For most of us, it’s not always possible to sit and meditate every day. Life just doesn’t work that way. Yes, a consistent meditation practice has many benefits, but it takes time and effort in order to turn this into a committed practice. We often get caught up in the flow of our daily lives, losing connection to the present moment, missing out on the here and now.
You might be saying to yourself that it’s really hard to stay present all the time. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why you’ve skipped your daily meditations or why you haven’t meditated in a long time. You’re not alone and it’s perfectly normal to get distracted or chased by an endless chain of thought throughout the day. Evolutionarily speaking, we humans have developed very elaborate capacity for long term memory, whereas other primates such as chimpanzees have one consisting of mostly short term (working) memory. That is, they basically cannot remember their childhood as we do. We can reflect on the past and imagine what the future could be. As humans, we’re programmed to wander through different periods of time through our minds. In fact, both the past and the future are products of the mind’s imagination.
Not surprisingly, it’s inevitable that there are some disadvantages that come with the way our minds function. We can’t always stay present, which chimpanzees are perfectly capable of doing. We get distracted easily, failing to sustain our attention, and we often have to fight against intrusive thoughts that just don’t give us a break. With all this, we may not be able to live our lives fully. While we’re always chasing the next moment and pursuing possible future happiness, we miss the happiness in the here and now.
Yes, missing out on our lives can be a tough situation and it’s unfortunately very common. That said, there’s still room for improvement if we accept how our minds work and make a consistent effort to invite ourselves to the present moment. We can’t live every single moment mindfully, but we can try to be more present. We’re going to live this life one way or another, so why not make the best of it?
There are some scientifically supported practices that greatly contribute to keeping our minds present, one of which is mindfulness. In our modern world, the most popular mindfulness practice is meditation. One of the best things about meditation is that its effects spread beyond our meditation practice, changing how we live our lives for the in our day to day. But, as I said before, it’s not always super easy to stick to a meditation routine for to several reasons. Remember, this is a judgment-free zone, so we can skip the “Why the heck?” part and fast forward to what we can do about it.
If you’re at the beginning of your meditation journey, being able to meditate can be challenging at first. It requires effort and dedication to make a meditative mind habitual. It can also be difficult if you’re going through a rough patch in your life like a major change or transition, making it hard to incorporate something else that’s new. When life gets challenging and you need simpler and more accessible answers, focusing on the basics can help you to find strength, hope, and some peace of mind.
Even if meditation isn’t the best for you at the moment, it’s still possible to stay mindful during the day. In fact, it’s a great practice to turn daily activities into mindfulness practices and be able to savor the simple joys of ordinary activities. To do so, we don’t need to have extraordinary experiences. On the contrary, our life often gets more meaningful and enjoyable as we cherish these small, ordinary moments.
So, what are these ordinary moments that can be turned into mindfulness exercises? It can be anything, to be honest. Preparing breakfast, watering your plants, taking a shower, choosing an outfit, following your skincare routine, brushing your teeth, commuting around the city, and so much more.
You can turn activities that would normally be boring into an experience that will allow you to find meaning. There are some things that we don’t enjoy but have to do anyway like taking out the trash or doing the dishes. And even so, there’s still something special about these “boring” daily activities in that we repeat them so many times that we end up doing them automatically, without deliberately thinking about the act of doing them. In a sense, we are mindful as much as we are present during the daily activities that we spend valuable time on throughout our lives. So, these simple activities can be keys to a more mindful and joyful life.
Let’s take a look at how we can turn daily activities into mindfulness exercises with a few easy steps.
You can start by choosing a simple activity that you have done or will do today.
I’ll stick to a chore that I don’t enjoy much, which is doing the dishes. At this point, I often remember the wise words of the inspiring Thich Nhat Hanh:
“If while washing dishes, we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way as if they were a nuisance, then we are not ‘washing the dishes to wash the dishes.’ What’s more, we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes. In fact, we are completely incapable of realizing the miracle of life while standing at the sink. If we can’t wash the dishes, the chances are we won’t be able to drink our tea either. While drinking the cup of tea, we will only be thinking of other things, barely aware of the cup in our hands. Thus, we are sucked away into the future—and we are incapable of actually living one minute of life.”
Tune into the exact activity that you’re doing at this moment. If you’re washing dishes, pause for a moment and let the awareness the activity sink in. Examine yourself doing the dishes at this very moment, taking in your posture, the feel of your hands in the water, the texture of the sponge in your hand…
Take this simple activity and look at it as if you’ve never done this before, as if you’re learning to wash the dishes for the first time. You’re allowed to question and wonder about the simplest and the most obvious things. This is what we call “the beginner’s mind”.
Maybe it’s not washing dishes, but some activities are in fact fun and soul-nourishing, but we still get desensitized after the thousandth time doing them. Maybe that’s walking, petting our animals, drinking water, or eating delicious food. It can help to look at our familiar experiences from a fresh perspective, remembering how it once felt and noticing how your experience has changed over time.
And then, focus on your senses. Our senses are like our humble guides on this journey of life. Now, try to notice what you see, hear, taste, touch, and smell while you’re engaged in this activity.
If you’re washing dishes, feel the water, notice its temperature. Is it cold or hot? How does the texture of different dishes differ from each other? What do you hear? The sound of running water, the sounds of plates, glasses, cutlery clinking against each other… What do you smell? Food remains, the detergent, or a combination of the two? It’s possible that it doesn’t smell very good, but the point is to try to focus on these olfactory responses. Next, bring your attention to the visual stimuli around you. Watch the changing colors and textures throughout the process.
Washing dishes can be unpleasant. I, myself, love the cooking part but try to postpone the cleaning up afterward as much as possible. But, this mindfulness attitude helps me a lot when it comes to turning these ordinary activities that I’m not very eager to do into a meaningful experience.
It’s often easier to be grateful when you’ve had an unusually wonderful experience. On the other hand, although there’s so much for us to be grateful for in these small moments, we take them for granted because we’re so accustomed to them.
The real beauty lies in the ordinariness of the day, showing us that we don’t have to have extraordinary experiences to live a magical life. These simple joys are the ones that warm our hearts. Maybe it’s not possible to change things, but it’s always possible to change our stance and look at the same things from different angles. Even if we don’t laugh until our stomach hurts or cry from happiness every day, there are always these ordinary moments that can make us smile.