(The opposite of) Stewing, Part 3

My original title for these three posts was “The 3 R’s” for rehearsing, rehashing, and revising encounters we anticipate or have already experienced. While there’s value in thinking before we speak or reviewing actions that cause suffering, when we mindlessly engage in these behaviors we trap ourselves in the past or the future and actually increase suffering. But as my client Jeremy so wisely asked, “Well, okay but then what am I supposed to do with my mind?”

It’s easy to encourage mindfulness but it’s important to notice the challenge this advice presents when engaged in routines that allow our mind (ego) to have free rein. Our lives are filled with commuting, picking up kids, standing in long lines, or sitting in waiting rooms. Other tasks, like mowing the lawn, doing laundry, or cooking meals, tasks require some but not all of our attention. Whenever we find that we are zoning out, we have the opportunity to zone in on something that improves the quality of our life. Although what we do with our mind, as an alternative to rehearsing, rehashing, and revising, is influenced by where we are, if we are alone, and how much time we have here are some suggestions and the first one can be done, in fact is done, everywhere.

Take air into your lungs and then expel it. That’s right. Breathe. There are countless breathing exercises out there that take less than two minutes, improve concentration, and calm us down. My favorite is 4-7-8 and I recommend Andrew Weil’s video demonstration at drweil.com.

Be willing to feel foolish. When we’re engaged in a routine task we often think its very simplicity requires us to use our great big brains to engage in some higher order activity at the same time. And while rehearsing, rehashing, and revising may be more sophisticated mental tasks than brushing my teeth they are not superior to it. When the reel-to-reel version of the past starts to play I shift my attention and concentrate on my immediate task with laser-like focus—paying particular attention to the work my body is doing, especially my hands as I wash dishes, make a bed, or rake leaves. It’s very challenging to actually think about a routine task as I’m engaged in it but it’s also surprisingly rewarding. It refreshes my mind and the 3R’s never do that. Also, there are so many more things to notice about routine tasks than our wandering minds realize. Water use, changes in the light, differences between flannel sheets and regular sheets, raking into one big pile versus several small piles. Even routine tasks can be accomplished in many different ways so thinking about the task helps us appreciate the intricate beauty of seemingly simple aspects of our lives.

Strike a bargain. If I have more time, say 45 minutes to walk or drive somewhere, my temptation is to listen to the radio or a podcast. I think that’s perfectly fine and I may stay present if I actually listen to the speaker. But have you ever turned on the news or a podcast and a few minutes later found that your mind is miles away? Listening passively is sometimes a cover for the sort of ruminating about the past or imagining the future that is a source of suffering. If you have 45 minutes and you’re a news junkie or you love podcasts, try splitting the time in half. Limit listening time, and knowing you’re going to turn it off in 22.5 minutes might help you stay attentive. For the other 22.5 minutes breathe, concentrate on the task at hand and what you’re doing with your body, and then and pay close attention to the world around you. Get so quiet and aware that you can hear the smallest sounds in your environment.

I can say with certainty that stewing has never improved the quality of my life. My goal now is to acknowledge it when it happens without wasting energy being mad at myself, acknowledge and feel my feelings without letting them overtake me, and then name what is true and real in this moment.

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