I did not understand that taking care of yourself in stressful conditions was an act of self-preservation — rather than one of self-indulgence — until I adopted a consistent mindfulness practice.
Like all the other experiments I test on myself, my exploration into mindfulness started as a means of enhancing my performance.
After reading studies showing that mindfulness was linked to positive short-term and long-term neural changes, reduced mind-wandering and increased focus, and improved age-related cognitive decline, I decided to add it into my daily rituals.
After all, who wouldn’t want to enhance their focus, memory, stress response, and defenses against the effects of aging?
However, by checking inward daily as part of my mindfulness practice, I realized that stress was heightening my pain level.
For the last five years since I was hit by a car while crossing the street, I’ve experienced a higher pain level than others my age.
Until now, I had been proud of my high pain tolerance. But after checking in with myself daily through my mindfulness meditation, I saw that my psychological and physical pain was increasing.
High pain tolerance wasn’t a gift or a testament to my strength. It was a sign that I was living with more pain, unchecked, than the average person. And that could have very real consequences, especially on my performance.
I finally grasped what Sharon Salzburg highlights in Real Love:
“Unless we remember to take care of our own needs and respect our own boundaries, we may end up feeling depleted, exhausted, and so burned out that we endanger our physical and psychological well-being.”
That’s when I started to look at mindfulness as a tool to reduce pain and cope with stress, and to apply my findings from this investigation to my equally stressed client company leaders and team members.
While mindfulness is often associated with Buddhism, Christian Mysticism, and many South Asian spiritual traditions, in a Western context, we’re usually referring to a specific, non-spiritual practice.
Mindfulness is simply dedicating attention and awareness to what is happening in the present moment.
When we are mindful, we take note of events, thoughts, and feelings as they happen without judgment. We become observers in our own lives.
Mindfulness is not synonymous with meditation, though the two often go hand in hand.
Mindfulness essentially comes down to showing up fully for every situation, free from distraction and absent-mindedness. Meditation is a technique that helps us achieve a mentally clear state.
Yael Shy explains in What Now? that:
“Meditation is the process of becoming familiar with life […] When we are completely focused on what is happening in real time, we are not caught in a tangle of thoughts that swing between the present and the past.”
In this way, mindfulness and meditation are tied to one another. We become more mindful when we enlist meditation as a tool to become more attentive and aware.
That’s why we use terms like “mindfulness meditation,” which is a technique that dedicates time to focusing our attention on our immediate inward state and the environments around us.
“Mindfulness meditation” is rooted in traditional Vipassana meditation, which comes from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.
Vipassana is a state of clear awareness where the meditator tunes into exactly what is happening as it happens. As one second passes, the attention focuses on the next second, and the mind trains in avoiding other thoughts or distractions.
The technique is built on three pillars: attentive listening, mindful seeing, and careful testing.
By focusing on the breath, sounds that emerge in the space, and the feelings in the body that arise, mindfulness meditators learn to listen to their thoughts without being caught up in them. They can fix their attention on specific images in the mind, and they can test their responses to changes in conditions, as well as observe the limits of their attention.
With regular practice, attention and awareness grow.
“The problem is not the problem; coping is the problem.” –Virginia Slater
Clearly, mindfulness meditation increases our focus and helps us fight distraction.
But what does that have to do with stress?
For one, when we’re stressed, our heart rates increase. Mindfulness meditation involves deep breathing, which has been shown to decrease heart rate and blood pressure.
Mindfulness meditation also helps combat the “over-efforting” that often comes with stress. As thoughts begin to mount that overtake our attention, we push ourselves harder without the focus necessary to achieve our goals.
Think about what it means to “try too hard.”
We put so much pressure on ourselves that we make mistakes. In fact, what’s happening is that our brain has too much to process. It has to surface the right information, answer our self-doubting and anxiety-ridden questions, and parse out what to listen to in our negative self-talk. The cognitive overload causes us to short circuit.
With mindfulness meditation, we eliminate competing thoughts and recalibrate our focus, which allows us to process one piece of information at a time.
This is why we often exceed expectations when we “wing it.” Since we have the fundamentals down, all our brains have to do is recall information and put pieces together, as opposed to multi-tasking.
Finally, because of mindfulness meditation’s emphasis on non-judgment, we can confront what’s causing us stress without fear.
The Buddhists believe we have five core fears that trap us:
Fear is the root of all stress. It’s also the main cause in our physical and mental breakdown under pressure. However, when we practice mindfulness meditation, we observe our thoughts — including the fearful ones — with detachment and measured understanding.
“If you can create an inner environment where your mistakes are forgiven and flaws are candidly confronted, your resilience expands exponentially,” explains Dan Harris in 10% Happier.
By confronting the thoughts that limit us without becoming besieged by them, we can overcome them.
It’s one thing to understand how mindfulness meditation can help when we’re stressed, it’s another to put it to good use as a technique. Below are the three mindfulness meditations I use on myself and my clients most often when stress mounts.
RAIN is a step-by-step series of exercises that make up a larger meditation focused on helping us practice self-compassion when difficult or painful thoughts overtake us.
While RAIN is very useful for dealing with difficult emotions, especially when you’re struggling to take care of yourself, this next mindfulness meditation — one I’ve taken and adapted for my own use — is all about managing insecurity in the face of overwhelm.
Take three deep breaths.
Observe your thoughts. When the next thought arises in your mind, imagine that thought is on a boat, sailing out to the ocean. Every thought that arises, put it on a boat, sail it into the ocean.
Now start controlling the thoughts you think and send.
Start by thinking: “I am a master.” Put that on the boat and watch it sailing off into the sunset. Imagine the sun is the center of your heart and the boat is sailing towards it. On the boat is precious cargo, the thought, “I am a master.”
Now think, “Life is easy.” Send that thought sailing peacefully down the river toward the sunset and into the ocean. “Life is easy.”
Next, imagine “I live effortlessly” is on a boat. Send it down.
Now, “I live masterfully” is on a boat. Send it down to the sun, the center of your heart.
Finally, think, “Every choice I make is the most beautiful one I’ve ever made.” Send it down.
Take three deep breaths and flutter your eyes open.
While not technically labeled a mindfulness meditation, Byron Catie’s “The Work” operates in the same investigative mode as Tara Brach’s RAIN model.
While RAIN works best in situations of unshakeable feelings and leverages compassion to essentially acknowledge bad thoughts so good ones may return, “The Work” is about reversing stressful thoughts in the present moment and carries with it a flavor of my meditation in its commitment to establishing positive thought patterns.
Mindfulness, paradoxically, can be stressful.
My first foray into mindfulness was not as successful.
Before I landed on the consistent mindfulness routine that led me to understand stress was majorly driving my increased pain, I had already tried mindfulness and quit.
As a beginner, I put too much pressure on myself. When I missed a meditation or caught myself scrolling brainlessly on my phone instead of paying attention to my surroundings, I felt guilty. I told myself I was failing, and because I didn’t yet have the coping skills to deal with failure that I learned from mindfulness, I tensed and stressed more.
After six months, I abandoned the practice on the basis that it was making me more neurotic, not less.
But the purpose of mindfulness is not to create noise. One of the most important lessons I ever learned from Yael Shy was this:
“Rather than asking yourself ‘Why do I feel this way?’ Ask yourself, ‘What can I do for myself when I feel this way?’”
Mindfulness is about using attention and awareness to decrease suffering. It’s not meant to be effortful and stressful — just the opposite.
If you can only manage a minute of mindfulness meditation a day, or a simple post-it note stuck to your laptop reminding you to breathe, that counts.