Encountering Silence: 10 Ways to Cultivate Mindfulness as a Habit (Part 2 of 2)

In the (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) MBSR courses I have been a part of there is always a point in the eight weeks of 3-hour long classes that students are asked to pick a part of their daily life to practice mindfulness. Within the course students have been asked to practice mindful meditation for 20-30 minutes at a time every day. Introducing mindfulness into a daily task is suggested because - and I hope you’re ready for this harsh reality - but if you can only be mindful when you’re perched on your meditation cushion in a cloud of sage, you haven’t quite reached the heart of what has made a mindfulness practice really powerful.

As a reminder, being mindful is not a mysterious nirvanic achievement. It is “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally,” (Jon Kabat Zinn). The present moment is just that: wherever you are, whenever you are - fleeting by nature. Your quietest times of meditation are always worthwhile as a practice, but if we cannot bring this spirit of paying attention into our sleepy mornings, rainy Mondays, and hurried conversations, we’re missing out.

Some of the suggestions below may seem crazy to some of you who haven’t even touched a mindfulness practice and some of you may already be on your 300th day of one hour a day mindful meditation (seriously, you guys are mystifying to me). These ideas come from people I have studied under, students I learned alongside, and my own need to create space when life starts to feel a bit too tight. Whoever and wherever you are, I hope these ideas inspire and sustain your moment-to-moment practice.

  1. Meditate while moving. The first is for those of you who are horrified at the idea of meditating in silence. In one of my first courses, a fellow student was struggling (as I still do!) with the body scan variation of meditation. This meditation is often recommended for people who struggle with falling asleep - so that should tell you why it can be problematic. My classmate said she had started using the body scan meditation when running. This practice changed both her outlook on the length of her run and the content of her meditation. Another person in this same class said they had started doing it on their commute - you know, without closing your eyes. Imagine how different traffic might feel?

  2. Listen while you walk. The second practice comes from my mindfulness mentor, Aleezé Moss. There is a meditation called loving kindness or metta meditation that is often practiced in the final sessions of MBSR courses. One of my favorite samples of it can be found here. She mentioned in one class that she sometimes uses this (by memory) when she is walking from place to place in the city. Imagine your walk with the following phrases rumbling about in your head: “May you be peaceful. May you be happy. May you be as strong as you are able. May you live with ease of well-being.”

  3. Lose the headphones. I can remember a time when I always had headphones in my pockets because I could never go from place to place without listening to music along the way. I’m not here to condemn or judge those of you who, like me, just enjoy when life looks like a musical. I have totally done that thing you do when you’re having a dead-in-the-eyes day and you put on your favorite beats to psych you up for a gym session that you don’t really want to go to. But really, I am here to question our habits and to tell you that I haven’t the faintest idea where my headphones are right now. It can be healthy to take a break from the norm of blocking out the outside and instead, letting sound (and maybe even thoughts?) in. I’ve been heckled too (seriously - even while very noticeably pregnant). I know these can sometimes be a protective measure. But I don’t want to reduce music to a defense mechanism anymore than I want to miss out on the birds that sometimes sing behind the hecklers.

  4. Notice your transitions. This comes from a mentee within my mindfulness program at Jefferson. This one is pretty simple: when you get somewhere new in your day, take 1-minute to “check-in”. Checking in can be as simple as taking a few mindful breaths or seeing what’s in your mind (Anxiety? Excitement? Nothing much?) or even simply listening and looking with the intent to really see where you are.  This practice could have a huge effect on how you meet your day, your meetings, or your family. In my own past life as a business owner, I would often schedule my times of formal practice for mindfulness around transitions - before or after often stressful meetings or conversations. This checking-in doesn’t need to be formal though, it can happen in a breath; it’s the pause that makes the biggest difference.

  5. Eat mindfully. It’s not the first time you’ve ever heard it, I’m sure, but eating mindfully cannot only “make” your food taste better, ease your digestion, and automatically reinforce better nutrition choices - it can also give you an opportunity to be present in your normal everyday life. I love this short pithy video from Thich Naht Hanh on mindful eating: “Breakfast is an opportunity to practice.” This means you have to be doing just what you’re doing - eating. I, like the rest of 21st century humanity, often “unwind” by eating with technology, a book, a friend, etc. If the idea of going without these mechanisms for an entire meal sounds crazy to you, I might recommend beginning with a mindful cup of tea or coffee. Abstain from obvious distractions for a full cup, and watch the never-before-released present unravel before you.

  6. When you walk your dog, walk your dog. This one’s obviously going to play to a more specific audience but it’s been mentioned so much in my classes that I’ve got to include it.  In the first mindfulness class of the 8-week course we are asked to place stickers (STICKERS!!!) in individual places where we might find it useful to pause for a moment of mindfulness.  One of the first places that came to mind for me was our dog leash. Maddox is a gem (as most of you know) but walking him can still feel like a chore sometimes as he likes to exert his maleness over every single solitary tree in Philadelphia. It’s amazing how different a walk feels when I try to walk like he does versus the other way around. I like him so much more! Mable on the other hand is a bit of a trigger for my stress-levels as of late as she can be a little leash-aggressive and tends to walk more like a sidewinder than a dog. At the end of the day though, she walks with slight paranoia paired with a slight amount of joy. I try to let myself enter into the joy bit to actually appreciate walks with her. She notices everything. I notice nothing. Isn’t it the ideal mindfulness habit to take walks with your dog where you try to actually walk like your dog does anyway - in the present? Something tells me having a kid is going to double my need for this type of practice.

  7. Brush your teeth mindfully. You need to brush your teeth for at least two minutes anyway. Why not really embrace those two minutes in silence?

  8. Do your best noticing in the shower. You know those times when you’re in the shower and you suddenly realize that you can’t remember if you’ve conditioned your hair yet? This is for you guys. And for me. Full disclosure: I shower only every three days or so (long story for another time) so this habit does retain a bit of its novelty when I give it a go. I find it best to ask myself some questions: What do I feel like? What is the feeling of water on my skin? What are the smells I am smelling? What is the sound of water falling like? There’s even a whole New York Times article about this one!

  9. Laundry. This one has become all the more real to me as my pregnancy-related insomnia has increased. I wake up around 4am and since I can’t sleep, I fold laundry quietly in our bathroom. Usually this is about the same time that the baby decides to let me know it’s awake too so I enjoy sitting there with nothing to do but fold and feel. It’s kind of precious. I don’t know that I get to this moment in the same way when it’s Sunday night and I’m hurrying through a load that’s been chucked on our bed before it’s time to change the sheets and hop in them before the week begins. I’d encourage you to give it a go. Fold in the quiet and see how different it feels.

  10. Dishes. Every now and then when I wash the dishes, a quote from Thich Naht Hanh’s book, The Miracle of Mindfulness pops into my head: “If while washing dishes, we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way as if they were a nuisance, then we are not "washing the dishes to wash the dishes." What's more, we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes. In fact we are completely incapable of realizing the miracle of life while standing at the sink. If we can't wash the dishes, the chances are we won't be able to drink our tea either. While drinking the cup of tea, we will only be thinking of other things, barely aware of the cup in our hands. Thus we are sucked away into the future -and we are incapable of actually living one minute of life.” You guys, it is SO hard to just wash dishes! From the other end of the spectrum, I love the writing of Brother Lawrence, a 17th century French monk on this topic:

O Lord of pots and pans and things,

Since I have no time to be

a great saint by doing lovely things,

or watching late with Thee,

or dreaming in the dawnlight,

or storming Heaven’s gates,

Make me a saint by getting meals,

and washing up the plates.

Warm all the kitchen with Thy Love,

and light it with Thy peace;

Forgive me all my worrying,

and make my grumbling cease.

Thou who didst love to give men food

in room, or by the sea,

Accept the service that I do-

I do it unto Thee.

I think it’s important not to forget the whole point of my practice of mindfulness and silence in the first place: I want to be alive to my life. I want to show up. This picture for this post was taken directly after my week of silence in Taizé. Look how not silent my mouth looks! After spending a week without speaking to anyone I ran into a boisterous college student from Chicago named Isaac while waiting for the bus in the midday sun for a serendipitous two hour stint. Isaac had been at Taizé on the speaking side of the fence. I hadn’t met an American in a long time. It was refreshing and weird to hear my meandering sounds make their best efforts at answering his many questions. What was silence like? Did I want to speak? Was it hard? What did I learn?

I’m still learning, Isaac. I love silence… most of the time; much more than I thought I would as someone who loves talking and words. But sometimes silence is hard, empty, dull, or frustrating. I want to speak first. I want to listen to music. I want to distract myself. All of these times will still happen, and do. But intentionally placing times of silence and mindfulness in my life keeps me aware of how much I’m coping with versus how much I’m choosing the texture of my attention. When I want to break silence, I want to know it’s worth it.

If you made it all the way to the end and you’ve still not been struck by any of these practices as resonating with you, I’d encourage you to check out David Geller’s fantastic series of articles on Meditation for Real Life.  And of course, if I can be clearer or helpful to you anyway, please feel free to reach out!  Thank you for reading!

To read about my experience at Taizé, check Part 1 of this post out.


Goal-setting for New Years: Where's your ladder headed?

Make sure your ladder's leaning up against the right wall. 

Drilling holes for a new pull-up bar in the basement of the second CFCC space. 

Drilling holes for a new pull-up bar in the basement of the second CFCC space. 

This is a piece of advice that has been extremely compelling to me in the last year or so. Truth be told, I can't even remember where I heard it. 

I think it's a very common thing to believe that excellence, the pride of a thing done well, and generally working hard is an inherently good thing. There's a part of me that has both taught and truly believed this in the past. But today, I think I hear the admonition to work hard with a caveat: work with the end in mind. 

As people settle into January, our collective tendency (mine included) is to start fresh, to break ties with old habits, and to begin remaking ourselves all over again. Before you are bogged down with the rush of it all, I'd invite you to take a second and really think about why you want something. 

Do you want that success at work because you feel that this will make you happy? Do you want that budding relationship because you feel that this will make you happy? Do you want the house or car of your dreams because you feel that this will make you happy? Do you want to fit into that size pant because this (yes, this!) will make you happy? 

Let me be frank: I have lived through phases of working tirelessly at a business, working hard to make a name for myself, gritting my teeth to make everyone happy, and working hard to look and feel a certain way. For a long time, I thought: "One day when I am done with this I will stop and love my family, reconnect with my friends, and provide time for myself to do other things that I enjoy - then, I will be happy." 

Over the summer, I was challenged by a mentor to think of my personal values from an entirely different perspective than I had been used to. I was always told to think of what I wanted right now to understand what my values were. If you had asked me three years ago I would have said: creating a thriving business that supports my staff and members, and physical excellence through CrossFit and weightlifting. Honest to goodness, I don't know that I would have said a thing about my family or my friends.

I was asked often through this time, "what do you want?"  And told, "follow that thing!"

This became a kind of infuriating prompt to me. 

I want to go out on a limb and say that there may be a problem with following after "what we want".  What we want, is not always what's best for us in the long run. I don't think we are as wise as we think we are. We are all two year olds. "I want what's in front of me." "I don't want to go to bed." "I don't want to eat my vegetables." "I want more."

Simply put, I don't buy that happiness is as basic as getting what you want. The big question is, can we re-align our loves? How does this happen if so? Is it even possible? Can we want to want something? And for me, can we want to want what is best for us instead of what is easy?

This past summer I was asked instead to think about my values the other way around: to think instead, "At the end of my life, when I look back, what do I want the high points of my time on earth to be?" This shifted my gaze from my slightly muffled present, to a hopeful future version of myself. I thought, "If I lived all my life, and never felt that I had time to learn to love to my friends and family, I would die with great regret." This has nothing to do with clean and jerks, you guys! 

I shocked myself with my answer. 

Here's the greatest illusion of all: none of us knows how much time we have on earth. We don't know if we will live to a ripe old age of smarmy sooth-saying or walk out our doors to trail our dogs behind us and keel over mid-step. Therefore the time to know what you want to live for, the time to lean your ladder against the right wall is now. In fact, it is more than now. It is always now. It is every day when you wake up, every breath you breathe, and every moment you are able to become conscious of the chance to lean towards what you want to want. 

I've been reading Walden during my Sabbatical and this passage has been specifically inspiring: 

The millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred million to a poetic or divine life. To be awake is to be alive. I have never yet met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?

We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavor.

-Henry David Thoreau

I don't believe the perfect opportunity to take time to really care about what we say we care about ever comes to us - we have to wake up, and claim it right where we are. No one is ever going to stand right in front of you and like Willy Wonka, grace you with the golden ticket to life balance. We must learn, and I am still learning, to say 'no' to some things in order to say 'yes' to others. Frustratingly, we have to learn to do this not only day-by-day, but literally moment-by-moment. 

This occasionally means climbing back down a ladder we thought was giving us a leg up. As many in fitness know, doing anything backwards is never as easy as moving forward, but it must be dealt with, and it must be done. 

When I was in New Zealand I spent the better part of my time there hiking a trail called the Routeburn. Along the Routeburn there is a summit that is about a mile off the main trail which affords brilliant perspective to the surrounding mountain spires. The way up to the summit is also quite steep and particularly jagged and typically a bit wet. The tricky part of all of this, is that if you do decide to go up, the weather is very unpredictable and you can sometimes go up and see nothing at all. 

The day I went up many of our party stayed down below and I figured it wouldn't take that long to go up and "YOLO". It rained most of the way up and was a bit of a trudge but I survived. When we got to the top it was absolutely freezing but I could see where we were headed, and where we had come from. It was stunning, but also - merely a moment of the journey. 

The way down in fact, was far more treacherous than the way up. My husband, Arrus, ended up accidentally crushing his phone along the way and a few in our party just flat out fell very hard multiple times as they climbed. 

The view.

The view.

Some paths help us to see better where we need to go, but they aren't the end goal. Often the longer, higher, or harder the path has been, the more terrifying it will be to come down. In my twenties, I feel like I have had to learn to be brave enough to ascend. In my thirties, I am feeling lately that I have had to learn to be brave enough to descend. 

The truth is, I don't know if we ever really "get" where we are going. We choose the paths we walk, the company we keep. I believe we can choose what we want. As Annie Dillard says,

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.

We spend it on coffee, on sleep, on training, on friends, on family, on cell phones, on books, on walking, on biking, on driving, online, on waiting in line, but we spend it. And we have the autonomy we have always sought. We can use what we have as we see fit. I believe we have this ability all the time - every year, month, day, hour, and moment. 

So I'd ask you now, given an image of your whole life's journey, before you set yourself to eating less, drinking more water, and pursuing that never-ending picture of a perfect you, is your ladder leaning up against the right wall? Will the work be worth it in the end? Is it worth it now? 

What do you want to want? 

Let me leave you with this piece by Mary Oliver: a challenge to me to be conscious: 


I know, you never intended to be in this world.
But you’re in it all the same.

So why not get started immediately.

I mean, belonging to it.
There is so much to admire, to weep over.

And to write music or poems about.

Bless the feet that take you to and fro.
Bless the eyes and the listening ears.
Bless the tongue, the marvel of taste.
Bless touching.

You could live a hundred years, it’s happened.
Or not.
I am speaking from the fortunate platform
of many years,
none of which, I think, I ever wasted.
Do you need a prod?
Do you need a little darkness to get you going?
Let me be as urgent as a knife, then,
and remind you of Keats,
so single of purpose and thinking, for a while,
he had a lifetime.