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Reflections: Why Meditation Does Not Equal Mindfulness and What To Do About It

Ana Polanco

Before we talk about mindfulness, let’s talk about mediation.

Some of my friends tell me of their struggle with meditation. They seem to suffer when they try meditation for different reasons. Some suffer because they can’t sit still, their mind is already quiet, or for not being able to sustain the practice. I have experienced almost all of this as I cultivated my meditation practice and I would say, if you still want to try meditation after struggling with it, don’t give up. Meditation is often a chance to cultivate our ability to be still so that we can look within ourselves for the answers we seek. More than anything else, meditation showed me how important it was to learn to breathe.

Sound weird? Well, why you may be lightly breathing throughout the day, you may not always take a full breathe in and out. Breathing is a form of release that allows us to get in touch with what we are feeling and can help us pause and reflect on what’s really happening v. what we may have imagined while we were holding our breath to avoid yelling or crying in that meeting. Yes! We have all been there. At least I have.  

And while meditation is a great tool to cultivate mindfulness, there are actually many roads to tapping into your breathe and increasing your presence.

We are all seeking answers to different things. What should we do with our careers? How to find joy and happiness within ourselves? What to eat at dinner with friends on a Friday night? If you want, every decision, you make to cultivate your mind, body, and spirit can be driven from your own inner compass. That inner compass can be essential to making decisions that are aligned to our values. Being able to hear, see or feel that inner compass can help us strengthen our capacity as leaders and decision makers.

So how do we tap into all the many roads to reach that inner compass? Here are some ways I have tapped into my inner compass and what I get out of it:

Wasting Time Thinking About It. If I count the hundreds of thousands of hours I have wasted thinking about whether I do or don’t have the time to engage in a mindful activity, whether it is an exercise, prayer or meditation, I would have already been a very fit and enlightened being twice over! The truth is we spend more time thinking about if we should take time to practice rather than doing the work. Take a look over the course of a week and see how long you spend time making up excuses. I promise you’ll be surprised at all the time and reasons you come up with to not engage in mindful activities. Becoming aware of your excuses and learning to counter and reframe them is the first step.

Mindful Eating. Have you ever thought about the impact different foods have on your body and your mood? The more you learn what foods impact your mood, your physical condition and relate to any physical illnesses, the more you can take control of your overall wellbeing. Rethinking your food habits can turn around your ability to be present with yourself and others. If you already have a handle on the kinds of food you eat, I invite you to step up your game. Engage in the next level of mindful eating by actually, looking at your food, eating it slowly and intentionally, paying attention to all the flavors and textures. During a weeklong retreat, I ate all my meals in silence and at a slow pace, paying attention to every flavor in each bite. As a result of this activity, I was able to identify foods that didn’t sit well and when I was hungry v. thirsty. When I returned to work from my retreat, I kept up the habit for lunch by leaving my desk for 30 minutes to eat mindfully. I found I had greater presence during my afternoon meetings.

Ritual/Prayer: Growing up in a Colombian Catholic family with a mom who valued herbal medicine, I was exposed to a ton of rituals. While my spiritual practices have grown and diversified since then, I recognize how peaceful I feel when I smell incense, burn sage or simply light a candle to my ancestors. These activities ground me when I feel lost or confused. Nourishing your spirit is just as important as caring for the mind and body.  

Doing Good Deeds. Engaging in voluntary activities where you are in touch with affected human beings can also be nourishing for the spirit. For many years I volunteered to prepare and distribute food for the homeless when I lived in DC. Spending time close to some of the most vulnerable people in our society can cultivate new levels of compassion and care inside of you and help you see the world with new eyes.

Relearning something. Last year I took up running more seriously, learning how to prep and pace each run. It was quite exhilarating to learn to run with more intention. Figuring out small steps toward breaking running limits, helped me break limiting beliefs around my running practice and also in other areas of my life. Running was also a freeing experience for me. I often imagined myself running away from my limiting beliefs and towards new ideas and ways of resolving problems. Whatever physical activity you take on, it can help you be more present to your needs.

In the end being mindful is really about being present in your own life so that you can spend time on those activities and areas of your life that you value the most. Finding that presence can help you reduce the noise and distraction around you so you can react to the needs you have in the world.

 Your turn: How are you mindful throughout the day? What helps you when you are off balance?  

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