Everyday Mindfulness

Long ago, in what feels like another lifetime, I had a Tuesday night ritual…

After work, I walked up Manhattan’s west side until I reached a nondescript office building. Invariably, a group of people, of all ages and backgrounds, flooded the lobby, waiting to cram into the tiny elevator and ride to the sixth floor. As the doors opened, we slipped off our shoes, stowed our devices, and quietly nodded hello, before taking our places on a cushion for thirty minutes of silence.

Sometimes, it takes the absence of something to recognize its value. (Hello, past twelve months.) Where mindfulness practice used to be a big part of my life, like so many things during the pandemic, I’ve let it slip away just when I need it the most. I miss those moments of simply being present with what is.

So, this week, I spoke with meditation teacher Adreanna Limbach about how to gently incorporate mindfulness into our everyday lives.

First off, what is mindfulness?
At its most basic level, the definition I come back to is one from Jon Kabat-Zinn: “The awareness that arises when we’re paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, without judgment.” I love that it parses out the distinction between everyday paying attention and mindfulness practice, which is non-judgment.

How do we put this into practice?
First, it’s important to note there are four foundations of mindfulness:
– The body
– Emotions and feelings
– Mind and thoughts
– Phenomena, meaning the world around us

The shortcut into mindfulness, for me at least, is dropping into my senses. To do this, take a moment to close your eyes and move through becoming aware of each of these four foundations.

For anyone who is unfamiliar, can you walk me through how you do that?
[Ed note: At this point, Adreanna assumes a soothing voice that makes me feel instantly at peace.] Let the eyes gently shut. Take a few deep breaths, feeling the weight of your body against the surface beneath you. Notice all the places where the body makes contact with it. Notice the texture of your clothing. Feel the breath moving in and out. Notice the sounds in the room, the temperature of the air. Notice the emotional tone in your body — not just your mind, but any physical sensations you may have of how an emotion manifests. Notice any thoughts you might have. After a minute, just relocate yourself in space. Take a few more deep breaths, open the eyes, and come back.

In a practical sense, how is mindfulness helpful?
The most sincerely useful way I’ve found is when I find myself particularly charged with an emotion — namely a negative one, like stress, jealousy, anger, sadness — I’ll take just one minute to move through the checklist above. For me, personally, it has also helped with how I relate to control. My own tension and anxiety come from always trying to keep my fingers on the pulse of the 17 things I need to stay on top of. But being able to drop back into my body and be aware of the present moment, as it stands, can help me relax.

What would you say to someone who is intimidated by meditation? Or who maybe tried it but didn’t stick with it?
If you’ve tried meditation and feel like you’re bad at it, the fun and potentially radical thing about mindfulness practice is that there’s no such thing as doing it ‘bad’ or ‘wrong.’ Almost everything else in our lives we can measure or rate on a scale of good or bad, right or wrong. But the whole ethos of meditation is that there’s no good or bad. If you sit down and all you notice is that you spent five restless minutes unable to pay attention to your breath and your surroundings, that’s still great, because it means you were present enough to notice how internally busy you are.

In your book, you described how when we’re running on autopilot, we can miss the subtle moments of beauty all around us every day. How can we practice this in our current lives, where many of us are stuck in the same environments day in and day out?
When you become overly familiar with something, there’s an acclimated blindness that develops around it. So, take a moment to be still in a room that you’ve been in a gazillion times, that you probably use for multiple purposes — work, sleep, schooling — and pause. Look down at the floor for a minute, then look up, intentionally with fresh eyes, and notice what draws your eye. Notice the plant, the panel of light from the midday sun, the way the color of the pillowcase intersects with the color of the wall. Our responsibility is to get out of the way, so that we can catch beauty in the act.

Do you have any words to share for anyone who might be experiencing pandemic burnout?
The truth is, we change from day to day. Each day, we bring a whole new set of thoughts and feelings and physical sensations and moods to these same-old situations and same-old environments. Mindfulness helps us notice what’s different. As it turns out, the inverse of judgment is curiosity. Bringing a spirit of curiosity to this moment, even when it’s challenging, even when it can feel like we’re doing the exact same things in the exact same environment, invites us to say, ‘What’s new here, what’s fresh here?’

Mindfulness practice is one of inclusivity — when we meditate, we’re breathing with grief, with sadness, with anxiety, with overwhelm. When a feeling arises, we don’t have to cut it off or push it away. We invite these uncomfortable emotions to the table, and we practice being with them, without judgment. Best of all, mindfulness isn’t something extra, or something we need to acquire — it’s something we all have by virtue of being human. If we can create the conditions for mindfulness to arise, we all have access to it.

Thanks so much, Adreanna. Do you have a mindfulness practice? Have you ever tried to meditate? Do you have any thoughts or tips to share?

For anyone interested in learning more about mindfulness, I highly recommend Adreanna’s book, Tea and Cake with Demons, which I’ve turned to many times. It reads like a conversation with a loving friend, full of wisdom and support. And to experience her soothing voice for yourself, Adreanna’s website has lots of resources, including free guided meditations.

P.S. Six stretches for people who sit at desks and meditation for beginners.

(Photo by Christine Han/Stocksy.)