Our lives are governed by a voice in our head.
This voice is engaged in an endless stream of thinking. Mental chatter starts the moment we open our eyes in the morning and ends the moment we close our eyes at night.
Recall the average human experiences around 50,000 thoughts per day. Most of these thoughts are random and short-lived. But in our overinformed and overstressed world today, all of these disconnected thoughts strain our brain.
When we feel our mind getting pulled in too many directions, we must learn how to place our internal dialogue on mute.
This is the practice of mindfulness.
Mindfulness is defined as a state of being intensely aware of what you're sensing and feeling in the moment, without interpretation or judgment..
"Whoa - slow down!" you may be thinking. "State of being ... sensing and feeling ... without interpretation or judgment ... I knew this mindfulness stuff was going to be wonky!"
I get it - mindfulness can be confusing. So let's simplify the topic.
Experts may cringe, but I recommend not getting too caught up on terminology. Whether you call it mindfulness, meditation, yoga, zen, or another funky-sounding name is irrelevant. What is relevant is learning how to focus on the present moment as opposed to thoughts beyond your control.
To explain mindfulness (the term we will use for the bulk of this section), the easiest way to describe this concept is something I call "Time Traveling."
One of my biggest personal struggles is not being present in the moment. Just like Marty McFly and Doc Brown in the Back to the Future films, my mind always seems more interested in recalling previous decisions or plotting future moves than focusing on the here and now.
For example, rather than relish a birthday dinner with my family or appreciate a romantic trip with my (now ex-) wife, I have developed a bad habit of dwelling on the past or obsessing about the future.
When I catch myself time traveling, I say "Jared - you're time traveling again" and block those thoughts so I can focus on being present. Although this mentality is still a work in progress, bringing my attention back to the current moment has allowed me to experience life with greater appreciation.
So why is mindfulness important?
Endless research speaks to the positive affects of mindfulness. Mindfulness is proven to have a positive impact on performance, productivity, memory and focus. Mindfulness is linked to overall happiness, including positive changes in health, attitudes, and behaviors. Finally, research has concluded mindfulness is effective for reducing stress, anxiety, and depression.
Speaking of stress, it doesn't hurt to remind readers that educational leadership is incredibly stressful and demanding. Each day, school leaders are responsible for hundreds - if not thousands - of people. And as they circle the building solving one problem and moving to the next, leaders are peppered with countless questions and suggestions requiring concentration.
Sometimes, leaders need a quick mental reboot to prevent their mind from going into overload. One method for diffusing stressful situations is through a mindfulness practice called tactical breathing.
Tactical breathing is very simple and goes as follows:
Breath through your nose for a count of four.
Hold in that breath for a count of four.
Slowly exhale for a count of four.
Hold the empty breath for a count of four.
"Wait - I already do something like this!" you may be thinking. "This means I already do mindfulness?"
That's correct. There is a good chance you already practice mindfulness.
Though mindfulness is an ancient practice, it is relatively new to the United States. The rising popularity of mindfulness has sparked a great deal of interest in the general population. As with any new innovation, questions about the practice have emerged.
My biggest issue was that I've often thought of mindfulness to be "anti-religious" or reserved for Eastern religions such as Buddhism or Hinduism. As a born and raised Christian, I was concerned mindfulness was looked down upon by my Faith. Therefore, I've been happy to find mindfulness experts push back on this thinking.
In Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics, Dan Harris addresses these concerns: “Does meditation conflict with faith? I'm not sure how it would be, as mindfulness is very much mental and emotional skills that everyone can benefit from, regardless of the nature of their belief."
Harris continues: "When it comes to religious concerns, push back with science. Look at the brain research. No one has to give up any religion that they believe in."
Looking to start mindfulness but not sure where to begin? On my weekly podcast I have interviewed many educational leaders who have turned to phone apps to assist with mindfulness. Here are the four apps mentioned most by guests:
Headspace: Headspace provides structured courses that help beginners start and maintain a habit of mindfulness. World-class experts provide hundreds of guided meditations focused on managing stress, combating anxiety, improving sleep, and much more.
Calm: Experienced meditators who don’t need structured classes may find Calm to be a great fit. This app has a meditation-retreat vibe, providing a more traditional, nature-centric feel for users. One of Calm's biggest draws are its "Sleep Stories" - narrated by top celebrities.
Insight Timer: Looking for a social network for "mindful" people? Insight Timer allows you to see who is meditating nearby and invite friends to join. A free library of tens of thousands of guided meditations means Insight Timer offers more free content than other apps.
Apple Music & Spotify: Do you already have a subscription to a music streaming service? If you do, you likely have access to thousands of guided meditations for no additional charge. While there are no added features, individuals who wish to give mindfulness a try can jump right in.
Mindfulness is not that complicated - it's simply being aware and conscious in the present moment.
Next time you catch your self time traveling, consciously bring your attention back to what is in front of you.
Not only will you worry less about trivial thoughts, you will experience life with greater appreciation.