Troubles with Mindfulness


Mindfulness is a conscious realization of life’s transient nature; it is an awareness and acceptance of all feelings, thoughts, emotions, and actions, without attachment, aversion, or judgment.

I believe that mindfulness will be one of the most important skills to learn in the 21st century, especially as our personal lives, and society as a whole, becomes increasingly more complex.

Knowing that many subscribers of my newsletter want to be more mindful in their day-to-day lives, I decided to send out an e-mail and find out what troubles they are experiencing during their practice. Here was some of the most common concerns.


Trouble 1: I can’t get started!

    “Trouble getting started is my biggest obstacle. I have read about the benefits of meditation and I have tried meditating; it’s just difficult to put into a regular practice. And the benefits don’t really come about until it becomes something that is done regularly. I read (I think it was on your site) about ‘micro’ ways to practice mindfulness, such as paying attention to the breath, and I’ve been trying to put those tips to use.” – Helen

It can often be difficult to start new habits and build new skills. Mindfulness is no different. It takes some will-power and motivation, like when you first get yourself up early to go to the gym. One of the great things about mindfulness, however, is that it can be practiced virtually anywhere. So long as you are conscious, you have all the tools you need to begin directing your attention in new ways and seeing the world through brighter eyes.

Because our awareness permeates everything we do (even reading this blog post), I have become – as you call it – an advocate of “micro” applications of mindfulness.

In your question, I assume you are referring to my “100 Breaths Meditation” – which literally takes no more than 10-15 minutes to practice. This makes it a really easy exercise to fit into your day. Maybe you can wake up 10-15 minutes earlier, or practice it on the train to work, or during your lunch break, or before bed. There are a lot of possibilities and it depends on your daily routine.

However, some people are so darn busy that they can’t even set aside 10-15 minutes a day (I know, it’s hard to believe). This has led me to try and come up with even “micro”-er ways of injecting mindfulness into our lives.

Another exercise I’ve put together is called “Action? Feeling? Thought?” – and it takes less than a minute. All you need to do is reflect into the moment and ask yourself, “What am I doing? What am I feeling? What am I thinking?” And answering these three simple questions (in a “matter-of-fact” tone) will leave you with a clearer understanding of how you are spending your time in the present moment, what your intentions are, and whether or not your actions are meeting these intentions. It lets you acknowledge your actions, thoughts, and feelings – even for just a second – and that is the start of a valuable mindfulness practice.

In addition to all of this, don’t beat yourself up if a day or week goes by and you don’t practice any kind of mindfulness. Just make note of your non-mindfulness, and continue where you left off. This is not a process that takes place overnight. Far from it. There is no end-point to a good practice, just gradual application over time. Start right now (yes, right now) and get the ball rolling.


Trouble 2: Some activities are too boring or tedious.


    “Hi Steven, Thank you for asking. I am troubled because I have low tolerance of boredom and frustration. Confronted with maybe uninspiring but necessary duties, I frequently distract myself by looking at email, facebook, blog statistics. Just now, I am answering your question instead of doing things I should.”
    – Antonia

I think one consequence of our over-stimulated world is that we end up having a much lower tolerance for boredom and frustration. We are so used to short-term gratification, that if an activity doesn’t immediately yield a pleasurable reward, we find ourselves wanting to quit or we become easily distracted.

What pops into my mind is a fantastic documentary called “Into Great Silence,” which follows the daily lives of Carthusian monks. The film has no lighting or sound added, just a “raw” depiction of the chores and obligations of these dedicated monks. To an outside observer, the activities they take part in seem very tedious and un-fulfilling. They do little more than pray, clean, eat, pray, eat, sleep – and then they repeat themselves the very next day. There is no TV, no internet, no videogames, no iPods, or anything of the sort that many of us take for granted as entertainment.

From the outside, things seem boring and dry. But from the inside, these monks are richly engaged and satisfied by their duties. Every activity is a part of a greater whole.

I believe that if we can identify a larger purpose to the tedious activities we are often obligated to do, then it is much easier to facilitate our own sense of engagement. While before these activities may have been seen as chores or routines, now they are transformed into meaningful rituals. Here is a table I created awhile back identifying some of the key differences between a “routine” and a “ritual.”

It takes some practice and creativity, but it can be done. Any activity can be integrated into the “bigger picture” of your life, even brushing your teeth or cleaning your room. It is up to you to identify the long-term gratification of the actions you take part in. Clearly, if you didn’t brush your teeth everyday then your hygiene would deteriorate. And similarly, many of the mundane tasks you practice at work or at home are important cogs to a larger machine. If you can imagine this larger purpose, you will develop the intrinsic motivation to do these activities with greater focus.

If you find it too hard to be more “purpose-driven,” there are also smaller things you can do to increase motivation and help complete boring tasks. I am a big fan of blurring the line between work and play, by trying to find ways of making tedious activities more fun-oriented.


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Trouble 3: Balancing short-term and long-term views

    “Hi Steven. The key limitation for me would be to stay fully focused, on the current
    objective/project, while being aware of long term goals/priorities.”
    – Jacob

This to me sounds like an issue of “congruency.” It is very important that our daily actions are aligned with our long-term goals and values (similar to what I just discussed above). If there is a conflict, then you will probably only be going about your day halfheartedly (hence, it is hard to stay fully focused). Not to mention you will be working ineffectively toward long-term goals.

Long-term planning, in some sense, is an abstraction toward reaching our goals. All action takes place in the present moment, and it is only in the present moment that we can work toward these long-term plans and facilitate change. That’s not to say that all planning is ineffective, but if you are drawing a strict dichotomy between short-term and long-term, then it’ll be difficult to get the two to ever meet.

My solution is to identify short-term actions that eventually build up to meet long-term priorities, then focus on those actions on a day-to-day basis. Take the time every now and then to reflect on long-term values and whether or not you are working effectively to meet them. I recommend in my post “Re-visiting Your Goals and Aspirations” to reflect on long-term goals about once every 2-3 months. You may also be interested in “Keep Track of Your Values.”


“A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.” – Lao Tzu


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