With ongoing disruptions to the ways we’ve lived in the past, and the need for many of us to manage competing demands of work and family during the same daytime hours, how can we avoid a sense of overwhelm and maintain interest, much less happiness, at work?
In my wallet I have a tiny piece of worn paper—a tag I pulled off the string of a tea bag 10 years ago—with the words “Grace brings contentment.” I was struggling to survive a period of intense overwhelm when I first read it, and the phrase struck me like a lightning bolt. I interpreted “grace” as “acting gracefully,” such as with kindness, skill, and evenness of temperament. To me, the phrase meant that happiness results from particular inner attitudes and behaviors through the ups and downs of daily life.
Two years into the pandemic, most of us have let go of the myth that once the chaos of pandemic life has passed, things will go back to the way they were—that we need only hold on a little longer and life will get easier. After all, when the pandemic ceases to be a challenging factor in everyday life, the world will continue to be marked by constant change of all sorts.
Change is ubiquitous.
As an example, prior to the pandemic, each of our 2019s looked nothing like our 2018s. In only a year, so much changes.
Children grow and needs arise; we experience gains and losses; difficult situations resolve or fade away as other challenges reveal themselves; we meet friends and we get things done; good fortune waxes and wanes. Our workplaces and routines, the cars we drive, and the people we come home to—they do not remain constant throughout life.
Though sages of many eras have pointed it out, one doesn’t need to be a sage to see that happiness arises not due to ideal conditions, but from our willingness to ride the waves. Do we face forward, buoyant in the shifting currents, or do we turn and struggle against them?
Mindfulness meditation—sustained attention on whatever is here in successive present moments—is a way to practice noticing, and going with, the flow. Bringing the quality of mindfulness to activities of life means we show up interested, with no expectations that things will go a certain way. It is a “let’s see” attitude, which can refresh our relationship to activities that may have seemed uninteresting or unmanageable.
To apply mindfulness in any situation is to switch off autopilot. When mindfulness is present, we do not thoughtlessly "go through the motions."
Like curiosity, mindfulness is an agent of creative engagement that can dampen a tendency to react impulsively to the unexpected. In this way, mindfulness supports us in regulating our responses to the twists and turns of the day as it unfolds.
Especially since the demands and distractions of modern life tend to encourage mindlessness, we must purposefully create the conditions for this quality of mind to flourish. In other words, though mindfulness is an innate psychological faculty, we must deliberately call it forth.
Treating the beginning of our work day as the fertile ground in which to plant the seeds of mindfulness can support contentment, happiness, and ease throughout the day.
Try the following three-part framework for beginning a workday mindfully—you can think of it as taking a SIP of mindfulness, first thing.
What is important is ritualizing the cultivation of mindfulness and its sister qualities—such as calmness, clarity, and patience—so you can bring them into the rest of your day, infusing it with goodness.
To this three-part framework I would add a midday mindful pause, an end-of-the-workday gratitude practice naming the people and things that supported you in showing up as well as you did, and a period of quiet for winding down before engaging in other parts of life (especially if in the before times you had a commute that served as buffer between work and arriving home). These are topics for another day. For now, keep it simple, and start at the beginning.
Create the conditions for a good day by approaching it mindfully from the start.
If you find it easier to practice with others than on your own, check out the Mindfulness & Compassion Practice Group, which for those of you in the Eastern U.S., is first thing on Wednesday mornings.
To expand the application of mindfulness in your professional life—to meetings, projects, and relationships with coworkers—I recommend meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg’s wonderful book Real Happiness at Work.
For 1:1 sessions in applying mindfulness to work or any part of life, contact me! Together we can uncover habits of body and mind that may be challenging you and come up with better routines.
However you do it, skillfully starting your day—perhaps by tidying your space, setting an intention, and practicing mindfulness--is the sort of grace that brings contentment.
This post was simultaneously published by studio BE, a wellness tech company.
The following are some thoughts I recently shared with a journalist who asked about the benefits of yoga.
1. What are the benefits of yoga for mental health?
Yoga gives us agency in our well-being through tools that promote our physical health, energetic balance, emotional regulation, and mental focus.
Yoga is, in fact, quite a vast and varied system for living that can address a broad bandwidth of human experience, conditions, and circumstances. But it is crucial to know which of the multitudes of yogic practices is appropriate for a given situation.
If we work with a teacher who chooses and guides us through practices that for us serve as appropriate doorways into relationship with our body and mind, it is possible to feel whole despite ailments or illnesses. “Wholeness,” after all, is a state of well-being that is based not on external measures of health, but on how we relate to ourselves as we are.
The bonus is that in addition, not only can we feel whole as we are, but studies show we can experience measurable physiological improvements in focus, sleep, blood pressure, and more.
2. What are the best ways to practice?
There is no one best way to practice, and if you wish to address a particular condition or set of symptoms, it is important to work directly with a teacher. It will not do to only watch videos of choreographed routines that may or may not address your state and needs.
Think about how someone experiencing depression can have spells of low energy, lack of interest and motivation, and sleep more than usual. On the other hand, someone with an anxiety disorder might suffer from restlessness that prevents focus and productivity due to the frequent triggering or chronic state of over-alertness from which their nervous system cannot come down.
These states are in some ways opposite, and do not call for the same interventions.
A person with depression might benefit from various styles of practice on different days, but generally they should not always practice a style that is down-regulating to the nervous system, as it will only reinforce their low energy. A person with an anxiety disorder should not practice active and enlivening styles of yoga to stimulate their body-heart-mind system, as they are already suffering from over-stimulation and excitation.
Knowing this, we can purposefully choose a practice that will antidote rather than exacerbate our condition. Still, without consulting a teacher, we are likely to miss out on the more subtle and potent methods (and their adaptations), which are rarely taught in group or pre-recorded sessions, and that will best address our conditions.
Put simply, yoga should be tailored to your physical, emotional, and mental state. A knowledgeable teacher will be able to craft a yoga practice that is responsive to your conditions and circumstances, encouraging balance, wholeness, and health for you.
3. Any specific tips?
When practicing yoga for mental health, we might do well to go beyond the overly emphasized physical aspects of yoga practice, and spend more time with the inner methods — working with energy, breath, and mind — in order to promote self-awareness and a sense of wholeness.
Even if a sense of wholeness is elusive when we are in our most disrupted states, we can expand self-awareness, giving us a better sense of just what is happening.
For example, we can notice how our energy is stagnant or our breath is uneven, and then learn a pranayama (breathwork) exercise to restore evenness and flow to the inner system. Or, we can notice a tendency toward overly critical thinking and bring the theme of our inner critic to a trained mental health professional, mentor, or teacher, who can support us in understanding and processing disruptive core beliefs.
A key benefit of the inner method of mindfulness is that it capacitates us to tolerate discomfort in our bodies or minds. It helps us relax away from the impulse to immediately escape from an uncomfortable experience, so that we can proceed with more awareness, slowly and deliberately.
After all, responding to anything with skill first requires we avoid a knee-jerk reaction, and mindfulness meditation is a great way to train this up.
As spring descends in the northern hemisphere, nature awakens. What was dormant or resting now bursts forth — trees bud, flowers blossom, and once hibernating animals emerge, often with new offspring.
The energy that supports this rebirth is made possible by the deep, replenishing rest of winter — a period of incubation. Now, at a newly vigorous pace, organisms fully engage in the inextricable web of life to which we all belong.
However, for those of us who do not feel well-rested, the activity of spring can feel unwelcome and off-putting. Sometimes the increased daylight can feel like a harsh glare, keeping us indoors. We might hide from nature’s invitation, isolating ourselves and turning further inward, contracting around our burdens and daily frustrations.
Where so much outside seems fresh, inside we can feel stuck.
With the continued shifting of the state of the pandemic, this spring in particular has the potential to engender in some people feelings of anxiety about the safety of emerging, and what’s to come.
Wonderfully, ancient Buddhists recorded teachings in writing that are highly relevant to modern life, including how to antidote feeling cut-off from the rest of the world. In fact, among the thousands of discourses the Buddha delivered to students of various sorts (monks, lay people, kings, and outlaws) there are instructions for mindfully relating to the elements of the natural world.
Practicing with these can be extremely useful for those of us feeling out-of-step with nature.
By mindfully contemplating the elements (namely the early Buddhist writers were concerned with Earth, Water, Fire, and Wind) we can start to view ourselves as not separate from nature, but very much of it. Such a meditation invites knowing the properties of the natural elements within our own bodies, as well as outside, in the landscape.
For example: a body scan in which we note the properties of hardness/softness, roughness/smoothness is a recognition of the expression of the Earth element within. We can become aware of the Water element by noticing moisture in the mouth and the cohesive property of the flesh. Fire, or the heat element, is felt through temperature on skin. And we notice Wind in motion, circulation and, of course, breath.
Simplifying our experience for several moments in this way, followed by noting properties of the elements in the landscape outside, or a favorite landscape from your life, makes it clear:
We are not separate from the world around us, but inextricably connected to it.
There is ease in the direct experience of the truth that we are just nature. Further, during the embodied mindfulness practice of an Elements meditation, what all feels so personal — our preferences, concerns, and worries — fall away.
If you're feeling discomfort with transitioning into the conspicuously busy season of spring, try this audio meditation. Here I guide an "elements" mindfulness meditation based on the ancient Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, and inspired by the teaching of the contemporary Theravada Buddhist monk and scholar Bhikkhu Anālayo.
What it means to touch into the most essential things in life...whether via meditation, prayer, or a meaningful combination of the two.
As a mindfulness meditation teacher with a personal practice based in Buddhist teachings, I’m often surprised and interested to hear Christians and other devotees of theistic religions equate mindfulness with prayer.
I suppose it depends on your definition of prayer.
If prayer involves communication to another being — natural or supernatural — or if it involves making a request, I would say they do not correlate. This is because mindfulness is presence and acceptance. There is no “ask.”
Mindfulness meditation is about being with things as they are right now, in a given moment. If you are asking for things to be different than they are right now — to win a coveted promotion, see a lover one last time before promising to stop, or just to put food on the table another day — you are not practicing mindfulness meditation.
This is not to say you are doing something lesser. You may be quite reasonably and beautifully hoping, aspiring, or interacting with a god or force or presence that answers or delivers. Mindfulness meditation practice can give rise to earnest feelings, because what’s in our hearts can become clear. But there is no agenda, nothing to be done or fixed in the moment.
However, if prayer is meant to get someone or something to pay attention to us, you might say mindfulness meditation is a corollary — as long as it’s okay that that someone is ourselves!
Paying attention to the present moment for a meditation sit illuminates how we relate to whatever is happening in our lives right now, largely internally. We feel sensations in the body, emotional pain or lightness, cluttered or spacious mindstate — whatever is present (and it can be a lot!).
In this way, mindfulness is a tool for getting to know ourselves better, which helps us relate to others with more understanding and kindness.
Modern mindfulness is derived from Buddhist practice, and while some Buddhists in some areas of the world also pray, the trajectory of secular Buddhism in the West has left many practices behind. One can argue this is appropriative (and they may very well be right), but for now the kind of mindfulness practice that is proliferating wildly is, by and large, a “shopping cart”-style system with only a few items in the cart from the well-stocked shelves.
One item in the cart right next to mindfulness is compassion, and it’s here, in the sister practice of compassion meditation, that the mindfulness movement helps practitioners access a sense of something larger than ourselves.
If prayer is meant to do that, here’s a match. In compassion practice, we start with ourselves, but eventually expand to all beings as we wish safety, freedom from suffering, and peace. But rather than “amen” at the end, it is “may it be so.”
When the question of whether meditation and prayer are the same recently arose, my mind was immediately full of all sorts of reasons why they are not.
However, after my mind settled, I returned to what a mindfulness student, a Christian woman who was incarcerated, told me. She said she was grateful for her meditation practice, which she now does every night before she prays, because learning to calm her mind through meditation made prayer possible for her again, after many years.
Her story of the powerful potential effects of meditation practice stopped me in my tracks. It also highlighted for me that while meditation and prayer may not be the same, they are certainly not mutually exclusive, and are complementary!
Indeed, my friend and colleague Paula Chaiken wrote a blog post about how meditation changed her relationship to her religious practice, particularly the quiet reflection of Yom Kippur.
Where she once dreaded the long period of doing nothing but gathering, sitting in silence, atoning (and not eating!), she now welcomes with deep gratitude the opportunity to feel into her hopes and prayers for her community.
According to Paula, "Sitting alone in silence at home trained me to savor the communal experience of prayer, to appreciate the rustle of a fellow congregant’s prayer book, a sneeze from the back row, my sons’ not so quiet whispers, the steady rhythm of Mrs. Fried’s oxygen concentrator. My practice opened me up to appreciate, to find beauty in, all of these moments of experience."
Indeed, mindfulness meditation and prayer may not be one in the same, but they can work together to put us in touch with the more subtle aspects of our nature.
And touching into what is most essential in a moment is wonderful training, and indeed the bedrock of living a fully engaged life.
Early last spring, how many of us thought that certainly by fall at the latest, life and work would return to normal?
Most of us.
However, with autumn around the corner, everything remains quite different, and it continues to change.
Life now requires near constant adaptation to shifting and uncertain circumstances. Families who are sending their children back to school and college are preparing for the possibility of their students’ return home, should circumstances require. Similarly, people who worked in an office in the “before times” continue to work from home, with return dates pushed farther out, and some companies discussing the possibility of a permanent work-from-home model.
While working from home is a dream come true for some folks — no commute, no draining social interactions, and you can get the laundry done by dinner time — for others, it is a real struggle. The social ties we develop with our colleagues contribute to a sense of belonging, which is crucial to our well-being. So especially for people who enjoyed a large part of life’s social interactions at the workplace, the shift to working from home can impact a sense of connectedness and contribute to a sense of isolation.
Isolation and its relative loneliness are implicated in several things we want to avoid: burnout, depression, and earlier death. How can we recognize the signs that we may be struggling with working from home?
Reduced ability to focus is the canary in the coal mine for many problems. Coupled with waning interest and productivity — or worse...disillusionment, exhaustion, and frustration — you have a clear indication there is a significant disruption or imbalance in your body-heart-mind system.
1. Monitor yourself.
As a mindfulness teacher, I help my clients learn to regularly connect with the physical, emotional, and mental aspects of their being so they are aware of how they are doing before it's too late. Sustained mindfulness practice builds self-awareness and can reveal changes and trends that need course correction.
In this way, mindfulness practice is a monitoring tool for our well-being. Without it, we might not catch or understand the signals our own bodies, hearts, and minds are sending us.
While mindfulness is an inherent psychological faculty we all possess, I recommend learning mindfulness meditation from a trained teacher who can provide the methods and support necessary for establishing and maintaining a regular practice. Only 10 minutes a day can make a big difference in how readily we can attune to ourselves and the life around us.
While getting started with a practice can feel like a hurdle, once you’re over it, the only thing you need to do is continue. That’s it. And the motivation to do so will arise naturally as you notice improvements in focus, relationships, and your ability to manage stress.
But what if, using mindfulness, you notice that against the backdrop of these troubled times you feel increasingly out of sorts, unable to focus, frustrated in your relationships?
2. Seek outside help.
This may be from a doctor, therapist, or coach. We can’t always feel well on our own, and a trained professional will be able to support your journey toward wellness with evidence-based and time-tested methods.
If you have a meditation practice, check in with a teacher as well. It may make sense to adjust something about your practice, perhaps even the method you are using. When difficulties in our bodies, hearts, or minds plague us, mindfulness might be contraindicated, and a different type of meditation could be useful.
3. Practice lovingkindness meditation.
This sister practice to mindfulness meditation in which we stimulate a sense of goodwill, is a great way of antidoting a sense of disconnection.
While the formal practice involves repeatedly inwardly reciting phrases to help cultivate a sense of friendliness and ease toward yourself and others, you can use this practice informally, at any time. Simply pause in your day and silently wish yourself and your co-workers — those you like and those you have a difficult time with — safety, health, happiness, and peace.
Say “May we be safe, healthy, happy, and peaceful.”
Say it again.
Then a third time.
May it be so!
is a mindfulness educator, Insight Yoga mentor, and end-of-life doula who cares about individual and collective well-being at every stage of life.