Daily Opportunities to Be Mindful as a Non-Meditator
Dan Harris is as American as it gets. He’s outgoing, confident, and calls a spade a spade. He’s been an anchor for ABC News for the past 20 years, informing his fellow citizens on what matters. He has reported from war zones, interviewed drug lords, and co-hosts Good Morning America on weekends.
In short, Dan Harris represents a life most Americans aspire to live: be a strong voice, follow your ambition, but keep your feet on the ground and your heart in the right place. But, like all of us, Dan Harris is human.
For the first few years at ABC, he was a workaholic. Feeling he didn’t deserve his dream job in his 20s, he overcompensated. He fell into depression and turned to recreational drugs. All of this culminated in one incident: In 2004, Dan had a panic attack, live and on the air, in front of five million people.
How do they say? It’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye.
Having lost not his sight but his peace of mind, Dan decided enough was enough. Prompted to examine his life by the event, he went on a multi-year journey — the kind he had previously laughed at others for. He traveled around the globe and spoke to mental health professionals, brain scientists, spiritual leaders, and self-help gurus. The answers he found helped him let go of the drugs, become calmer, more mindful, and “about 10% happier.”
In his book of the same name, Dan points to one tool above all that fueled his 10-year-transformation: meditation. I know, I know. If you’re anything like Dan — or me, for that matter — you’re rolling your eyes right now. “Breathing exercises? Sitting cross-legged? Listening to ocean sounds? That’s not for me.” That’s why I told you Dan’s story. Because while, yes, a rigorous meditation practice may not be right for you, the end result — mindfulness — definitely is. And there’s more than one way to go about attaining it.
In fact, if you’re a meditation skeptic, Dan is your guy. In his book, he approaches mindfulness with the same, healthy skepticism you’ve brought to the table. He’s the last person you’d expect to teach this kind of stuff, which is exactly why it’s easy to trust and listen to him. His meditation how-to is only three steps (sit — feel your breath — return to it when distracted) and he recommends shooting for five minutes a day, no more.
But the most valuable thing I’ve learned from Dan is that mindfulness is about more than wearing a strict meditation habit like a badge of honor. It’s about practicing observation without judgment. Let me say that again: Observation without judgment. Dan explains that this is what makes us unique as humans:
Taxonomically, we are classified as Homo sapiens sapiens, “the man who thinks and knows he thinks.” We can do more than just think; we also have the power simply to be aware of things — without judgment, without the ego. This is not to denigrate thinking, just to say that thinking without awareness can be a harsh master.
By way of example: you can be mindful of hunger pangs, but you think about where to get your next meal and whether it will involve pork products. You can be mindful of the pressure in your bladder telling you it’s time to pee, but you think about whether the frequency of your urination means you’re getting old and need a prostate exam. There’s a difference between the raw sensations we experience and the mental spinning we do in reaction to said stimuli.
The Buddhists had a helpful analogy here. Picture the mind like a waterfall, they said: the water is the torrent of thoughts and emotions; mindfulness is the space behind the waterfall.
This space behind the waterfall is the place in our mind from which we observe our thoughts and emotions. We can watch, but we don’t have to reach out and grab them. We can just let them pass. Hanging out in this space is a new reaction to the events that happen in our lives, Dan says. It’s different than our usual options of accepting, rejecting, or zoning out. If this fourth alternative, call it observation-only mode, sounds like something you can practice anytime and anywhere, you’re right. No meditation needed.
Like Dan, I’ve been on one of those goofy, maybe-spiritual journeys for the past few years. I continue to be skeptical, but I try to keep an open mind. So far, I’ve found 7 moments in my day which repeatedly offer me a chance to be mindful, to observe without judgment. I don’t always manage to take them, but when I do, they add a little bit of calm to my busy day.
I hope they will do the same for you.
Just like I’m not a rah-rah person when it comes to mindfulness, I’m not the guy who pours out his heart on paper every morning. Instead, I read one page in Ryan Holiday’s Daily Stoic and then fill in the corresponding prompt in The Daily Stoic Journal. It takes me about five minutes and helps me ensure I’m chasing the right long-term goals.
I do this at my tiny dinner table and, every morning when I sit down, right before I open the book, there’s a moment of stillness. I get quiet and just…sit. The moment my butt hits the chair, my thoughts settle down too, like rocks sinking to the ground of a pond.
I’m not sure if it’s the actual journaling practice, the emptiness of sitting by myself at a deserted table, or a combination of both, but it gets me into the present, and that’s what matters.
If you want to neutralize a smell, for example when sampling different perfumes in a store, bringing coffee beans close to your nose really helps. With the smell of a fresh roast in the morning it’s a different story, but inhaling that first swell of steam as the sun starts to peek through the window pulls me right into the moment.
It’s a simple morning habit but also a small sign of luxury. I try my best to just enjoy it and often use it as a mini gratitude exercise. Whatever thought boat I take next when re-entering my stream of consciousness is usually positive. The warm cup in my hands probably helps too, studies suggest.
Western food culture is often not as much about eating as it is about restocking calories. In Germany, eating at a restaurant can be a hectic experience, but in the US it’s even worse. Come fast, eat fast, go fast. You swallow the last bite, and the check is already on your table. Eating as a social event doesn’t do much to change that. You’re laughing, talking, trying to get in a sentence and, before you know it, you’ve chowed down your chow mein.
Here’s a great trick to be mindful when you eat: Take a bite, then put down your fork and knife and lay your hands flat on the table. You’ll automatically chew more slowly because you’re not in get-the-next-bite mode. It’s a chance to notice what you’re eating, consider how it landed on your plate and how lucky you are for it to have arrived there, and, best of all, you can actually enjoy the taste.
Gazing Out The Window
Whether it’s the bus, the train, the office, or a restaurant, I always try to get a window seat. It only takes one look up from your book, your work, or your phone, and you can observe the world in real-time.
Better yet, if you’re staring at the countryside, a building in the city, or the birds in the sky, there’s little to judge to begin with. You can follow the movements of the actors or lack thereof, ask questions about how the world works, and marvel at the symphony that is millions of tiny elements coming together for the grass to grow, the sun to shine, and the globe to keep turning.
For many of us, music is the thing that’s always on. With remote, creative jobs on the rise, especially among young people, listening to music at work is normal. It may make us more productive, but it can also be a distraction, a way to numb our minds.
When something’s always there, soon, you won’t appreciate it anymore, only complain when it’s gone. After canceling my Spotify account three years ago, I now have to deliberately choose what I listen to. I call it conscious listening. For example, despite being a huge fan, I still haven’t listened to Avicii’s posthumous album. I’d rather wait and then really be there when I do.
Nietzsche said: “Without music, life would be a mistake.” But I think without life, music is also a mistake. Feel the beat, let the lyrics speak to you, and fully engage with a song. Don’t just press play and move on with your day.
The funny thing about turning off the music is that you can still, well, listen. Your ears are not bound to consuming stuff that was tailor-made for them. They can pick up a great variety of sounds. Noises, patterns, conversations — all of which you can practice to just observe without interpreting them.
According to the latest Nielsen Total Audience Report, “U.S. Adults spend 11 hours and 27 minutes per day connected to media.” That’s almost half of all the hours in any given day, and while there is a degree of simultaneous use, it’s definitely more than half of all the hours we’re awake.
If we spend more time listening to things made with an agenda than to what naturally happens around us, it’s no wonder we don’t feel present.
Every sentence is a story, and every story is told by a person. With every line you read, you get to judge that person and their story. But you’re also offered a chance to withhold that judgment just a little longer.
If you’re reading a paper book, the physical experience of touching and turning the pages helps. It makes it easier to pause, sit back, and reflect on what you just read. It’s also an opportunity to wonder instead of criticize. Why did he give that recommendation? Why did she argue this way?
Let stories float in their soap bubbles in front of your inner eye before slotting them into different folders in your brain. Like the story of Dan Harris, hard-working American and previous mindfulness-skeptic, who can teach us a lot about an ancient subject whose expert practitioners we’d never listen to.
Maybe, that’s the biggest lesson of all: Learning from Dan has allowed me to keep being me while working on an important habit. It’s given me permission to stay young, ambitious, a little foolish, and way too distracted — all while mastering my brain and understanding how to control my emotions.
I’m not a regular meditator, and I probably never will be, but, thanks to Dan’s work, I’m now looking for pockets of calm in my day. I know it’s okay to only briefly close my eyes on the subway or to take just three deep breaths before I dive right back into my inbox — and if turning it on ourselves isn’t a good use of non-judgment, well, then I guess all this mindfulness stuff is just mumbo jumbo.