The next steps of mindfulness

Many of us have experienced the benefits of mindfulness and wish to apply it more into our lives.  We often talk about mindfulness in our daily lives in terms of being present while doing certain activities during the day, rather than caught up in our thoughts, memories and plans.  Being present while having a shower, driving our cars, interacting with loved ones, or eating a meal helps us pause from our habitual tendencies of self-absorption and connects us with our experiences within ourselves and with our environment.

These are wonderful first steps, but there is much more to the practice of mindfulness.  It is difficult to continuously be mindful in daily life because simply being present is not a powerful enough motivator.  The WIIFM question is not answered compellingly enough to bother to remember to be mindful all the time because there is no inherent value in just being in the present. 

Mindfulness is a skill that can be cultivated to help us in our lives.  Whether it is to alleviate stress, find more joy in our lives, develop more harmonious relationships, more wisely respond to the needs of our bodies, build our concentration or understand the nature of our existence, we use mindfulness as a tool to make our lives, and the lives of the people around us, better in some way or another. 

Ask yourself what might be useful for your well-being.  If your stress levels are very high, you may wish to reduce this.  Alternatively, you may wish to cultivate more joy, generosity or gratitude, and choose to direct your mindfulness here.  Anything that resonates with you personally is a useful motivator.

Once you have a clear aspiration in mind, at the start of each day, remind yourself of this and set an intention to apply mindfulness in service of it.  For example, if you wish to reduce stress in your life, set an aspiration to tune into your level of stress as frequently as you can during the day.  It does not take much time nor energy to do this.  If you pause and reflect on your stress levels at any given time, you can quite immediately get a sense of this.  This is the first step.

Now that you have used mindfulness to tune into your stress levels, see if you can take the stress down a couple of notches.  You may take a couple of deep breaths, look up and notice something pleasant in your environment, reflect on something to be grateful for, or tune into your body to consciously relax any areas of tension.  You may take a walk, listen to some music, or recall a pleasant interaction with a loved one.  It doesn’t matter what you do; as long as it works for you at the time, you are taking appropriate actions in service of your aspiration.

Frequently, people feel they need to take their stress levels all the way down.  This is not necessary.  If our stress level is 7 out of 10, taking this to 6.5 is heading in the right direction and can be considered a success.  Whether our levels are at 9 or 3, taking this down a notch simply means heading in the direction of our aspiration of reducing stress in our lives.

If you wish to cultivate more gratitude, you can start with an intention each morning to be more aware of good things in your life that you may possibly not have noticed.  For example, the fact that we are currently healthy is something we often take for granted.  Immediately after an illness, we may appreciate the contrast between our good health and how we felt while ill, but very quickly take this good health for granted.  Reflecting on this body of ours, that largely functions automatically to enable us to breathe, work, love and play, is a useful direction to explore gratitude.  We can also reflect on our relationships, our living conditions, or anything else we often take for granted.

We can also use mindfulness to tune into the level of gratitude we have, and correlate this with how this makes us feel.  How do we feel when we have a wholehearted experience of gratitude that suffuses our entire being?  How do we feel when we are mildly grateful, or when gratitude is not present at all?  Do we enjoy some of these experiences more than others?  How can awareness of gratitude be used in service of our well-being?

If we have a more comprehensive awareness of the bigger picture of life, we can then fully use this powerful tool of mindfulness to transform our lives.  This can help us free our minds of the habitual ways of perceiving the world, and live with more peace and wisdom.