Mindfulness Breaks For Everyone!
Hands up if you know the value of breaks and often recommend them to others but also struggle to take enough breaks yourself! (Me! You? Most of us??)
And hands up if you know the value of practicing mindfulness and think we should all do more of it but struggle to be consistent in your own practice? (Me too! You?? Pretty much everyone?)
Darn, life can be troublesome. Fortunately our human brains are just as good at coming up with creative, novel solutions as they are at identifying problems and all the things that need fixing pretty well all of the time. Go brains!
Let’s marry these two problems together in the interest of coming up with a creative, novel solution, shall we? Introducing… *drum roll, but like a quiet, restful drum roll* … Mindfulness Breaks!
First, let’s address one of the most common myths about mindfulness: that it must be done through seated meditation, preferably with many flowing shawls and scarves, in a calm and quiet environment by a superhuman person who can empty their mind and commune with the Universe at will.
Here’s the reality: mindfulness is anything you do that gets you to engage with the present moment in a non-judgemental, observant way. When you notice how nice the sun feels on your face and for one second that’s all that’s on your mind - that’s mindfulness! When you settle into a hug with a person you love and lose yourself in the moment - that’s mindfulness! When you are jamming out to your favourite tune and forget all your trouble - that’s mindfulness! And that mindfulness can be (and needs to be) practiced by regular people who are busy and trying their best and making it work (scarves and shawls are optional, but recommended for those who enjoy the sensation of long flowing fabrics on their beings).
So, if you need to take more breaks and also want to practice mindfulness more often, here are some ways to do just that:
True story: I once worked in a restaurant kitchen with an unofficial policy of dance breaks. Here’s how it worked: anytime things got tense or stressful, someone would yell ‘Dance Break!’ and everyone (including all the grumpy, grizzled career line cooks) had to stop, put down their food and utensils, and dance for a few seconds. I thought it was such a good idea that I stole it and continue to steal it today (sue me, unnamed restaurant!). Now that I work for myself, it’s up to me to declare ‘Dance Break’ and get that needed break in, but it does work well in groups (as long as everyone agrees). In addition to providing a much needed break, mindfulness is baked in because once you engage your body in moving, it’s hard for your brain to ruminate or worry. If you want to test that out, put on your fave song, dance, and try doing math problems in your head at the same time. At the very least, your dancing will become quite random and your calculations will take much longer than usual. That’s because multitasking is a myth. So when you fully occupy your brain and body with an activity like dancing, that’s all you can do until you stop.
You’ve got lots of stuff to do each day and I bet that lot of it is done on auto pilot. Things like brushing your teeth, washing dishes, tidying up, or eating are all great examples of times we can slow down and be mindful. The slowing down has its own benefit and you might notice really interesting things when you engage mindfully with those habitual tasks. I remember once mindfully drinking a hot coffee and realizing that when I pay attention, I can actually feel the warmth of the coffee moving all the way down into my stomach. It was cool and weird but I’m happy to have had the experience. What else have I been missing out on noticing? Since you’re already doing these things anyway, it only requires a little bit of extra time to do one of those things mindfully. The other advantage of this is variety; you can choose something new every day!
Metta is also called Loving-Kindness meditation. It’s a structured way of meditating that focuses on compassion for self and others. It’s a wonderful practice that can be done in anywhere from 5 to any number of minutes. Unfortunately when we are really run ragged even 5 minutes can feel insurmountable. To do Speedy Metta, close your eyes (if you can… and if not, just focus your mind) and think to yourself “May I be safe, May I be healthy, May I be happy, May I be at ease” (or any phrases like this that resonate with you) and then think of one other person and repeat the same phrases directed at them (i.e. “May you be safe” etc). This is a great way to have a mindfulness break if someone is getting on your last nerve (just got off the phone with CRA?) or you are preoccupied worrying about someone else (Hello, parents of children of all ages!). It can also be a great mood booster when you want to express gratitude or love for someone. Doing that for even a few seconds can make everything a little shinier!
Mindfulness Meditation in basic terms is just focusing on your breath. Feeling the inhalation and exhalation and trying your best to focus your mind on paying attention to your continued breathing. That’s it! Fortunately you don’t need to be on a meditation pillow or in a certain posture to do this. Got a lot of email to do? Same! Why not take a few seconds to take 1 or 2 deep breaths between each email you read or send? Any tasks that are short in duration but also plentiful provide a natural structure for breathing breaks. I had a client who was bogged down marking student’s papers who did this while marking. Most of us breathe in a shallow way and even one deep belly breath can go a long way to calming the parasympathetic nervous system. It can be hard to remember to do this sort of repeated action, so consider a prompt to help you stay focused on taking those micro breaks.
Sometimes you might be waiting for the subway or for someone to show up to an appointment impatiently thinking, “Come on, let’s do this thing!” (or maybe I am just describing myself ha ha). Those are also opportunities for mindfulness. Look around as if you have never seen what’s before your eyes. This can be really interesting to do in a place you’ve been many times before, like your own home or a subway station or your workplace. What haven’t you been seeing because you’ve simply become habituated? Taking a beat to simply look around and really take in your surroundings is a quick and easy way to practice mindfulness. With one caveat: do not do this while driving!
Bonus: Simply Existing!
The expression “We aren’t human doings we are human beings” is as true as it is cheesy. It is easy to not let yourself just exist. Just be. Don’t do anything. This is a bonus because it can be really challenging. Most of us are conditioned to be busy all the time and that’s really draining. While taking a few seconds or minutes to stop and allow yourself to just exist and do nothing else isn’t fully the ‘solution’ to overcoming this conditioning, it’s a great start. I have a tattoo on my wrist that says “I am, I am, I am” to remind me of this. It’s from the book The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. The full quotation is a good note to end on here:
Taking more frequent breaks and carving out time for mindfulness is much more accessible than many people think. I hope this has been helpful in giving you some ideas to try out.
I’d love to hear what works for you and if you have your own clever ways of taking Mindfulness Breaks.