What is mindfulness?

“Mindfulness” is simply a practice of stopping and of looking deeply into what is happening in the present moment.

One of the Zen stories told about a person who was riding a horse really fast through town. A few town people became concerned, so they mounted their horses and caught up with him. They asked: “Where are you going?” The horse rider responded: “I don’t know. Ask the horse.”

This story probably made you chuckle. But, it is more common than you realize. In my experience, in American society, and especially, at the workplace, we value being busy. Ask your coworkers how they are doing, and most of the times, you will probably hear their replies as a version of “I’m busy”, “There is so much work to do”, or “I have been busy all day today but feel like I have not accomplished anything.”

Is being busy good for you? 

The author, Stephen R. Covey, in his book “7 habits of highly effective people”, told us to begin with an end in mind. He also shared with us an exercise to figure out what it is we want to achieve in our life. Stephen asked us to visualize our own funeral. At our funeral, 3 people come up to speak – one from our family, one from our work, and one from our community. What is it we want them to talk about? Then, that’s how we should live our lives. I would suggest another step is that then we could look at all the activities in our days (our busyness) and see if they help us achieve how we want to live our lives. That is how we know where we are going, unlike the horse rider who told us to ask the horse.

The author, Clayton Christensen, in his book “How do you measure your life”, shared a story about going to his Harvard reunions. For the first few years after graduation, a lot of people showed up, doing extremely well, with great paying jobs, fancy houses, and happy families. Then, over the years, less and less people came to the reunions. As he discovered, for many of these Harvard graduates, their lives were falling apart. One was in jail from the Enron scandal; many were facing divorces or have not talked to their children for a long time. He was surprised to discover their situations because he knew these people – they were his classmates. He knew that not only they were intelligent, hard-working, but also had high ideals for their personal lives and how they could contribute to the world. So, what led them from being high performers with great visions and high ideals to living such unhappy lives and even imprisonment? Could it be because of their habitual energy of being carried away from one task to another task without stopping and looking deeply to see if the tasks align with how they want to live their lives, of moving too fast from one thing to the next, of climbing up one rung of a ladder after another one without knowing if the ladder was leaning against the right wall, of riding on the horse but not knowing where it is going?

Mindfulness practice helps us to stop, to look deeply into what we do, and focus on what matters.

How to practice mindfulness?

It is simple.

First, you stop. Then, you take a deep breath in, and take a deep breath out. Then, breathe in and out naturally. As you breathe in, you turn your attention to your in-breath. As you breathe out, you turn your attention to your out-breath.

That is it.

Although the practice is simple, it is very difficult. Our mind doesn’t want to just focus on the in-breath or the out-breath; it wants to multi-task. Doing nothing or just focusing on your breathing seems very unnatural. After a few breaths, you probably will find your mind wandering to other things. When it does and if you recognizes it, smile at the thought, and bring your attention back to your breathing.

Now, if you want to help your mind out because it definitely doesn’t want to and/or cannot practice this simple technique. You can give it another toy to play with. As you breathe in and out, you can recite this poem.

Breathing in,

I know I’m breathing in.

Breathing out,

I know I’m breathing out.

Breathing in,

I calm my body.

Breathing out,

I smile.

In

Out

Calm

Smile.

That is it.

If you want more ways to practice, you can add a timer and a bell. For every five minutes of practice, you can invite the bell. As you listen to the sound of the bell, you can recite this poem.

Listen, listen

To this wonderful sound.

Bring me back

To my true self.

Personally, I use an app called “Insight Timer”. In that app, you can choose how long you want to meditate, and how often you want the bell to sound. You can also select what sound of the bells you prefer.  For example: when I meditate for 20 minutes, I can set the bell to sound every 5 minutes. Every time the bell sounds, it reminds me to come back to my breathing if my mind (as it often does) wanders down the rabbit hole of a thought.

Okay, so now we know how to practice. How often should we practice? I recommend as little or as much as you’d like. I often do it 20 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes at night. Many people do it 5 minutes at a time. When I go on a mediation retreat, I practice longer for 2 or 3 hours at a time of up to 12 hours per day. It is entirely up to you. Just 5 minutes of practice will help you find stillness, stop, and connect with the present.

Practicing mindfulness is great. But, if you are like most of us, we don’t have time to just sit and practice all day long. We need a way to carry mindfulness practice into our daily life. How do we practice mindfulness during the day? (such as at work, or while we are driving)

At work:

Writing a technical proposal: My last job was to write technical proposals for an engineering firm. To prepare, I shut down all the windows and applications on the my computer (emails, instant messenger, last projects, etc.) that don’t serve the purpose of writing this particular proposal. I put on my noise-canceling headphone because I work in a cubicle environment which sometimes can be distracting. I take a deep breath. I listen to my in-breath and out-breath. I pause. As I read the RFQ (Request for Quotation), I don’t think about the email list that is waiting for me; I don’t think about reading it fast to get it done; I don’t think about anything outside of what I’m reading. As I read the RFQ, I read and enjoy reading it. I underline important topics, I write questions for things I need to find out, and notations for things that I need to go back to. When I write the proposal, I approach it the same way. My whole attention and purpose is to write this proposal. I write it in such a way that I think it’s best for the customers. I don’t think about home or other projects during that time. Just as during mindfulness meditation practices, I set the time limit for my work to 20 or 30 minutes. For every 20 or 30 minutes, I take a short break from full concentration. I breathe in and breathe out. I walk to get coffee. I look at others in the office and smile at them. The result is that I can get my work done faster and with higher quality. If you worked with me and happened to interrupt me during one of those mindful work periods, you would certainly make me jump out of my seat. 🙂 That is a side effect of being fully immersed in what one is working on.

Talking on the phone: If your job requires you to talk on the phone either with a customer, a potential client, or a coworker, you can use the opportunity to bring mindfulness to talking on the phone. Before you pick up the phone, take 3 deep breaths – breathe in and breathe out, calming, smiling, in and out. As you listen to the other party, you listen. You practice listening to the person with all your heart and mind. You don’t listen with the intention to reply. You listen with the intention to understand. You listen to listen, not to reply. Only after you have listened to everything the other person has to say, you speak. As you speak, you rephrase what you heard to make sure you understand the other person correctly. And, only after you have received a confirmation of what you heard, you think about your response.

While driving:

Driving in a big city is usually one of the most stressful activities. The traffic, the honking, and the recklessness of some drivers can cause us a lot of stress. So, how do we practice mindfulness during driving? My teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, gave us a few tools to do so.

One tool is to look at the red traffic light as a bell of mindfulness. Every time, we stop at a red light, we take a breath in and out, and say to ourselves:

Looking, looking

At this red light.

Bring me back

To my breathing.

Another tool is to use the rear brake lights on the car in front of you. When the car in front of you stops, the rear brake lights would light up. When you see the braking lights, you stop and take a breath in and out. If the stop is long, you may recite to yourself:

Looking, looking

At this brake light

Bring me back

To my breathing.

Arriving home:

When we arrive home after a long day at work, how often we rush inside the home, carrying with us the exhaustion, stress and problems at work. When our children come up and hug us, we hug them back hastily with a frown still on our face. Or, when we hear them playing loudly or singing, we yell at them to be quiet. Why do we always bring the past to the present, allowing what happened during the day at work to disturb our time at home with our loved ones. Why do we always bring the future to the present, allowing our worries about the future to ruin the happiness in the present moment. Doing so, we hurt our wellbeing and the wellbeing of our family.

There are two practices we can use as we arrive home. The first practice is before we enter the home, we stop. We take three deep breaths in and out, and we recite the following verse.

Breathing in,

Breathing out.

I calm my body,

I smile.

 

Breathing in,

Breathing out.

I vow to be fully present

For my loved ones.

Only after we have done this, we will enter the home.

When we enter the home, if our loved ones hug us, we can practice hugging meditation. In hugging meditation, we don’t just quickly hug the person and let go. We hug the person for at least 3 full breaths. At the first breath, we just stop and become fully aware of the hug, enjoying the hug, and feeling the love and warmth of the person hugging us. At the second breath, we can quietly tell ourselves “Dear my love, I’m so grateful that you are here with me.”

Practice washing the dishes: As you wash the dishes, are you in a rush to get it done so you can sit down and watch the television or do something else? Next time, when you wash the dishes, practice to focus your whole attention to washing the dishes. Feel the water running down your hands. Feel the soap bubble. Connect with how you scrub away the food on the plate, and how you rinse it off so it becomes clean again. The time you wash the dishes is to wash the dishes. How lucky you are to have dishes to wash, to have food to eat? If while you are washing the dishes and your mind is thinking of what to do next or what happened in the past, you are not living in the present. You lost that period of your life.

Conclusion:

In this article, I want to share with you what mindfulness is, how it can help you, and what you can do to practice and bring mindfulness into your everyday activities. Mindfulness is a practice. There is not an end to the practice. It is like a physical exercise. You don’t start practice running, and then stop, and hope that you will continue to stay in shape. You have to continue to practice if you want to maintain your physical fitness.

Mindfulness is a practice of stopping, of looking deeply, of being fully aware of the present moment, not letting the past or the future to carry us away, of understanding why you are doing what you are doing. Mindfulness can be used and should be used in everyday applications, from working at work, leading others, creating vision and strategy for your company, designing your life, to being present for your loved ones.

With regular practice of stopping and looking deeply, I’m confident you will find lasting joy and happiness.

If you have more questions after reading the article, please reach out to me. I’ll be happy to share my practice and help as much as I can. I will also continue to share more articles about mindfulness and my philosophy on my blog at www.withlovingheart.com if I think they may help others.

Most of my mindfulness practices come from studying and reading the books written by my teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh. To learn more, please check out one of his classics: “Peace Is Every Step: the Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life” foreword by the Dalai Lama.

Thank you for reading.

 

With loving heart,

Thanh Nguyen

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