Do you ever feel like your mind is speeding at one hundred twenty miles per hour, and you are in the back seat, with your eyes closed, waiting for a crash?
Did I pay the bills? Johnny needs more math practice. I can’t believe the zipper on my new skirt broke. Where is Annie’s silver shoe? Why can’t I find anything in this house? My birthday is coming up. How do I get that permanent marker off the bathroom wall? I need to call Peggy. What’s for dinner?
And on and on.
Maybe I’m just cursed with an overactive mind, I told myself with a sigh. But I didn’t want to believe that a chaotic mind was my destiny. I kept hoping that it was just a bad habit that could be unlearned if I could find the perfect set of tools. And so I searched for a miracle.
What I discovered is that most of us have more control over how we think than we believe. The technique is simple. Deceptively simple. It takes just a few minutes of paying attention to what you are doing while doing it. You might know it by the name of mindfulness.
Does the word mindfulness bring to mind images of monks on mountain tops? Oh sure, you might be thinking, mindfulness works for monks who have nothing better to do but sit on their butts all day enjoying rest and quiet. I haven’t heard silence since 2008 because even when all my kids are asleep, I hear warbling in my ears, which is the sound of my brain neurons dying from exhaustion.
But you know what? Mindfulness is not just for monks anymore. It just seems that way because monks were the first to embrace mindfulness. Over the past decade, there has been a proliferation of research into the benefits of mindfulness for ordinary people like me and you, and the results are heartwarming.
Mindfulness has been linked to a whole host of benefits: less emotional reactivity, greater attention, less pain, more wisdom, better immune system, and improved memory. Researchers are now even discovering that a few minutes of mindfulness on a regular basis can rewire your brain to make you a calmer and more positive person.
Just a few minutes a day to live better, be a more patient and peaceful parent and improve your attitude… sounds too good to be true? Or it can be true for other people, but most definitely not for you?
There is only one way to prove it wrong. Give it a try.
Where to begin?
“Just get up earlier and meditate,” experts say with knowing smiles.
Imagine getting up to a quiet house, meditating and breathing, without anyone poking a finger in your eye to open them for you. It’s magical. I would feel more positive and patient just from that alone. The only problem is that in this season of my life it’s impossible. Between four little kids, including a newborn, getting up before everyone else might just about kill me (although the threat doesn’t stop me from trying it occasionally).
But you know what I learned? You don’t need to sit in a lotus pose contemplating life with a philosophic detachment to make mindfulness work for you. Mindfulness is a commitment to being here and now without judgment and there are many ways to go about it.
For all of you with little kids who are too exhausted to hop out of bed extra early, here are a few mindful activities that you can add to your morning to feel more energetic and peaceful. Pick one or more for a better start to your day.
1. Breakfast Relaxation
I want toast. I want oatmeal. I need maple syrup. More milk, please. Clank. There goes toddler’s spoon. Mom, I spilled milk. More oatmeal, please! I don’t like this toast. I want something else.
Does it sometimes seem like everyone is sitting at the table enjoying their breakfast, while you dash between the table and the kitchen fetching things and cleaning up messes?
Instead of slipping into a resentful mode, I came up with a Walking Relaxation. You are still doing what you usually do, so you are not adding a new task to your day. But instead of starting to build up the tension, you release it.
There is no right or wrong way of doing Walking Relaxation. The idea is to use each step you take between the table and the sink or refrigerator to let go of tension. Posture is important: hold your spine erect, neck long and shoulders down. Walk with small steps and let your exhales get longer. As your exhales grow longer, you will naturally take longer inhales. Try to let go. In the beginning, it might help to say silently, “I exhale. I inhale. I’m here. I’m walking.”
It doesn’t seem like much, but soon you will notice that your Walking Relaxation creates a calm energy around you. This calm energy will quickly spread out to your kids! Be the energy you wish to see in your kids!
2. Empty Your Mind (free printable)
When you feel like your brain is just about ready to explode with all the different threads of thought competing for attention, it only makes sense to get it all out. Some people call it by the very unpoetic name of Brain Dump, but I prefer to call it a Mind Flow. I let my mind flow on paper, writing down all those little thoughts, then look it over and see what jumps out. You might be surprised. The Mind Flow is the best technique I know to go from overwhelm to calm in a short amount of time.
There is no one right way to let your mind flow. You can do a stream of consciousness, a list or a mind map, or a combination of all three. Just put pen to paper and start writing. Jot down thoughts, sentences, fragments of ideas and just keep writing. Two minutes. Five minutes. Make the best use of what you’ve got.
When you are done, look it over and see if something jumps off the page at you. I usually only have time to grab onto one idea and spend the rest of the day nurturing and working on this one thing. But, some days, I have time to go over everything I have written with a colored pen and organize it into Yes (Do it), No (Discard it) and Perhaps (inspirational ideas that I might find time for if the mood is right).
I don’t know about you, but sometimes it’s hard for me to begin when all I have is a white piece of paper and a pen. I also like to use things that are a pleasure to view. So I created a lovely printable to inspire me along. It might seem like a lot of ink for “just” a five-minute exercise, but you are worth it. I added Mind Flow printable to my Subscribers-only library of resources. If you are not a subscriber, click here.
3. Stress-free cup of tea
Tea is soothing to your body and soul. You don’t have to give up your coffee to take advantage of this meditation technique. Just start your day with tea and drink your coffee later in the morning. The most important thing is to be mindful of the experience.
To start, I tell myself that the next five minutes of my life are going to be a stress-free zone. All worries, frustrations, hopes and dreams can wait. There is nothing more important right now than just being here with my tea. I notice the color, the aroma, the way it moves inside the cup as I lift the cup to my lips. I don’t force emptying my mind, but I try not to engage with my thoughts.
Inevitably thoughts like: “I have so many things to do,” or “I don’t have time to waste,” enter my mind. I can feel the muscles in my legs tightening, ready to go. I tell myself that anything, anything at all, can wait for just five minutes, and switch my attention back to tea. If you just started this practice and you have small children, they might come over to tell you something. I accept this as an inevitable part of my life, I answer what they need to hear and then go back to my tea.
It doesn’t matter what tea you drink, but for me, aromatic teas are the best. I used to make my blends with dry fruits and herbs, but now I found a premade mix that is delicious. I brew it in a ceramic cup. If I have to walk away from my tea because of some emergency (“Mom! My car fell behind the couch!”) the lid keeps it hot until I can get back to it.
After a while, you might notice that you don’t even need that cup of coffee anymore. Sounds impossible? I gave up coffee ten years ago and didn’t even notice.
4. Pause and Observe
Just what it says. Stop doing whatever you are doing and observe your life directly as it unfolds. What is happening around you? What is each kid doing? See without judgment. Don’t let your mind get caught up in a to-do list as you notice piles of clutter or a sink full of dishes. It is what it is. Accept it all.
Bringing mindfulness to your house might lead to the new levels of insight and understanding about yourself and your life.
Start with one minute. You can even set a timer. To make it happen, set the alarm for the same time each morning. When it goes off, stop whatever you are doing and observe.
5. Shrug your shoulders
If your kids begin to vex you or the morning is not going the way you envisioned, shrug your shoulders. It will not make the problem go away, but it will help you approach the situation from a place of calm. It’s not just a mental trick. Poor posture, everyday stress, picking up kids, all contribute to tension in your shoulders.
Simply shrug your shoulders to your ears, hold tightly for 2-3 seconds, still holding them tightly rotate the shoulders back and say “aah…” as you relax them down into a normal position. It might help you, just as it helps me, to imagine the weight of the world sliding off your back as you are dropping your shoulders.
The benefit of a simple shrug is enormous. You will feel it right away.
6. Connecting with the universe
I love this one. I do it every morning when I just get up. It’s powerful, and it’s easy. Just stand in front of a window. Or if you live in a house and can step outside for a few minutes do it. In any weather. Look at the sky, at the trees, at a flying bird and the stones under your feet. Smell the air. Pause and listen. What do you hear? See the world around you with fresh eyes.
We are all part of this universe that has existed for 13 billion years. Some things came and went before we were born, and other things will come and go after we are gone. We are just a speck in time. We all have problems and situations we need to address. When you pull back and look at your life from the perspective of the universe, they might seem smaller than you first imagined.
The purpose of nature connection is not to minimize your troubles, but to gain a perspective. Some things matter more than others, but when you shift the starting point, everything changes.
We are all made of stardust. We are all connected. What is your place in the great scheme of things? What energy do you want to give to this world and the people around you?
I came up with this when I was a young mother, just starting out. As a person that normally had everything under control, it was shocking for me to realize that I’m not in control of this little bundle of joy. He wanted to eat when I wanted to sleep, and he slept when I wanted to go somewhere. Thoughts like “Is he ever going to fall asleep?! I want to do x, y and z,” led to frustration in my mind and tension in my body.
And I didn’t like it.
So the moment I caught myself getting tangled in shoulds and wants, I would put baby safely in a crib and play possum. I still do this today.
The technique is simple: lie down on your back and don’t move. Keep your eyes closed. All you have to do is be. Possums pretend to be dead to avoid situations they don’t want to deal with, and I play dead to reverse the negative flow.
As the thoughts would start entering my mind, I would say, “Thanks, but I’m dead. I cannot have any thoughts.” Anytime I would start getting caught up in “I don’t have time for this,” I would remind my mind, “you have nothing to worry about. You are dead.”
Sometimes I envision myself melting into a ground breath by breath. Other times I mentally whisper “surrender” as I surrender my whole body to the floor and let go. Lying down on the floor for 3-5 minutes is one of the best things you can do to reverse the flow of negative thoughts and refresh yourself.
It’s surprisingly energizing to be dead for a few minutes. You might be surprised to know that the benefits of relaxing on the floor for a few minutes go far beyond simple relaxation. Scientists tell us that this pose helps us repair tissues and cells, and reduces blood pressure. In clinical studies, it has been shown to help people with anxiety and insomnia.
A word of warning: when you are done, don’t just jump up and go. First bring gentle awareness and movement back to your mind. Roll to your side with your eyes still closed. Take a few breaths in a sitting position before you get up. Of course, when you have small kids, often you are done when someone falls on top of you. You don’t always have a choice on how you finish, but if you do, take care to get up slowly to rip the most benefits.
Mindfulness has some extraordinary effects on the brain. It can calm your mind and make a huge difference in the quality of your life. Here I outlined seven simple strategies that you can try in the mornings to feel more peaceful and to take some stress out of your day. Each is about five minutes long, and you can mix and match depending on your needs. Playing Possum, Connecting with the Universe, Mind Flow, Shrugging, Pausing, Breakfast Walk, and a Stress-free Cup of Tea. I’m sharing techniques that work for me, and you take them the rest of the way. Play with them. Find something that works for you!
Are you going to try one of the strategies? Tell me in the comments below!