Think about the last time you were stuck in traffic. Imagine it being a trip to L.A. with somewhere important to be, yet the traffic is really horrific: it’s frustrating, irritating and leaves you feeling helpless, hopeless and anxious… like time is slipping by without anything you can do about it. Stuck. Some people live their whole lives in this kind of mess. The traffic is a metaphor for their thoughts, and they are trapped Friday at 5, on the 405. The worst part is, some don’t even know it.
What if you emerged as the conductor of traffic: you could make traffic move by allowing thoughts that serve you to have the right-of-way, while delightfully guiding ones that don’t to take the nearest exit. You can make that happen, but it takes a mindful practice to awaken this power within. Then, suddenly, navigating even the most complicated roads becomes easier. To live your best life it takes a solid navigator, which is one who is not distracted by their thoughts and therefore assertive in their actions. If you remember trying to drive on the freeway for the first time, it can be scary because driving is not a passive task. Just like driving, thinking is not a passive task either, although many of us treat it as such. We often let our thoughts control us, unaware that this is even happening. Metaphorically, this is no different than driving under the influence because there is no consideration of the consequences. There are consequences of mindless thought. To avoid accidents and injuries you must drive sober. To avoid accidents and injuries, mindfulness is your sobriety, and as a consequence you will find yourself at your destination.
So, what is mindfulness? Mindfulness is a very ambiguous term. Yet, at a basic level we all intuitively have some idea of its reference: “to watch one’s step.” For example, “Sara, be mindful of the pole you’re about to walk into,” is something I often heard growing up. This once applied because I got into a habit of watching my feet as I walked, but my shoes never warned me of any upcoming poles. Since I remember my Mom saying this, as an adult I have become more mindful of where I keep my eyes as I stroll down the street, which doesn’t exactly mean I haven’t walked into any poles, fire hydrants or doors since, but my awareness is there because I brought a sense of mindfulness into a situation that needed careful consideration. A lot of us need to apply this same kind of awareness to different areas of our lives, and may not even realize a giant pole is just around the corner because we are still too distracted by our feet. Mindfulness on its most basic level means to observe, yet behind it is something much deeper. Notice in my real life example, how my ability to avoid poles was dependent on my ability to “watch myself.” I put this in quotes because it is still somewhat vague, as there is an essential step that comes before it. Your ability to be mindful and “watch yourself,” is dependent on your ability to stay present and witness yourself without judgment. Be forewarned: what you will begin to see cannot be unseen; there are things in your life that will be revealed to you in time that will change the way you see yourself and your interactions with others. It will change you and there is no going back. You can stay stuck in traffic without peripheral vision, or direct it with a clear view; it’s up to you.
One of my teachers once said, “Everything in your life is a mirror of what’s going on inside you.” When I first heard this, I disagreed. After all, we have little control over what happens around us… Or do we? In the grand scheme of things, no, we don’t have much control. Yet, we do attract what attracts us and for a reason: we like what we recognize, it is comforting because it gives us a false sense of security that we are not alone. What a lie we tell ourselves. Nevertheless, we fall for it… the person, the job, the situation, the belief, etc. We attract and then attach to these things that give us the most comfort. Some of us do this as a distraction, to avoid diving deep into ourselves– afraid of what we might find. This does not make us weak, but it does make us blind.
The song, Pretty Hurts, by Beyoncé, is a song that speaks to this attachment we form to our ideals, whether it is in reference to beauty, relationships or our own theories of “truth” that we stubbornly cling. The song is philosophical in the sense that it reveals a lot more about our reality than most of us feel comfortable admitting:
Pretty hurts, we shine the light on whatever’s worst
We try to fix something but you can’t fix what you can’t see
It’s the soul that needs the surgery
[Bridge:] Ain’t got no doctor or pill that can take the pain away
The pain’s inside and nobody frees you from nobody
It’s the soul, it’s the soul that needs surgery
It’s my soul that needs surgery
Plastic smiles and denial can only take you so far
Then you break when the fake facade leaves you in the dark
You’re left with shattered mirrors and the shards of a beautiful past
My interpretation: We focus more on our flaws, instead of being in the positive mindset of recognizing what we like. We distract ourselves with the appearances; we try to look our best to feel good, hoping that if our outside is pretty it will make our inside feel pretty too. This not only encourages us to avoid looking inward, but we are left with feelings of inadequacy because the outside world will never give us the acceptance and satisfaction we live in constant search for. You only feel good by correcting your vision on the inside: understanding that you are your own savior, hope and light at the end of the tunnel. No doctor, no drug, no relationship, no distraction we create can free us from ourselves. Otherwise, one day, you might have lived most of your life, yet look back longing for a life you could have had free of all this hopeless searching for something that was there on the inside all along.
The truth is, you and I are always on this journey of becoming. We are never “there” and there is no destination. No one is better than anyone; we are all here trying to grow in our own ways. We make mistakes, but hopefully we learn.
If you have found yourself wondering how you got where you are, even if it applies only to one situation or with one person, then you have to ask yourself some hard questions. Changing a situation for good only happens by bringing mindfulness into it. If you can be a witness to yourself, by having the ability to disconnect to connect (without bias, without lies we tell ourselves, without masks and without emotion as a filter), and most importantly, with the ability to be kind to yourself by looking in (unafraid), then you will change your life in the most positive way. You will start to conduct traffic, and the life you reflect will be the one you’ve always wanted because you now see how to move the right cars.
This is soul work, which doesn’t come easy. It can be frustrating to see how you’ve neglected a part of your emotional life, or let people in who were toxic. It may mean you start to question many relationships you currently have, but also realize the importance of some of the ones that you do. The people we surround ourselves with do play a pivotal role in the health and well being of our inner being. They either help us to flourish or hold us back, there’s no in between. Let this be your guide and your filter, as it works in your favor. Learning who is right and who is not will be significant to freeing yourself enough to uncover your own inner truths. We may not care what “everyone” thinks, but we do care what the people we care about think. Recognize this and be mindful of what ideas your friends endorse, it will say a lot about you and what you endorse too.
Remember the 16 year old behind the wheel trying to drive on a freeway for the first time, somewhat afraid of what might happen; have some faith in that driver because this is the navigator you need to serve as your mindful witness. It takes bravery to venture inward, just like your former self with that learner’s permit. We hide things from ourselves; we often don’t let ourselves feel emotions in a healthy way, we like to obstruct views, we deny and we lie…all of this we do to ourselves daily. Yet, in order to see real changes or just stay out of traffic accidents, we need this unbiased witness to verify inner truths. Below I’ve listed some points that have helped me practice mindfulness:
1. My first recommendation is to have a yoga practice. This is the gift in my life I am most grateful for, and something I cannot picture life without. It has changed the way I carry myself and the way I see myself because of the way practicing makes me feel. It has not only brought me peace, ease and a sense of control, but confidence as well. There’s nothing quite like proving yourself wrong and achieving something physical that happens over time. I have learned to let go of that, “I can’t” voice because it holds me back. I’ve learned to fall on my face and get back up, just to fall again and try again. And again the next day. Even if you practice one day a week, I promise it will change your life for the better. Yoga starts as something physical, moves into something more mental as you learn to connect your body with your breathing, and eventually takes on a more spiritual meaning when it becomes meditative, leading you on a journey way beyond your mat. (There are many different types of yoga you can try, if you want a recommendation let me know.)
2. Connect with your breath. Notice your breathing: it is a powerful tool. It is the gateway to the unconscious. Learning to control your breath will help you in any situation. When I was first starting to practice yoga, I honestly thought it was kind of annoying how much all these yoga teachers would talk about breathing… and I would be like, “yeah, yeah, I get it, all the stuff with the breath.” I didn’t get it. Now I get it… and have become one of those instructors. Try this, do an experiment on yourself: Think about something that gives you anxiety. Really feel that thing. Then notice what happens when you start to focus on your breathing and filling your lungs. Observe the more obvious shifts that happen within:
- Your level of anxiety reduces
- Your ability to deal with discomfort (in the form of an emotion) increases
- Your self-awareness/body-awareness increases
- The sense of ease you feel as you breath increases.
Everyday, a few times a day, make a point of connecting with your breath.
3. Connect with your voice. When I am teaching a yoga class, one thing I do notice as I look around the room is the relationship someone has with himself or herself. I notice this as they fall out of a pose, if they shake their head as they mess up, etc. Do you forgive yourself for making a mistake or are you a completely mean dictator? It becomes obvious to others, the kind of relationship you choose to have with yourself. It is always a choice. Who are you trying to attract and reflect? Keep this in mind and be that person to your own self. As a kinder self to yourself, you may find that the way you were once were okay with being treated, you are no longer okay with, as it was not all that kind. You expected less and therefore accepted less. Be ready to say goodbye to some who have shown you less respect than you’ve shown them or had for yourself. Live by the golden rule: treat others the way you would want to be treated. Yet, this is a two-way street: the definition of self-respect is found within the golden rule too. If you would never treat someone the way you were treated by them, then respect yourself enough to speak up and talk it out or walk away. This is how you practice self-love; it starts with knowing what self-respect feels like.
4. Fall in love with yourself. No one is going to love you like you love you. You are there right by your own side till the end. Get to know him or her with the same approach you would your newest friend. Be kind, gentle and help them feel good. Forgive them and cheer them on when they figure out they need to fix something. We often berate ourselves when we mess up, but learn that it’s not just okay, but necessary, to recognize when you’ve done something great too. Feel good because it feels good to feel good, and you can give more to others when you can give more to yourself. Period. I have qualities I admire. I like who I am. And I am in love with myself. I will never defend that last statement because it does not need defending. Learn to accept compliments from others and from yourself. Watch yourself when you feel the need to place a “but” after you say something nice about yourself, because YOU are listening to you speak about yourself and you do pay attention. This is not you feeding your ego. This is falling in love with yourself, which feeds your soul with essential nutrients, not to just survive the journey, but to thrive. You need self-love to make it the long-hall or you will find yourself in many rough patches along the way. Self-love is strength. Give it to get it.
5. Be a student. I know nothing, but I want to learn. This approach to life has helped me immensely. My definition of old, is when a person believes that they have lived and therefore have all the wisdom, stories and insight. Someone who has little interest in learning something new because they believe they already know the right way, which is the only way (according to them). This is my definition of old, and I will never be old because I always want to learn. You have something to tell me or show me? You want to point out something that will make my life easier? Please, tell me. I want to know all of life’s secrets and I’ll never be too rigid in my thoughts to not let someone come along and hit me with their mind bomb. In fact, mind bomb me often enough and I might fall in love with you. Next, to be a stellar student, learn to shut up. Stop thinking about your response to what someone is saying and just listen. Not everyone wants to hear what you or I have to say. It’s necessary to remind yourself of this. Do it often.
6. Take self-inventory. A friend once said this to me and it stuck. It’s a healthy habit to get into. Each day, mentally check in with yourself. Ask yourself things like, “How am I feeling today?” Remember, treat yourself like a new friend (we often make more effort than usual to get to know a new friend). Do that daily. It seems like something that can be done without thinking, but this is a false belief. You need to check in to learn what triggers your feelings and it will eventually help you to control your thoughts. If you don’t check in, if you don’t stop to notice, these thoughts will creep in and you will be up a creek wondering how you got there. Light bulb: You rowed your own self there; figure it out.
7. Meditate. 10 minutes a day, at least.
Mindfulness is the destination and the journey. It starts with getting real and being honest to better yourself. You’re worth your best life, live it.
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