A mind is like a parachute. It doesn't work if it isn't open. ~ Frank Zappa
Starting another year always comes with a mix of nostalgia for the good things in the past and healthy optimism for what’s to come. We find our inboxes flooded with messages about the year-in-review, gratitude messages from every business we’ve given our email address to over the past decade plus what feels like a million different suggestions about how to make the upcoming year ‘your best one yet’. It can be – A LOT!
In today’s society, at least here in the US, there’s a huge emphasis on accomplishments, financial success and overall achievement. Less of a priority seems to be placed on balance, honesty and authenticity. Since 2015, I’ve been writing about finding balance by researching and experimenting then sharing my thoughts, ideas and experiences through this blog. Along the way, I’ve hit plenty of roadblocks, had to take some detours and a few times had to pull off the road completely to change direction in my search for balance.
Doing versus Being
Here’s something that’s become very obvious to me over the past few years - balance means very different things to everyone. For some it’s a completely elusive idea and something that simply isn’t practical or possible based upon their definition of success. Many spend copious amounts of time re-working their life and schedule to calibrate the optimal amount of rest and work. Vacations are a salve for the soul yet to pay for them, the time between getaways ends up overflowing with work leaving no space for anything else.
Resting has become synonymous with sleep while sleep itself has been demonized as a tool of the weak-willed. The truth is that we need rest to rebuild, restore and rejuvenate ourselves because we’re not machines. We’re much more complicated and there’s no on/off switch that we can simply flip once a day to reset ourselves. Instead, we need to ensure that we’re monitoring our energy levels and giving ourselves regularly scheduled downtime so we don’t end up depleting ourselves completely.
Instead of always doing, I boldly propose we schedule in more intentional time each week to simply be. Just as our physical bodies benefit greatly from time off between workouts (any body-builder will tell you their biggest gains are on their rest day), our mental and emotional bodies also benefit from slowing down our breath, our thoughts and our activity level. Taking the time to explore proper breathing and experimenting with mindfulness and meditation can give you the mindset shift to live authentically, passionately and holistically.
Can There Be Too Much?
Another pervasive idea is that if a little is good, a LOT is much better. Although it’s tempting to identify with the desire to have more of what feels good in our lives, it’s important to remember that we absolutely CAN have too much of a good thing. Losing weight can be great for your overall health. If you lose too much weight though, your body becomes unable to support basic metabolic functions like regulating blood pressure and powering your immune system to name a few. Similarly, increasing your muscle mass with resistance training can build strength which is beneficial for supporting bone health. Often, though excessive muscle strength can compromise flexibility. Strong muscles allow you to easily lift things and improve your endurance, though it’s equally important to be able to freely move your body without excruciating pain. By the same token, those who are incredibly flexible can have an impressive range of motion within their joints while often lacking the basic stability that comes with muscular strength. Residing on the extreme end of a range can be very limiting.
A strength in excess can easily become a weakness. This is true not just within the body, it’s also apparent in other parts of life. We see this in the detail-oriented person who, without a healthy balance, becomes completely obsessive or the super chill personality that can’t get motivated and ends up stuck in a holding pattern and unable to move forward in their life. At the same time, the overly driven personality can’t or won’t slow down for even a moment and ends up burning themselves out. No matter what the strength is, there can always be a downside to too much of it. So, what’s the answer – how do we keep more from being too much?
Using Mindfulness & Meditation
The process of checking in with ourselves on a regular basis ensures that we remain aware of what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. Shifting our mindset to one that includes active awareness can seem daunting. Like life itself, it’s a practice. We don’t always get it right the first time and it can be frustrating sometimes while seemingly effortless at other times. Like living itself, though, the process continues to be worth the effort. The tools we use to promote this awareness are mindfulness and meditation.
Mindfulness and meditation are related however they can also be separate activities. So, what’s the difference? And which one is better? Well, that depends upon what your goal is and what works best for you. Both activities shift experiencing external stimuli from the left hemisphere of your brain to the right hemisphere instead. The two halves are connected by a band of tissue called the corpus callosum which constantly communicate and coordinate in a healthy brain however they process incoming information very differently. When we use mindfulness or meditation techniques, we’re highlighting specific ‘right brain’ functions.
What Exactly is Mindfulness?
When choosing to be mindful, you’re staying present in the moment and focusing your attention on what you’re doing. That can be a routine task such as house chores or perhaps driving somewhere you go on a regular basis. Because we’re creatures of habit, we often do these types of repetitive activities on autopilot, without putting too much conscious thought into it. Have you ever driven home from work and upon pulling into your driveway, realized that you didn’t actually remember the drive? Or maybe you’ve found yourself washing dishes and realized that you spent 5 minutes washing the already clean dish in your hands while your thoughts were occupied elsewhere.
According to neuroanatomist, Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, the left hemisphere of our brain is where the mind chatter takes place and it processes input in a linear fashion focusing more on the past and future experiences. (Watch this TED Talk to learn more) When we take ourselves into the present moment and shift our attention to the task at hand, we engage more fully with the right hemisphere of the brain where that chatter has been silenced and our brain processing is more expansive. Encouraging ourselves to focus on the details of washing the dishes – temperature of the water, the texture of the dish we’re holding, the changing weight of the sponge as it fills and empties with water – these things keep us grounded in the here and now. Perhaps we stay fully engaged on our drive home by changing up our route slightly, forcing us to notice the streets and drivers around us. This remaining in the present moment is how we cultivate mindfulness. We’re prioritizing feeling over doing.
How is Meditation Different?
Although the word meditation often conjures up someone quietly seated with their hands resting on their knees there are so many different options available. Your meditation practice can be done sitting, standing, lying down, moving or still and it can be silent, whispered, spoken or sung aloud. The common thread, regardless of which style you choose, is that engaging in meditation silences the distractions of everyday life. The analytical part of our brain gives way to the sensing part. Right hemisphere dominates left which changes the way we perceive external information.
Our focus becomes more on listening when the thinking mind grows quiet. We notice our thoughts and emotions without attaching to them. In this way, we lessen our grip on external identify and validation. Meditation allows us to lean into who we are versus evaluating ourselves based upon what we’ve done or hope to do.
If this idea intrigues you, it’s a great idea to learn about the different types of meditation and then try as many as you need to until you find a style that works for you. Here’s some resources to get started:
Types of Meditation – An Overview of 23 Meditation Techniques https://liveanddare.com/types-of-meditation/
51 Different Types of Meditation Practices https://mindfulnessbox.com/types-of-meditation-practices/
What Does Regular Practice Look Like?
Your mindfulness or meditation practice can be as short as a few minutes or as long as you need it to be. How will you know if it’s helping you? You’ll feel a shift in yourself either physically, emotionally, mentally or energetically. That shift might be as short as a moment and it may only happen for you sometimes. A regular practice helps you grow your ability to lengthen those moments (check out these meditation benefits). Though remember that it’s not a competition and you can’t force the shift with your thinking mind, you can only make space for the shift with an open, uncluttered mind.
Whether you’re incorporating mindfulness into daily life activities or developing a daily meditation practice, the point is to make the time to quiet the left hemisphere of the brain and allow your right hemisphere to take center stage for a bit (here’s info about mindfulness benefits). After all our emotional, limbic brain developed long before the more recent prefrontal cortex. It only makes sense then to continue nurturing these sensing, feeling and being capabilities.
Ackerman, C. E. (2019, July 10). 23 Amazing Health Benefits of Mindfulness for Body and Brain. PositivePsychology.com. https://positivepsychology.com/benefits-of-mindfulness/
Giovanni. (2019, July 13). Types of Meditation - an Overview of 23 Meditation Techniques. Live and Dare; Live and Dare. https://liveanddare.com/types-of-meditation/
Kane, R. (2022, March 22). 51 Types Of Meditation Practices. Mindfulnessbox.com. https://mindfulnessbox.com/types-of-meditation-practices/
Sapir, N. (2022, May 20). What Long-Term Effects of Meditation Has on Our Brain | Reflect. Reflect. https://www.meetreflect.com/blog/meditation-effect-brain/
Taylor, J. B. (2008, March 12). My Stroke of Insight. Www.ted.com. https://www.ted.com/talks/jill_bolte_taylor_my_stroke_of_insight?utm_campaign=tedspread&utm_medium=referral&utm_source=tedcomshare