Eight years ago, I suffered a panic attack.
At the time, I didn’t know exactly what had happened to me. For months I had been stressing about the forthcoming birth of my son. While I was looking forward to having a son, I felt in no way prepared to raise another human being (I hadn’t even come close to accomplishing any of my own life goals. How could I properly raise a happy, successful human being? And how I was going to provide for him?)
In reality, though, this had just been the climax of a long list of stressors that eventually resulted in intense anxiety virtually every day of my life. From a young age, the way we’re taught to live, the values that are encouraged in us, and the examples that we learn from create an environment that is conducive to stress, anxiety, and sometimes even resulting in more severe conditions such as depression.
Running here, running there, rushing around to get this and that done and yet never feeling like it’s ever enough. Doing a million things at once and yet never feeling we’re ever any closer to getting “there” to that magical (mythical) place where everything works out and we can stop running and rushing. For so many of us, this is what becomes of our daily life.
But if we can get to the source of the stress and upend the harmful behaviors, we can stop living in fast-forward, calm the chaos, and discover that happiness and fulfillment that exists in each moment. And we can do this with mindfulness meditation.
How to Calm the Chaos of Everyday Life with Mindfulness Meditation
I’m here to tell you that the path to peace is right there, when you want to get away.
– Pema Chodron
Luckily, shortly after the experience of my panic attack eight years ago, I happened to discover mindfulness meditation. And it’s mindfulness which I credit as being the major contributor to learning how to manage my anxiety, change my harmful behavioral patterns, and live a happier and more peaceful life (without having to give up my goals or pull back my ambitions).
But how exactly is a simple meditation exercise supposed to help us upend years of harmful conditioning? At the heart of our inability to stop and take a moment for ourselves is both a lack of awareness and the habitual pattern of rushing around.
The power of mindfulness lies in its ability to allow us to both cultivate greater self-awareness, which allows us to notice when we’re rushing around and act more consciously, as well as to break habitual patterns by virtue of that same process of gaining the awareness necessary to act more intentionally. And both of these things together allow us to face the chaos of everyday life and come out the other side more at peace and in control.
First, with the greater self-awareness developed through regular practice, you begin to notice moments when you’re out of breath, when your mind is racing, and when experiencing certain feelings and sensations repeatedly; which is often the sign of a harmful thought pattern.
Second, by developing mindfulness we gain the ability to “interrupt” this habitual pattern with the perfect contrasting behavior of stopping to breathe. In order to change a habitual pattern, it’s often necessary to interrupt it repeatedly. This then allows you to replace it with a more beneficial habit and begin to shift your conditioned behavior.
Now, let’s talk about a simple and convenient mindfulness exercise you can use at any time of day (and anywhere) to begin developing greater self-awareness and break these harmful habitual patterns.
Exercise: Developing mindfulness in daily life
Mindfulness can be practiced anywhere and in virtually any situation. You can practice in a traditional sitting meditation posture and environment. However, it can be difficult to stick to a consistent meditation practice. For that reason, in the beginning, you’ll find it much easier to stick to this simple exercise as you go about your everyday life:
1. Set a trigger
The idea here is that you need to implement something that will remind you to practice consistently. This can be something as simple as 2-3 minutes each day, just so long as you’re practicing in some capacity consistently.
This can be either an actual alarm you set on your smartphone or alternatively you can decide on a trigger beforehand. For example, you can decide that each time you grab the doorknob of your apartment you’ll stop for 10 seconds to breathe mindfully. In this case, you’d be stopping to practice for 10-15 seconds twice or more a day with work, errands, etc.
Triggers like this can take time to adopt but they can be very powerful because you’re essentially developing a new habitual pattern.
2. Stop and breathe mindfully
Once your reminder is triggered, however you’ve chosen to do it, you now simply need to stop and turn your attention to your breath. The idea with mindfulness practice is very simple, you want to lightly focus on your breath and attempt to maintain that focus as long as possible.
This is easier said than done, and in the beginning, you will lose your concentration constantly, but that’s just how it is. When you notice yourself lose focus, simply return to being mindful of your breath (whether you lost focus for 5 seconds or a full minute).
It works this way for everyone and it’s a common misconception that when this happens you’re doing something wrong. You’re not and you simply need to stick to it. The mind will calm with time and you’ll get better at the practice.
3. Be with whatever arises
The idea with mindfulness is that you’re being there fully for whatever arises in the moments that you’re practicing. If you notice feelings or thoughts of fear arise, be with the fear without judging it. If you notice anger, be with the anger. And when you notice excitement, be with the excitement. Whatever you notice, simply be with it and don’t seek to change it.
The cultivation of self-awareness with mindfulness practice has a very powerful “self-healing” effect so you’ll notice very quickly simply allowing yourself to be with whatever is going on inside of you can help to uncover internal wounds and change harmful habitual patterns.
Once you’ve taken a moment to follow your breathing and be with whatever arises nonjudgmentally, whether that’s 10 seconds or a full minute, simply go on with your day just as you regularly would. Continue to practice at least once a day for a few minutes. Over time, you’ll notice the increased awareness and habit of stopping regularly will have a noticeable effect on your health and well-being as a whole.
With a simple mindfulness exercise such as this, and the willingness to face the chaos of everyday life, you can shift from living in stress and anxiety over the future to rooting yourself mindfully in the present moment.
Use the power of mindfulness to craft a more mindful and intentional life, one where you dictate the terms as opposed to your habitual patterns.