Mind you mind: How to do nothing and everything

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In this column, I’ve shared a few different mindfulness methods to help with stress and difficult situations. The uber-method, the cornerstone of mindfulness practice, is meditation. Many people try meditation and think they “can’t” do it—but, actually, they’re doing it.

Here is my favorite definition of meditation: the practice of learning to stay in the present moment and out of our heads. In recent years, psychologists have confirmed what meditators have known for millennia: Meditation is super-good for you. The full list of benefits would make this article too long, but they include reduced stress and anxiety, improved focus, and better sleep.

Distracted? You’re doing it right

We spend so much time caught up in worries, fears, memories, and anxieties. When we untangle ourselves from those mental stories and come back to the present moment, we discover a refreshing simplicity and calm.

Unfortunately, resting in the present is easier said than done. Our mental stories tend to suck us in. Letting go of them is a skill that requires training. Meditation is that training, and it’s very simple.

One more tip before you get started: Daily consistency is more important than sitting for a long time. Even a few minutes a day will bring noticeable benefits. The Tibetan masters say, “Short sessions, many times.”

4-step guide to doing nothing but actually everything

1. Sit down: Find a comfortable sitting position that lets you maintain a straight, unsupported spine. The simplest way is to sit in a chair, with both feet on the floor and hands resting on your thighs. Sitting toward the front edge of the seat may make it easier to sit straight without slouching.

2. Find your anchor: Bring your attention to your nostrils and notice the sensation of air passing through that area as you breathe. That sensation is your “anchor,” a resting place for your attention that will help you connect with the present moment.

3. Rest attention on the anchor: Rest your attention on the breath at the nostrils. Form the gentle intention simply to remain there and observe the flow of changing sensations. As you do this, there’s no need to deliberately make your breath slower, or deeper, or anything like that. If the rhythm of your breathing changes on its own, that’s fine.

4. When the attention wanders, notice that and return: You will eventually become distracted—probably pretty quickly. That’s OK. In fact, that’s what’s supposed to happen. All you do is notice that the attention has wandered and then gently escort it back to the breath at the nose, back to the present.

Give it a try (and another, and another). Enjoy!

Mind your mind: Your Valentine’s Day survival guide

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It’s February—time to start stressing out about our love lives. In all seriousness, dating and romance are great (when they’re going well), but Valentine’s Day can sometimes bring a little stress with it. When I’m single on Valentine’s Day, I stress about why I’m not dating. When I’m in a relationship, I fret about buying gifts and planning dates. Meanwhile, the greeting card and chocolate moguls laugh at me as they swim in heart-shaped pools filled with money.

Good news: If your dating life is giving you a headache, there’s another aspect of your relationships that you can focus on, one that will make you feel great: gratitude.

How to strengthen your gratitude muscle

Gratitude isn’t just some quasi-spiritual cliché. Research suggests that gratitude has a huge impact on well-being and mental health. Studies show that grateful people are happier, less stressed, and less prone to anxiety or depression. They cope more effectively with problems, they sleep better, and—special Valentine’s Day fact!—they are more satisfied with their relationships.

Gratitude is a quality you can develop, like exercising a muscle. Here are two methods for doing so, courtesy of the great positive psychologist, Dr. Martin Seligman.

1. Keep a gratitude journal

I can’t recommend this practice enough. It’s quick and easy, yet Dr. Seligman has found (and, from experience, I agree) that it brings long-lasting benefits. Here’s the practice:

At the end of each day, write down:

  • Three things that went well that day, and
  • Why those things happened.

I find this especially satisfying when I choose things that involve my relationships with others. So if one of your three things is “Cooked a great meal with my roommate,” your “reason why” might be “We’ve been making an effort lately to spend more time together” or “She’s an amazing cook.” This practice trains us to spot and savor the positive things in our lives.

2. Make a gratitude visit

Here’s what you do:

  • Think of someone who has shown you incredible kindness—someone whom you never fully thanked and who lives near enough for you to visit.
  • Write the person a short letter expressing heartfelt gratitude. Say what this person did for you, how it affected your life, and how that makes you feel. Don’t mail it yet.
  • Get in touch with the person, and say you’d like to visit.
  • Meet the person, and read the letter aloud.

Mind your mind: Looking out for yourself

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Ever feel anxious or overwhelmed? If you’re not a robot, your answer is probably yes. Anxiety isn’t a fun experience, but it’s totally normal. The good news is that there are simple ways to work with anxiety so that it’s less of a problem. One method is called the “mindful pause.” It can take as little as 30 seconds, and you can do it any time you start feeling stressed or anxious.

Meditation helped Jon Krop, JD, go from “disorganized screw-up to Harvard Law School graduate.” Jon can guide anyone toward chill—anxious people, depressed people, New Yorkers, even lawyers. He teaches meditation online at jonkrop.com. He also runs Mindfulness for Lawyers and Breathing Room NYC (a meditation group for people with anxiety).

The “mindful pause” in four steps

Because the “mindful pause” is so quick and discreet, you can do it almost anywhere. Just start tossing “mindful pauses” into your day. Get a feel for it. Then, when difficult moments come, you’ll be ready. Here’s how it works:

1. Take a deep breath.

Take a slow inhale, filling your lungs. By slowing and deepening your breathing, you encourage feelings of relaxation and calm.

2. Turn toward your body.

Open your attention to the sensations in your body. Let yourself notice whatever comes up: warmth, tingling, pressure, or the touch of clothing. There’s no need to evaluate the sensations as “good” or “bad.” Itching is simply itching. Coolness is simply coolness.

If you notice sensations that seem connected to stress or anxiety, those are especially good to turn toward. Most of us resist those sorts of sensations. This resistance is what creates suffering, not the sensations themselves.

It’s like playing in the ocean: When a wave is coming, and you try to plant your feet and resist, you get knocked over. But if you dive straight through the wave, it’s no problem.

This step needn’t take longer than one in-breath or out-breath. Stay with it longer if you like, but it can be that quick.

3. Rest your attention on your breath.

Pay attention to the sensation of air touching your nostrils as you breathe. With gentle curiosity, watch the flow of changing sensations at the nostrils. These sensations anchor you in the present moment.

Just like the previous step, this step can be as short as one in-breath or one out-breath.

4. Carry on with your life!

The last step of the “mindful pause” is to simply re-engage with the world, without hurry.

Open your eyes if you’d closed them and carry on with your day. But take your time. Don’t lunge for your phone or speed off to your next activity. Move at a leisurely pace.

Mind your mind: “Present you” and “future you” can get along

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We’re now well into the semester, and the work may be piling up—papers, projects, and deadlines that creep up on you like ninjas. Have you ever gotten so overwhelmed by academic pressure that you just froze up or panicked? Congratulations, you’re a college student. Seriously, it’s super common and nothing to feel bad about.

Here’s how to get unstuck

Consider: For every moment in the future where there’s some task to handle, there is a “you” whose job is to handle it. Exam next Thursday? There’s a “next-Thursday-you” whose job is to take that exam. (That said, “present you” may want to crack a book or schedule some study time.) There’s a paper you want to start on tomorrow morning? “Tomorrow-morning-you” has it covered. Convenient, right? The work doesn’t get overwhelming because it’s divvied up among all those future “yous.”

Here’s the problem: When you fret about all the work that’s coming up, you take the burden of all those future “yous” and cram it onto the shoulders of “present you.” Who wouldn’t get overwhelmed? But if you just remember that you have all your future “yous” to share the burden, you can loosen up and take your work one moment at a time.

If you saw last month’s column, you know I’m big on mental labeling: using helpful thoughts to “call out” unhelpful thoughts. So here’s a labeling technique to try when you freeze up, shut down, or get overwhelmed by work:

Whenever you find yourself stressing about anything other than the work you’re doing right now, say in your mind, “That’s a job for future-me. My job is ________.

  • Writing paper #1 but stressing about paper #2? “Paper #2 is a job for future me. My job is to write this first paper.”
  • Sitting in class and freaking out about an upcoming test? “That test is a job for future me. My job is to listen to the professor right now.”

Here’s how I know this technique works: I have two reports due at noon tomorrow, and I’m still able to focus on writing this article. Why? Because those reports are—say it with me—a job for future me.

Mind your mind: Touching a soap bubble with a feather

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Ever notice that more stuff seems to happen in the first few weeks of school than in the next six months? So many people to meet and events to check out and flavors of ramen to try. All that activity can be a blast, but it can also be overwhelming. It’s easy to get anxious, worried about missing out, or afraid of making a bad impression. Sometimes we get so fixated on the future that we forget to savor the present.

Are you going to be in your head (not that fun) or in the moment (way more fun)? You can choose.

How to gently help yourself stay in the moment

“All his life he looked away to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was! What he was doing!” —Yoda (bad grammar, good point)

When you start to spin off into anxious thoughts about the past or future, this technique lets you catch yourself and come back to the present. It’s an old meditation practice, and it works as well today as it did a century ago. Here’s what you do:

  1. When you notice you’ve gotten lost in a thought about the past or future, give it the mental label “thinking.” Just say “thinking” in your head. Not “thinking about my reading assignment” or “thinking about what I’m wearing tonight.” Just “thinking.”
    The labeling should be gentle, like touching a soap bubble with a feather, says Pema Chodron, a meditation master and all-around cool lady. That’s all it takes.
  1. Return to the present by bringing your attention to your senses. For example, notice your feet on the floor, or feel your stomach rise and fall as you breathe, or take in the sounds around you.
  1. That’s it!

This technique may seem weird at first, but it quickly becomes second nature. It can be very powerful. Getting caught up in our worries, fears, and judgments is totally normal. It’s going to happen. This labeling technique can help us untangle ourselves from all those mental knots and come back to the now—where the good stuff is.