Stress is caused by thinking.
“I don’t want to go to work.”
“This 5000 word essay is going to suck.”
“That asshole cut me off!”
These thoughts create turmoil in your mind, and the more you feed them, the more stressed you feel. You might think stress is caused from these external things (work, essays, assholes), but it’s really your reaction to them that creates it.
When you bring mindfulness to your thoughts, you reduce their ability to cause you stress.
You aren’t stressed when you’re completely engaged in activity because you aren’t reacting to anything; you’re just doing. The trick, then, is to stop thinking about the past and future, so you can start living in the present.
You can’t forcibly stop your thoughts, though. Your mind is an unstoppable thought-creating machine. If you don’t believe me, see how long you can refrain from thinking. You might be able to stop for a while, but eventually you’ll forget and the thinking will start on its own.
The way to stop your thoughts is by refusing to follow them. Don’t direct any energy to them. Use that energy to watch them.
A Little Meditation
Take a moment and focus on your breath. Be mindful of the physical sensations it creates. You can focus on the rising and falling of your abdomen or the air going in and out of your nostrils. You can help your focus by noting “rising, falling” or “in, out.”
See how long you can go. You might be able to keep your attention on your breath for quite a while, but the thought machine is just waiting in the weeds to take over your mind again. The key is to notice when it does. When you finally do notice that you’re thinking, note “thinking, thinking” until it stops.
Your mind can only focus on one thing at a time. When it’s focused on observing your thoughts, it can’t simultaneously be feeding them. Noticing your thoughts will stop them, along with the stress they cause.
It doesn’t matter how long it takes you to notice that you’re thinking. You’ll notice it eventually, and when you do, you’ll be increasing your mindfulness muscle.
And you aren’t limited to doing this during a formal meditation, either. You can be mindful at any point during your day. Meditation is just a dedicated time to practice mindfulness.
You can be mindful while breathing, walking, driving, sitting, writing, drinking, eating. All you need to do is bring your full attention to whatever it is you’re doing, notice when your mind starts thinking, and then bring your mind back to the activity.
The more you practice, the better you’ll get. And the better you get, the less stressed you’ll be.