A mindful life

This morning I worked from home as repair people worked on my dishwasher. That meant locking my dog in another room so she would leave them alone and, of course, she barked the entire time. Between her barking and lots of questions from the repair people that I couldn’t answer (Do you know why the solenoid valve stopped working? Um…no.), I felt like I was losing my mind and was preparing to be in a bad mood about it all. And then I remembered my recent conversation with Shannon, took a deep breath, and reminded myself that these problems are really not a big deal.

Shannon has spent the last few years focusing mindfulness and it’s made a big impact on her life. You can check out a definition of mindfulness here, but I’ll let Shannon explain what it means to her and her life.

Caitlin: How did you become interested in mindfulness?

Shannon: As far back as I can remember, I have always loved thinking and talking about answers to life’s big questions; I think I was just born a philosophic and introspective person. When I graduated from college I started doing yoga, and I LOVED the last five to ten minutes where you just lay on the ground in silence, sometimes being guided through a meditation, sometimes listening to the beat of drums or donging of bells, and sometimes in pure silence. I loved letting my mind wander without judgment, and lived for those moments where you ‘woke up’ feeling like you actually may have achieved 30 seconds of ‘mindlessness’. I always felt calm and restored after yoga, so I decided to take a meditation class, read a lot about how to meditate, and continued practicing yoga as much as I could.

It wasn’t until I moved-in with my now husband six years ago that I realized I had a lot more work to do on myself –work that just striving for this calm, ‘mindless’ state wasn’t going to get me to. I went to a psychiatrist to work through some temper and control issues, and for the first time, learned how to recognize that I was getting stressed out and feeling out of control BEFORE I erupted at my partner or co-worker, etc.

My therapist essentially taught me my first lesson in mindfulness, and gave me a tip that I still think about almost every day: on the days where you can’t imagine doing yoga or sitting quietly, those are the days where you probably need it the most.

So, at the end of a crazy, stressful day, where all I wanted to do was go to bed and get the day over with, I would force myself to do some yoga and sit. And lo & behold, just that little amount of time spent grounding myself at the time I needed it most, acknowledging and recognizing what my body was telling me – that I needed to slow down and ‘chill’ for a bit – enabled me to ease up on my need to control others (which we tend to do when we ourselves are feeling out of control.. go figure!).

It was another year or two until I was online reading one of my friend’s facebook posts where I learned about an organization called Mindful Schools, and decided to enroll in their Mindfulness Fundamentals class, since I had just had a baby and was feeling like I could use a little ‘me-work.’ That class was the first time I heard the term “mindfulness” and when I started my “formal” mindfulness practice.

Caitlin: What exactly does mindfulness mean?

Shannon: There are a ton of definitions of mindfulness, so I’ll tell you what it means to me. Mindfulness is about being fully present in the moment. That means paying attention to, or being mindful of, our emotions (even bad ones), our thoughts (even crazy ones), and our bodily sensations (even uncomfortable ones) “in the moment,” without judgment. You’re aware of your thoughts, but somehow you don’t feel lost in them or trapped by them, and that can be really freeing.

Caitlin: What does your practice look like?

Shannon: My practice changes over time as things in my life experience change. For example, I’m 23 weeks pregnant now, and practicing yoga, balancing, and sitting weren’t really viable options for me from about week 6 to 15 thanks to a combination of exhaustion and nausea; I also have a two and a half year old, so finding ways to incorporate a daily practice and still tend to him and my husband, dog, house, and work has brought along some challenges, too.

So currently, my practice looks like this – every night before I get into bed, I do some yoga stretching and sit for as long as I can, anywhere from five to twenty minutes.

I also have mindfulness reminders throughout the day, where a trigger alerts me that I need to take a breath and check-in with myself. One of my triggers is when I’m staring at my split-ends when I’m stuck in traffic! (laughs) Another is when I’m tempted to text while driving or when I’m at work and in meetings and feel myself getting distracted. Really, once you get started with a mindfulness practice, it’s not just about “sitting” for 10 minutes a day, it’s about being mindful throughout your day.

Caitlin: Is it for everyone?

Shannon: This is a tough one. While I do think that everyone has the ability to learn about and practice mindfulness, since at some point throughout everyone’s day, you are mindful and aware of what’s going on to a certain extent already, I think you will get the most out of it if you’re not looking at it as a bandaid, or just something else that you need to get on your checklist to do. It’s really a totally different way of thinking and interacting with the world, and for some people, that might just be ‘too deep’ or ‘too hoaky’ or just too foreign a concept to open yourself to. That’s one of the reasons I want to teach mindfulness to kids, because I think kids are so much more open to trying new things than adults.

Caitlin: How has your life changed since you starting studying/practicing mindfulness?

Shannon: Well, to start, I have far fewer screaming matches with my husband. I also find that I am able to notice a lot faster when I’m feeling agitated, stressed, or frustrated because I’m spending so much time watching my physical sensations (like my teeth clenching or pulse racing) and am getting good at doing something to regulate those sensations, like taking a breath, or leaving the room, or just letting the other person know “I’m feeling stressed”.

I’ve also always been really into following my intuition or that 6th sense, and I think when you’re grounded in the present moment, you’re much more in-tune to the universe.

And I think it has also made me more empathetic. When I’m not completely engrossed in my own little world of work stresses, to-do lists, social media – I find that I remember to think about other people a lot more. My friendships have gotten stronger, and I’ll find myself doing random acts of kindness more randomly, too.

Caitlin: How has it changed the way you parent?

Shannon: I started my formal mindfulness practice at about the same time I became a parent. I actually think becoming a parent helped me with my mindfulness practice, in that I found myself so fully present in moments with my new baby, just so amazed at all of the little things he was doing every day, that it was pretty easy to be present. At the same time, mindfulness would remind me to put down my phone or turn off the TV or stop thinking about everything I had to do that day, so that I could be fully present with my son and husband. When you live in the present, and surrender to the present moment, you’re also just less anxious or worried about the future.

Caitlin: What advice would you give someone who is trying to instill some of these practices in their own life?

Shannon: Don’t be hard on yourself. Just start practicing whenever you can. It can be really hard to find 5, 10, 15 minutes a day to just sit and be with yourself. You’re essentially giving your brain a workout, and days when you’re most stressed and crazy are the days when it’s the hardest to be with your thoughts. But just remember, getting to your chair for even a quick 5 minutes is sometimes all it takes (just the act of recognizing that you’re having a crazy day is being mindful – so kudos! You just worked out!).

Also, find some triggers throughout the day when you remind yourself to be mindful. It could be when you’re brushing your teeth or doing the dishes/ making dinner. It could be when you’re staring at your split-ends, too. (laughs)  But, having little reminders throughout the day really help you incorporate mindfulness throughout your life experience, and I think that’s really where you’ll find it has the biggest impact.

Caitlin: What are you goals regarding mindfulness?

Shannon: My main goal, and the reason I was so attracted to the practice in the first place, is to maintain a sense of balance in my life. I hated how I would feel after I lost my temper or became crazy stressed at work for no good reason. Knowing that I have the power within myself to change my interactions with the world around me is pretty powerful stuff.

I also will continue taking the curriculum offered by Mindful Schools, with the hope of eventually teaching mindfulness to kids as a full-time gig. One of my biggest worries in life is that I will have spent all this time walking the earth and not left an imprint; I think teaching kids a practice so potentially life-altering as mindfulness can be one of the biggest impacts I can make on the world.

And in the meantime, before I change the world, my goal is to simply continue to strengthen my own practice and keep living in, embracing, and enjoying the present.