Do you remember the days when your time was divided between working hours and free time? With the emergence of smartphones, e-mails and notifications, the border between these—formerly separate blocks of time—has become very vague. We are constantly bombarded by information from our devices, and our availability has stretched into our precious free time. Being on call around the clock can lead to burnout and other stress-related disorders. In 2020, burnout signs rose by 33%. In a recent survey of 7500 full-time employees by Gallup, 23% said they felt burned out more often than not. And 44% reported feeling burned out sometimes, which means that two thirds of them were experiencing burnout symptoms at some level. Now, more than ever, it’s important to disconnect and to listen to our bodies.
Your body is like a fine-tuned instrument. It will send you signals if it’s not doing great. If you are experiencing dark circles under the eyes, bad skin, fatigue or hair loss, these are all signs that may indicate that you need to slow down. Ignoring signs could have a negative impact on your health and well-being. But paradoxically—even though most people yearn for time to themselves—a 2014 study showed that many people would rather apply electroshocks to themselves than be alone with their thoughts. Buddhists refer to these uncontrolled thoughts as “monkey mind,” and to tame these wild monkeys, meditation and mindfulness are used. Mindfulness derives from sati an element of Buddhist traditions and it is a practice where one intentionally brings one’s attention into the present moment without judgement.
The interest in mindfulness has been immense the last few years. This is even reflected in university programs and courses like Harvard’s “Cognitive Neuroscience of Meditation” course by Ezer Vierba. The demand is rising for mobile applications, courses, audio recordings and videos on the subjects of mindfulness and meditation. The reason is that there are proven positive health benefits associated with both. They improve well-being by lowering stress levels, reducing pain, improving memory and lessening some psychological problems like depression and anxiety. Even Bill Gates finds time 2-3 times a week to meditate. He doesn’t see it as linked to faith or mysticism, but as an exercise for the mind as sports are an exercise for the muscles.
The difference between mindfulness and meditation is widely discussed and not fully agreed upon. Mindfulness can be labelled as a quality whereas meditation is a practice that can lead to mindfulness. Mindfulness is not only about setting a time to practice, but about being present in your daily activities without judgement. For example, conscious eating, where instead of distracting yourself in conversation or with screens, you enjoy every bite. Or mindful walking, feeling the fresh air on your face and the heat of the sun on your skin. Neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris is one of the world’s leading figures on mindfulness and meditation. He says that much of our thinking about ourselves and the world is either pointless or actively harmful because much of it stems from negative emotions like self-hatred, jealousy or anxiety. “Mindfulness allows you to experience your life in the present, without ruminating about what just happened, what should have happened, what almost happened, what might yet happen, etc. So, the connection to happiness is very direct. At bottom, mindfulness is the ability to pay attention to what actually matters. It’s hard to imagine a more powerful productivity tool than that,” he says.
So how do I get started? Most people report that meditating is difficult as thoughts keep popping up. And this is also why most people lose their motivation as results aren’t showing up. But meditation and mindfulness are practices that take time to develop. Instead of trying to meditate for 30 minutes, you can start with 2 minutes. Focusing only on the breath flowing in and out. Many people find it very helpful to listen to guided meditations instead of sitting in silence. It’s important to practice in a space where you won’t be disturbed. Turning off any devices that may interrupt the session. It’s recommended to sit and not lie down during meditation as it’s common to fall asleep. But you don’t have to sit in that uncomfortable-looking cross-legged position yogis often use. You can simply sit on a chair with your hands in your lap if that’s more comfortable for you.
With a busy family and work schedule, it may be hard to see where these practices can fit in. As human beings, we are very result-oriented, and we like to see results quickly. Meditation and mindfulness though are about slowing down, and integrating them into your life should be done at a pace that feels natural. They are lifestyle changes and not tasks to complete. You could start by listening to a 10-minute guided meditation before going to bed a couple of times a week. Cooking and eating consciously or practicing mindfulness while commuting or traveling for work. And even though it’s difficult—very difficult for most—try to disconnect from your devices for at least an hour a day. In this way you can take back some of your precious time to focus on only yourself.