50 Simple Ways to Find Peace, Clarity, and New Possibilities in a Stressed-Out World
By Donald Altman
New World Library Copyright © 2011 Donald Altman
All rights reserved.
Morning is untamed. The body is not quite ready; the mind is half dreaming. This is all the more reason to greet the day gently and with utmost care.
What do you do in the first sixty seconds of your morning? Is your mind filled with thoughts and worries about the day ahead? Do you drag your body out of bed like a heavy sack of potatoes? How can you bring yourself into the next sixty seconds with awareness and presence?
There's also the question of how you awaken. Does a buzzing alarm rattle you awake? Do you hit the snooze button several times because your body wants more sleep?
When you wake up and are still lying in bed, spend one minute noticing the body, from the toes up through the torso, arms, and neck to the head. Stay with your body for now; your mind will have enough time for thinking throughout the rest of the day. Do you notice bodily tension anywhere? As you do this, notice your breath and let it become smooth. Your breath is your intimate kiss with this moment.
Spend another sixty seconds listening to the music of the morning. What do your room and the surrounding environment sound like in the morning? Let all the little creaks and crackles, the rustle of the sheets, the birds outside, the animals inside, maybe the movement and even the snores of a partner greet you while your head still rests upon its pillow.
We can learn a lot from watching a dog or a cat awaken. My own cat awakens slowly each morning. When he's ready, he stretches his gray, furry paws far in front of him and gracefully arches his back. It is a kitty yoga pose that he holds for up to five seconds, then repeats two or three more times within the first five minutes of getting up. He is, I figure, greeting the morning. What does your body's morning greeting look like? Be sure to include a long, peaceful stretch that prepares your body for a day of gravity-defying feats.
Be at peace with your body in this minute. Don't berate it, harangue it, or push it around. Ask for its help in this next minute as you rise and begin to move about; it will be serving as your helpful companion throughout the day.
As you stand, walk, and move about your space, listen to the morning's soft sounds. The morning light also offers effects that will not be duplicated later. If it's dim, notice the shade that the soft morning light offers. If it's dark, when you turn on a light, feel the light switch between your fingers. Notice your eyes adjusting to the light.
Pay attention to how many unique experiences there are in every minute, and see if you can notice even the slightest gratitude or appreciation for some or all of these happenings. Even if your morning time at home seems rushed, it actually offers a vast and open space. Give yourself permission to take it all in, for this is a morning like no other.
Today, give the gift of this unique morning to yourself.
Slow down this morning. When you walk, know that you are walking. Feel the floor beneath your feet; sense each little movement. When you shower, know that you are showering. Listen intently to the running water. Note its temperature as it cascades over your skin. This morning, experience what it is like to let nothing go unfelt, unheard, or unnoticed.
Beckoning the Body
The body knows things the thinking mind can only imagine.
Its innate wisdom wants to be heard and shared with you in the next sixty seconds. And yet, rather than beckoning to it with care, sensitivity, and love, we find it easy to feel conflicted about the body.
One of two ways we get conflicted about the body is to grasp at it. For example, we can hold on too tightly to how it looks. This could well be because the body represents youth, strength, and beauty. But when we are overly concerned about staying young and mentally grasp at the body in this way, we get worried and anxious. Focusing on the body's external appearance is an attachment that can make us greedy to the point of desiring another body, like the one we saw on TV or at the fitness center. Comparing our body to another's can lead to dissatisfaction and unhappiness in the next minute. Has this ever happened to you?
The other way we get conflicted about the body is to reject it. We might reject it because we deem our body plain, not beautiful enough, or increasingly wrinkled, feeble, and old. This judgment can leave us feeling unhappy, fearful, frustrated, angry, bitter, and distraught every sixty seconds we spend looking at a mirror — and well beyond the time spent in front of it. Of course, we can try to fool ourselves with a lot of plastic surgery, but the body keeps aging in spite of any attempts to alter nature's course. Both of these approaches, grasping at or rejecting the body, are a recipe for pain and suffering.
One-minute mindfulness offers a more gentle and hospitable alternative. It begins with the question, What would it be like to fully and completely accept the body I have right now, for one entire minute, recognizing both its strengths and its weaknesses?
The body is no different from spectacular castles and monuments that also must eventually lose their luster. Aging and wrinkles are simply signs that we have lived in the castle. They do not diminish the purpose, wonder, and loveliness of the body that carries our spirit and manifests our deeds. Regardless of the body's external form, we can take to heart the sentiment poet and philosopher John O'Donohue shares in his book Beauty: "The world of the senses is intensified with beauty that is meant to recall us to the higher and eternal forms of beauty."
Morning is an ideal time to remind yourself that the body is a gateway to the senses and a connection with exquisite forms of beauty both transient and eternal. When you wake in the morning, set aside the negative filters of thoughts, opinions, and perceptions that get between you and your body. Imagine instead seeing yourself through the eyes of someone who sees not your small external self but the eternal beauty that is present in you in every moment. At the start of the day, take a minute to let yourself settle into this spacious view of your true self. Notice what it's like to do this. Even if the filters are hard to remove, this practice enables you to identify them, which is the first step in removing them.
Loving and appreciating our own body takes time. One helpful means of appreciating our own form is to consider the form of someone we love or admire. We might find this form in a photograph or in the cat, dog, or other animal we love. Take one minute during the day to study and appreciate the form of another living being, whether mammal, fish, insect, plant, or other. Though each of these has a form different from yours, each has its singular beauty, elegance, functionality, and grace.
Throughout the day, beckon your body simply by noticing your breath. Right now, or during any sixty seconds, notice how the breath comes into the body and how it leaves. For one minute, notice the breath. Whether the breath is slow, fast, long, or short, just be aware of it. Let yourself know the breath a little more intimately than you did sixty seconds ago. Let one minute of conscious breathing show you how beautiful it is to let go — one of the sublime teachings the breath offers.
First Taste, Last Taste
Without taste there would be much less temptation in the world. Taste is no small thing, and many wisdom stories tell us about the lasting consequences of wanting a little taste of something. We can honor and savor the power of taste by paying much greater attention to it.
Let's begin by taking a brief inventory of taste. Spend a few moments reflecting on your answer to the following question: What was the first thing you tasted this morning? Try to recall all you can about its flavor.
If your first thought was a food or a beverage, did you overlook previous tastes? Maybe the minty toothpaste that cleansed and awakened the ten thousand taste buds on your tongue and the roof of your mouth? Before that, did you taste the flavor of "morning mouth," when you opened your eyes and the alarm clock rang or the morning light streamed through the windows?
Taste is always with us, ever present. Even when you detect none, there is a flavor in the noneating mouth. One-minute mindfulness can help you savor that cereal, egg, yogurt, bread, tea, coffee, or other food you feed your body in the morning as well as throughout the day. Some people are so rushed in the morning that they skip breakfast because it takes time — although breakfast may be one of the most important sixty-second choices we make at the start of our day. Others quickly gobble up breakfast, as though eating were an unwanted chore.
The first time I met with a client I'll call Kevin, he shared a story of being frustrated, irritable, and quick to anger with his family. When I asked for his theory on why this was happening, Kevin said the problem was a result of financial stress. After more questioning, I discovered that he didn't practice good self-care. Kevin rarely started a day with any protein, compensating instead with a significant jolt of caffeine to get himself going.
I explained to Kevin how his nutritional choices were affecting his thinking, how the brain's frontal cortex, where judging, analyzing, and decision making occur, needs protein every two or three hours. For the next week, Kevin made a one-minute mindfulness choice to eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in the morning and to cut his caffeine intake by half. To his surprise, his irritability soon disappeared, his family was happier, and he was better prepared to deal with his financial struggles.
You can make your first taste of the day count too. When it's time, take sixty seconds to fully commit to what you are about to do. Eating is one of our most intimate acts. Pause to consider that the morsel you choose to put into your mouth is about to merge with you — you can't get much more intimate than that! The right food will nourish and build cells and sustain you with energy. Slowing down to taste and chew your food actually helps the enzymes in your mouth's saliva start the process of digesting carbohydrates and fats. In the next sixty seconds, you can also reflect on the intricate web of natural resources and people that brought this first taste to you.
When you engage in a mindful minute of tasting that first bite or sip, instead of a throwaway moment, you have manifested a morning's first taste that is distinctly memorable. At the end of the day, you will still have that first taste to remember. How many times could you say this was so in the past?
Just as you can make the first taste of the day count, the last taste of the day can be special too. The last taste is an opportunity to acknowledge your fullness and satisfaction. It can signify finding balance. Don't take the last taste for granted. End your day by eating consciously and skillfully. What do you want your last taste of the day to be? A soothing cup of aromatic tea? A glass of chilled water?
By paying attention to your first and last tastes, you are on the road to making more mindful food choices throughout the day and to cultivating a nurturing attitude toward yourself. You might want to create a "first taste — last taste journal." Who knows what insights you'll find?
Nurturing the Moment
Do your days often feel like a blur? Are you just trying hard to keep up with the avalanche of activities before you — paying the bills, answering a growing stack of emails, picking up and dropping off the kids, and meeting constant deadlines in all their forms? You know it's time to slow down the busy mind if you're asking yourself, Do moments of calm really exist? The good news is that you have the power, in the very next minute, to reverse the overstimulation, excessive activity, constant planning, and anxiety that keep your brain in overdrive.
When I was in the monastery, I learned a simple technique from an elder monk. He gave me a rosary made of 108 beads and told me to close my eyes and count one bead for every breath I took until I reached the end of the rosary. It sounded easy to me at the time, but it wasn't. This practice builds attention and focus and sharpens an ability to increasingly notice, and appreciate, how those little moments offer kernels of peace, joy, and rejuvenation.
Try it yourself, and see if you don't still accomplish your goals but with more presence and enjoyment. Instead of a rosary, you can use each breath as a bead. In the next minute, count each breath you take. It might help to close your eyes. Most people take from eight to ten breaths a minute. If you lose count, don't worry; just begin again. Try this now.
What was that like for you? If you noticed a crowd of thoughts between your counts, that's okay. Taking one minute to connect with your breath and to focus your attention has an impact nonetheless. I recommend you practice this technique any time you feel frazzled, anxious, and weary from overthinking or worrying. In time, regularly practicing this technique will leave you feeling noticeably refreshed and focused.
What does nurturing mean for you? Nurturing can be expressed and found in many different ways. For example, take a minute now to look around your surroundings and find something that is pleasing or nourishing — a favorite color, texture, sound, object, or shape. Don't limit your options. Look outside too, in the backyard, on the street, through a window.
Another way to nourish ourselves is to set healthy boundaries, which includes limiting the time we spend watching TV and using technology. An easy way to learn whether you need to change your habits is to notice the times when you feel bored, drained, sad, upset, or constricted. It could be that you simply need to change something in your environment. For example, if a news program is making you anxious or upset, take action in the next sixty seconds and change the channel or turn off the TV.
Whenever you notice you are doing something that is not truly satisfying, make the sixty-second decision to turn to a more nurturing and fulfilling activity. A wonderful thing about being human is that focusing the mind on what is nurturing right now simultaneously turns it away from whatever brings discomfort. Isn't it empowering to know that how you decide to use the next minute is wholly up to you?
Choose one unsatisfying habit you would like to change because you recognize that it does not represent the person you see yourself to be. The habit could be anything, such as smoking, emotional eating, opinionated behavior, or procrastination. Next, write down several nurturing activities you could substitute for the old habit, and make sure that these activities can be initiated in a minute, such as reading a book, taking a short walk, stretching, calling a friend, listening to uplifting music, or taking a few meditative breaths. Finally, rehearse this in detail mentally; see yourself stopping the old habit and turning to the new activity. Practice this visualization until the new behavior feels natural. Stay with the new activity for several minutes. After visualizing the change, you are ready to make the change in real time. It takes one minute to begin. Congratulations on taking these steps to nurture yourself!
Stepping over the Threshold
Thresholds await us at every turn. They are important transition points. They are those defining moments when intention crystallizes into choice, leading us away from the past and into the unfolding sixty seconds. Each doorway we pass through, figuratively or literally, transports us to the next situation in which to be present and authentic. How will you make the next threshold count?
Have you ever counted the number of thresholds you pass through on a typical day? They can be experienced as a movement in physical space — through a literal doorway or entry-way — but also as thresholds of time (as with deadlines and schedules), emotion (moving into and out of feeling states), and energy (levels of hunger, tiredness, and vitality, for example). Whatever form a threshold takes, it can be a reminder to set an intention for each minute of the transition. Buddha spoke of this when he said:
It is unwise to do things that bring regret (Continues...)
And require repentance,
To cause suffering for oneself
And a weeping and tearful face.
It is wise to do things which do not require repentance
But bring joy and fulfillment,
Happiness and delight.
Excerpted from One-Minute Mindfulness by Donald Altman. Copyright © 2011 Donald Altman. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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