Mind your mind: Power up your mindfulness strategies

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Mindfulness techniques are like apps or pieces of software. The apps might be great, but they won’t work perfectly if you run them on a slow, clunky, out-of-date device. Sometimes you have to update the hardware—your brain.

Maybe you’ve been using the techniques that I share here for dealing with stress, improving your focus, and sharpening your mind. Want to power them up? Here’s how you can access the full strength of these techniques: meditation. If you meditate every day, even just a few minutes, the mindfulness techniques you’ve learned will become much more powerful. Plus, the meditation practice itself becomes very restful and enjoyable, like giving your mind a well-deserved break.

Two game-changing tricks to develop the meditation habit

Meditation is easy (see Mind your mind in previous issues). But creating a habit of daily practice is not. I struggled for years before discovering two tricks that solved the problem for me:

1. The clever trick

I use this trick whenever I feel the urge to skip my daily sit or do it “later” (aka never). The trick is this:

I shrink the length of the session in my head until I hit a level I don’t feel resistance to.

For example: “Could I do 15 minutes? No, I feel resistance, I’m not gonna do it. OK, what about 10? Still too long, the thought puts me off. Maybe five? Huh, I don’t feel resistance to that. I feel like I can sit for five.” Boom.

Then, if my session ends and I feel like sitting longer, I do.

2. The better trick

I wake up at a set time every morning and immediately meditate, before doing anything else.

You might be different, but if I do anything else first — breakfast, a workout, checking my phone — I have trouble getting myself to sit. Actually, I’ll go further: Putting off the morning sit almost guarantees I won’t sit at all.

So there’s a second part to this trick: Admitting to myself that “I’ll sit later” is code for “I’m skipping my sit today.”

Once I owned up to that, meditating daily became almost effortless. I just stopped believing my own “I’ll sit later” lie and committed to sitting first thing in the morning, when I’d actually do it. This was a game-changer for me.

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: 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.

Mind your mind: Finding calm in the chaos

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Your week might look like this:

  • Study for bio exam
  • Finish/Start Russian lit essay
  • Get to poetry club meeting
  • Turn in grad. school applications
  • Pick up an extra shift at the library
  • Celebrate your roomie’s birthday
  • Devour pizza with your study group

Sound familiar? Sometimes the demands can be relentless, making you feel like you wouldn’t know how to relax even if you had the time. To keep it together, we may need to cut back on our commitments. But there is another way:

How to practice present moment awareness; i.e., mindfulness.

Dr. Holly Rogers codeveloped the Koru Mindfulness program for college students (currently available on more than 60 campuses in the US). Trials have shown that the Koru program is effective in helping students feel less stressed, better rested, more compassionate, and more mindful. Dr. Rogers is a psychiatrist at Duke University and coauthor of Mindfulness for the Next Generation: Helping Emerging Adults Manage Stress and Lead Healthier Lives (Oxford University Press, 2012).

Finding your calm (yes, it exists)

Believe it or not, there is a calm, quiet space in all of us that we can access by pulling our attention firmly into the present. Once you find it, the chaos of college life will still be there, but you won’t be overcome by it.

How Jaime got unstrung

Jaime felt strung out from the moment she woke, thinking about everything that had to get done that day, week, semester, decade. She was so busy worrying that she couldn’t concentrate for more than 10 minutes at a time. Even with friends she found it difficult to relax.

Jaime took a mindfulness class and learned to hold her attention in the present moment, focusing on one sensation or action at a time: her breathing, or her fingers as she typed. Whenever her mind started getting crowded, she repeated a mantra to bring herself back to the present: “Just this moment.”

“If I give my full attention to whatever I am working on right at that moment, I feel much less stressed. I’m more efficient that way, too. It will all get done if I take it one step at a time,” she says.

Try it

At the link, scroll to the Koru Body Scan. This type of meditation can teach you to use physical sensations to keep your attention in the moment. To help you stay calm in the chaos, practice this for 10 minutes a day. 

+ Guide to Koru Mindfulness and how it helps students

Mind your mind: September

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What is mindfulness, really? Every time I enter the BuzzFeed black hole or scroll through my Twitter feed, there’s an article about how mindfulness can improve our lives. Mindfulness is supposed to be good for you, but it seems kind of out there, doesn’t it? Here’s why it’s worth trying anyway.

Developing the skill of mindfulness can help you manage your stress (which we know you have a lot of) and get more satisfaction from your life. Mindfulness is actually very straightforward: It’s the practice of learning to hold your attention on what you are doing, thinking, and experiencing in the moment.

Guide to Koru Mindfulness and how it helps students
Dr. Holly Rogers co-developed the Koru Mindfulness program for college students (currently available on more than 60 campuses in the US). Trials have shown that the Koru program is effective in helping students feel less stressed, better rested, more compassionate, and more mindful. Dr. Rogers is a psychiatrist at Duke University and co-author of Mindfulness for the Next Generation: Helping Emerging Adults Manage Stress and Lead Healthier Lives (Oxford University Press, 2012).

This is the first in Dr. Rogers’s series on mindfulness for Student Health 101. Coming in October: Present moment awareness.

Jack’s story
Jack was a student athlete who used mindfulness to help him cope with a knee injury. He had come to the Koru Mindfulness class to manage his physical pain and emotions from being unable to play his sport.

During one class, he told us that he was getting a steroid injection later that day. He’d had one before, and it had been extremely painful. He had been dreading the next injection until he started using mindfulness.

“I understand that it will hurt like crazy, but right now, nobody is sticking a needle in my knee. If I stay in the present moment, I feel fine. Worrying about it now is not going to make it hurt less when it happens,” he said.

His pain did not exist in that moment, and he was choosing to stay right where he was—the present.

How to get started
Try it at least once a day and see if you can spend more time being mindful.

+ Listen to one of these guided meditations