For more than 10 years, I ran my own advertising and PR agency in Amsterdam. But then, on a misty November morning, I crashed.
The demands of my job had eroded my mental and physical health. I suffered from recurring depression, anxiety attacks, and an immune disorder. At 38 I felt that I simply couldn’t go on. But somehow I found the strength and courage to cure myself. I quit my agency and followed a six-week mindfulness training course. The sensible philosophy of mindfulness appealed to me instantly — and boy did it work!
In a few years, I became an online mindfulness coach, wrote two internationally published bestsellers on mindfulness, and moved to beautiful New Zealand. My physical disorders disappeared, and depression is a word from my past. Now, at 51, I feel like I’ve been given a second chance. And I’m passionate about showing others how mindfulness can turn a bland, stressful existence into a truly fulfilling life.
In recent years, mindfulness practices have been scientifically researched, and each principle has been validated as a way to help you unlearn unhealthy stress habits and start living a more relaxed life. But what actually turned me into a mindfulness devotee is the insight that our minds produce thoughts always, day and night, but these thoughts are not necessarily true. I always believed that relentless chatterbox in my head telling me how useless I was, that others were so much more successful than I would ever be, and that I must be the victim of some terribly unfair universe. But mindfulness taught me that that’s just the habit of the human mind — it loves to cook up negative, frightening thoughts and serve them time and time again, until you believe they are true. With mindfulness you learn to listen less to your thoughts and remain calm in your body.
As a woman running my own company, developing e-courses, and writing books, I struggled to fit in daily mindfulness meditation, so I figured out meditation-free mindfulness. Here’s how it works.
1. Distract your judgmental mind.
Stress is not caused by incidents in the outside world, but by your reaction to those incidents. If a certain situation makes your stomach contract with anxiety, realize that reality is what it is: not good and not bad. Only your own judgments turn a neutral situation into something good or bad.
So what if you are in a hurry, then suddenly find yourself in a traffic jam? Isn’t that bad? Well, no. A traffic jam is not good or bad. It just is. If you allow your mind to judge it as bad, you’ll experience stress and frustration. However, if you take a few seconds to tell yourself, “This is what it is. I don’t have to judge it. This is not a life-or-death situation and nobody will die when I arrive later than expected,” then you’ll find that you have the power to change your thoughts. The trick is to overrule your stress impulses and keep a clear mind.
Then you consciously switch to contemplating some practical problem you need to solve or you think about something fun, such as how you might celebrate your partner’s birthday. Your mind will keep trying to drag you into panicky thoughts about being stuck in traffic, but be strong and distract your mind with interesting or joyful thoughts, so that you won’t give it room to worry.
Then take a few deep breaths; on every exhale, let go of your tension.
2. Pay attention to the now.
Stress is caused by judgmental thoughts. Judging is not bad: It’s simply what the mind does. But that doesn’t mean that you have to lose yourself in those thoughts. Realize that these thoughts create tension and anxiety, and that it’s healthier to actively counter the nonstop judging and worrying games that your mind likes to play. In order to be your mind’s master rather than its slave, you can practice mindfulness by doing things with undivided attention.
Quietly focus on just one task at a time, such as walking to the bus stop, organizing your desk, or peeling potatoes when you’re making dinner. Walk in awareness, look around and notice the street, the trees, the shops, and the other people rather than looking into your phone or drifting away into negative thoughts. Organize your desk so that you can work without chatting to co-workers or checking your email every other minute. Peel the potatoes without watching TV at the same time. Instead, watch your hands with sincere attention and appreciate how cleverly they perform this task and what a miracle of refined systems your body actually is.
Your mind is extremely sophisticated but also simple: It can’t handle more than one task at a time. If you encourage it to concentrate on just one chore or just one delight, it will have no space left to drag you down.
Marisa Garau lives in New Zealand with her husband. They run Growing Mindfulness, Luxon Spirited Scents, and MindSpa, an in-office mindfulness experience to reduce work stress, boost creativity, and nurture holistic leadership. Learn more at growingmindfulness.com.