Mindfulness. The word used to make me cringe! As a counselor in training, everywhere I went and every book I opened wanted to tell me that I needed to be more mindful. But what the heck did that mean? Hot yoga? No thanks! Hours of meditation? I’d be lucky if I could get through 5 minutes. It felt like a bunch of academic types who didn’t know what it was like working two jobs, going to school, or living pay check to pay check. This doesn’t apply to my life, I thought. And it won’t to most of my clients. So I actively ignored it.

Little did I know, however, that the real principles behind mindfulness were sinking in without my awareness as a result of my training at Stetson University. I was tolerating stress better. I was more in-tuned with my body. I was happier and healthier. So what was I doing differently?

Firstly, I was exercising. I had made a commitment in the spring of 2014 to begin a consistent exercise routine. I hadn’t had much success with gyms so I decided to try something different. I joined a boot camp where I could go for 30 minutes group sessions. I felt that 30 minutes was something I could fit into my hectic schedule and that my peers and coach would challenge me to maximize my work out. I was right. Not only was I able to stay committed to weekly exercise but for the first time I actually enjoyed working out. I didn’t lose a bunch of weight but after the very first workout I noticed something interesting – I was less stressed and my mind felt more clear. The more I continued to work out the less stressed I felt. Now, when I’m having a tough week, I know that I have that time to sweat off the stress. No, it doesn’t have to be hot yoga. Take a walk around the block. Stroll around the mall. Exercise triggers neurotransmitters, such as endorphins and serotonin, which are associated with feelings of happiness and well being. It’s not just your heart and lungs that are impacted by exercise, it’s your mind as well.

I learned to breathe. Yes, I’ve been breathing for 31 years, but now I am aware of how breathing with intention can lower physical arousal in my body. Air is a life source and when we focus on our breathing amazing things happen – our heart beat slows, tension begins to subside, and we feel calmer. It’s simple and you can literally do it anywhere: the office, your car, a doctor’s waiting room, in bed, on the couch. Sit comfortably with your feet on the ground. Place your hands on your lap or beside you. Close your eyes. Breathe in for 5 counts, hold the breathe for 5 counts, and slowly exhale for 5 counts. Some will say to breathe in, hold, and exhale for longer than 5 counts, but personally I’ve never had much success with that. Do what works for you. Make it a practice to breath intentionally when you are stressed, anxious, or feeling emotionally aroused. Once you get in the habit it will feel like having a therapist in your pocket.

I started cooking dinner and eating with my partner (without the TV on!) A few months ago, my partner and I began cooking a healthy meal three times a week and would sit down at the table to eat together. The TV is off and the phones are put away. This one-on-one time has enhanced our relationship and lowered our collective stress as a couple. We now have the opportunity to talk out our daily stresses and when we do the conversation soon gravitates to our hopes for the future. There are a few ways you can do this without the process of cooking become another stressor. If it works for your budget, meal delivery programs, such as Hello Fresh and Blue Apron, deliver everything you need right to your door. On the weekend, you can plan out a couple of meals and go grocery shopping so the items are in your fridge and ready to go. This works wonders for families as well. You’ll find yourself feeling more connected and less prone to arguments.

I cut out the black and white thinking. I was not either completely perfect or a total failure. Life was no longer absolutely wonderful or completely horrible. Living in the gray space freed me from the prison of absolutist thinking. In the gray space there is nothing but endless possibility. I could mess up and still be an amazing student and employee. I could be frustrated with my community and also in awe of how far we have come. Struggle became an opportunity for growth and disappointments transformed into new dreams. Black and white thinking is toxic and it makes us miserable. Increasing mindfulness enables us to see these unhelpful thinking styles, maybe for the first time. We can then decide if we are going to do something about them. The first step, of course, is awareness.
So much to my surprise, I can now say that I am on the mindfulness bandwagon. It all changed for me when I began to identify and adjust the black and white thinking. There is no right or wrong way to “do mindfulness.” If you are not a tea-drinking yoga guy or gal, that’s ok. Mindfulness isn’t about gym memberships or incense or expensive stuff. It’s about connecting to our own minds and bodies. It’s about realizing that what we are looking for to make our lives happier, healthier, and more peaceful has been inside of us all along.

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