year prior.
As I hustle to get things done, I’ve started to notice a habit that really inhibits my productivity: I’m always focusing on too many things at once.
It’s not so much that I physically do multiple things at the same time; I long ago accepted that multitasking is not something I excel at. The real problem is my mind. Whenever I’m working on a specific task, my mind is constantly fixated on the future. It’s planning out the day and then re-planning it based on imaginary scenarios. It’s worrying about the result of my current actions and all the things I’ll need to work on when I finish.
I end up focusing on everything except what I’m working on at that moment.
But here’s the worst part: the constant worrying and mental back-and-forth causes my stress levels to skyrocket. Even when my to-do list is manageable, my neck and shoulders end up tighter than vice grips, and I barely make it half-way through the day before feeling worn out.
If the sustainability of this year’s workload is a concern for me then something needs to change.
The Solution: Mindfulness
Though my interest in things like mindfulness and meditation continues to grow, I still sometimes question their practical value when it comes to achieving material success. Sure, it’s nice to have inner peace and live in the present moment, but getting shit done just seems more valuable a lot of the time.
However, I think my current struggle with focus is a testament to the value of mindfulness and meditation when it comes to achievement. Getting absorbed by thoughts and anxieties while working is just another form of unconsciousness. Instead of using my mind to enhance my life, I’m getting lost in it.
Fittingly enough, mindfulness is what brought me to this realization in the first place.
My struggle with focus isn’t some new development in my life. I’ve always had a problem in this area, but it was only through practicing mindfulness that I became aware of it. Now I want to use mindfulness and meditation to not only be aware of the problem but actually fix it.
Moving forward, I want to cultivate a laser-like focus when it comes to work. This means fully engaging with every task I work on, no matter how small.
I think my focus on abdominal breathing this month is a great way to start doing this. Whenever I notice my mind jumping towards past and future while working, I want to bring my attention back to my breath. From there I can refocus on the task at hand.
To end this post here’s a quote by Eckhart Tolle that really captures the mindset I’m trying to develop.
“Your outer journey may contain a million steps; you inner journey only has one: the step you are taking right now.
– Eckhart Tolle
I stumbled upon Eckhart Tolle’s “The Power of Now” a little over three years ago, and my life hasn’t been the same since. In this video, I talk about the two most important lessons I got from the book.
“Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness, which unites your body to your thoughts. Whenever your mind becomes scattered, use your breath as the means to take hold of your mind again.”
– Thich Nhat Hanh
Since discovering mindfulness back in 2013, I’ve experienced many of the benefits it has to offer. These include more peace of mind, increased self-awareness, and a greater ability to connect with others.
Despite these benefits, however, consistently practicing mindfulness remains a challenge for me. Even when meditation is a daily habit, I have a hard time remembering to stay mindful throughout the day.
In order to make practicing mindfulness as simple as possible this year, I’m going to focus on one specific “mindfulness method” each month. These methods will simply be different ways of bringing my attention to the present moment.
My method for January is abdominal breathing.
What is Abdominal Breathing?
Breathing deeply into the abdominals, or lower stomach area.
Why Abdominal Breathing?
Concentrating on the breath is a core component in most mindfulness and meditation practices. I first discovered the presence-bringing power of observing my breath after reading “The Power of Now.” Since then, it has been the mindfulness method that I come back to the most.
However, there is a difference between abdominal breathing and just paying attention to your breath; abdominal breathing is more intentional. It’s not just observing, but consciously directing the breath. I chose this more intentional method because of the benefits it offers outside of mindfulness.
I actually stumbled upon it a couple of months ago while searching for ways to reduce stress and anxiety. A few sources recommended abdominal breathing because of it’s calming effect on the mind and body. I tested it out for a couple of days and was quickly sold on it. It wasn’t a cure-all, but I did notice a greater sense of calm after breathing deeply into my abdomen for even a few seconds.
My Progress So Far…
As of writing this, I’ve been trying to consistently use this method for four days. So far it has still been a struggle to remain mindful, but that might be because my holiday travels have left me feeling a little more frazzled than usual. However, it has been nice having a single focus to come back to when I find myself getting caught up in my thoughts.
I’ll probably post an update in a week or two. It could be interesting to see what my practice looks like once I’m in a more consistent routine.
As we near the end of 2016, I can look back on the past 12 months with a smile. I made more progress in my personal development this year than in any year prior.
One of my main focuses throughout the year was changing the way I think. I used strategies such as repeating thought loops, positively reframing my negative thoughts, and cultivating gratitude and self-love. These efforts weren’t without reward; maintaining a positive mindset throughout the day has become much easier.
New Year, New Strategy
If I’m being truly honest with myself I have to admit that focusing on my thinking will only get me so far on my journey. No matter how many of these thought-strategies I use, trying to change my thoughts only offers me temporary relief from negativity. I may be better at editing my thoughts as they come up, but my default thoughts are still mostly negative. Plus the constant effort to think positive thoughts can be exhausting at times, and when my negative thoughts can’t be reframed or overcome by positivity, I often end up even more frustrated than before.
This doesn’t mean that becoming a significantly happier person is a pipe dream for me though. I just need to change my strategy. Fortunately, I’ve known the correct strategy for quite some time now: being present to the moment.
My most life-changing moment was reading “The Power of Now” by Eckhart Tolle back in 2013. Before reading it, I had always completely identified with each and every negative thought I had. So Tolle’s assertion that “you are not your thoughts” was revolutionary for me. By following his advice to observe my thoughts and place my attention on the present moment, I was able to experience a sense of peace that was completely foreign to me at the time.
“To realize that you are not your thoughts is when you begin to awaken spiritually.”
– Eckhart Tolle
Despite experiencing the literal power of “now,” I continued to only return to it in my darkest moments. Being present to the moment was nice, but I wanted to actually change the quality of the thoughts I was having. In a way, avoiding the challenge of actually changing my thoughts almost seemed like taking the easy way out. So presence took a backseat to my focus on positive thinking.
Fast-forward three years and here I am, a lot happier but still struggling daily to change my thoughts. So I’m forced to ask myself….
Why am I exerting so much energy trying to change my thoughts when I could find peace through being present to the moment?
The irony of it all is that “the easy way out” is actually a huge challenge in itself. Living in the NOW may alleviate the need to change my thoughts, but it requires just as much effort and discipline.
“The beginning of freedom is the realization that you are not “the thinker.” The moment you start watching the thinker, a higher level of consciousness becomes activated. You then begin to realize that there is a vast realm of intelligence beyond thought, that thought is only a tiny aspect of that intelligence. You also realize that all the things that truly matter – beauty, love, creativity, joy, inner peace – arise from beyond the mind. You begin to awaken.”
– Eckhart Tolle
So as 2017 approaches, I feel it’s time to make a change. Instead of spending so much time trying to think more positively, I’m going to make being present to the moment my main focus.
Over the years I’ve noticed that I’m a more effective person when operating from a place of presence. I’m more creative, more charismatic, and more energetic. I can think more clearly and I’m better able to focus on whatever task I’m working on. More so than positive thinking, being present to the moment is starting to show itself as the key to my happiness and success.
I still plan on exploring new ways to improve my thoughts and emotions, and I’ll still pursue my goals. But I want presence to be the foundation from which all of my actions spring.
Every day I see more and more wisdom in this quote.
I have a tendency to get caught up thinking about everything that is lacking in my life. Things like positive energy, love, and presence. But I rarely stop and consider what I’m offering to the world. Am I a source of presence and positivity? Do I show love and compassion to the people around me? More often than not the answer is no. So how can I expect any of these things to come to me?
Instead of focusing on what I don’t have, I want to start focusing on what I can offer the world. Even if it’s small things at first – like smiles or silly jokes – I want to be someone who gives value instead of taking it.
“In mindfulness one is not only restful and happy, but alert and awake. Meditation is not evasion; it is a serene encounter with reality.”
~ Thich Nhat Hanh
It’s been a little over three years since I first heard about mindfulness and being present to the moment. It started with a chance reading of “The Power of Now,” and since finishing that book I’ve not only read several other books on the topic but tried to make mindfulness the basis of my life as well.
I was an emotional mess before I discovered mindfulness. While I had good days every now and then, anger and sadness were my primary emotional states. I was prone to bouts of rage (not so great when mixed with all the drinking I was doing in college), prolonged stretches of unexplainable sadness, and tons of social anxiety.
Those emotions weren’t the main issue, though. The real problem was that I had almost zero awareness of why I was feeling them. I could identify the surface level causes of my anger and sadness, such as a rude comment somebody made or a breakup I was going through, but that knowledge did nothing to stop the emotions from consuming me.
Practicing mindfulness and meditation has helped me learn to observe my thoughts and emotions from a distance, thus giving me the ability to understand why I’m feeling them. I’ve also noticed a change in the intensity of my emotions. Whereas in the past every little thing I felt seemed so visceral that it ended up dictating my actions, there is now a feeling of hollowness that pervades many of my negative emotions. I’m guessing this is a result of watching my thoughts and emotions come and go during meditation. The realization of their impermanence seems to have removed some of their power.
But despite these positive changes, I still find myself struggling to practice mindfulness consistently. Why is that?
I think a big part of it is fear. The idea of living in the present moment, or “not thinking,” is kind of a scary one. For as long as I can remember I’ve prided myself on my intelligence or, in other words, my ability to think.
So when I consider a life lived completely in a present moment, there’s a part of me that starts to freak out. Without the constant narrative in my head, would I still be intelligent? Would I still be able to think clearly and solve problems? Wouldn’t I end up a simple-minded idiot?
Taking a step back, I realize that those fears are just the ego trying to preserve itself. But even on a more concrete level, my own experiences with mindfulness serve to dispel those fears.
Being present to the moment has only ever improved my ability to think critically. For the longest time, I’ve confused the narrative in my head with productive thinking. But when I really look at it, the majority of my thoughts only distract me from whatever task I’m working on.
I see this most clearly when speaking in front of the classroom. When “thinking” in the traditional sense, I often find it difficult to focus on what I’m saying. My mind focuses on things like how I’m being perceived or made up stories about how bored my students must be while listening to me. But when I’m present to the moment, the words just seem to flow out of me. I’m more engaging, wittier, and more responsive to the needs of my students. In other words, I’m thinking a lot more clearly.
So I guess the paradox of mindfulness is that “not thinking” actually improves your ability to think. This is something I really want to keep in mind during those times when mindfulness seems a little too daunting.
Note: Some might not consider this accurate, but in this post I equate the terms “mindfulness” and “being present.”