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How to Make Mindfulness a Habit With Only a Tiny Commitment

red door

When you sit back and reminisce about your life, it’s almost a given that the most enjoyable and memorable moments are the ones in which you were completely present. Do you look back with fondness all the times you spent thinking about work while you drove home, or pondered dinner while you wheeled down the frozen aisle?

Unfortunately most of life passes that way for most of us. We’re in one place doing one thing, thinking of things we aren’t doing and places we aren’t at.

The bottom line of almost all self-help, spiritual, or religious literature is that our ability to be happy is determined by our ability to stay in the present moment. The Buddhists, the Toltecs, the Bible, Eckhart Tolle, Ram Dass, Emerson, Thoreau — anyone at all who is known for having found a path to consistent, recurring joy — cites staying present as the essential teaching.

Only when we’re present do we see beauty, enjoy gratitude, and experience happiness. It’s the moments we’re present for that make life good, so it only stands to reason that being present is something we’d do well to get better at.

We all know this already. Yet most of us — normal people with errands, work and to-do lists — spend most of our time considering the past and future rather than the present. Why doesn’t it click?

The problem is most of us are extremely habituated to living in our thoughts. The remembered past and the imagined future steal our attention most of the time. Why we are so strongly predisposed this way is a huge discussion involving culture, biology, psychology and a host of other factors that we don’t need to get into right now. Suffice it to say that most of us have a serious habit of being mentally absent from the present moment most of the time.

Unless you make a serious commitment to taking on the biggest of human dilemmas — taming the rowdy mind once and for all — mindfulness will probably not establish itself as a habit for you. Some people do make a life’s work of it with daily meditation or monastery life, but if you’re unwilling to do that, can you still cultivate mindfulness on a consistent basis?

The rule about habits is that whatever you do most takes over. If you want to be a daily runner, and you miss more days than you actually go running, you’ve only made a habit of skipping running, and you’re back at square one.

To suddenly “go mindful” and try to be present all the time is about as easy as running a marathon when you’ve never even run around the block. Since most of us are not present the vast majority of the time, occasional stabs at “being in the moment” are quickly overrun by the colossal momentum of a lifetime of being lost in thought.

Baby steps seem to be in order. And many of us do try it this way. We make repeated resolutions to “notice the little things more” or “live in the now,” but these are too vague to be helpful in any practical sense. You may find yourself being present when you’ve just read an inspirational book or when someone mentions mindfulness, but in the long run it won’t take. The habit of preoccupation is so unbelievably strong that mindfulness just won’t be on your mind for long. It’s too subtle, too delicate — too light and vulnerable to withstand the swirling winds of the preoccupied mind.

Establishing a Foothold

First of all, forget about staying mindful 24-7. That’s an extremely tall order, and it isn’t necessary to be present all the time in order to experience great benefits from it.

What we want to do is get familiar with the sensation of becoming present, and do it on a regular basis. Since the preoccupied mind is never going to remind you to be mindful — that would be like a french fry vendor reminding you to buy spinach — we need something else to remind us.

So instead of trying to Be Here Now all the time, just commit to becoming mindful every time you find yourself doing one of these two simple actions:

  • Opening a door
  • Sitting down in a chair

That’s it. You’re off the hook for everything else.

Let the rest of the things you do slip away to the restless mind if you want. Let your mind glaze over during meetings at work. Fantasize about winning Powerball while you wait for the bus. But do give your attention wholeheartedly to these two simple actions.You owe yourself that much.

When you open a door, drop your train of thought outright (you can pick it up again shortly) and watch your hand grasp the doorknob. Pull the door open with purpose and patience. Feel its weight. Watch as a new scene is revealed. Feel the new air of the room you are entering. Listen to the sound of the first room give way to the sound of the new room. Feel this transition with undivided attention.

Then your work is done. You can go back to pondering dinner or thinking of what you should have said to that guy who cut you in line in the cafeteria last Friday. If you want.

When you sit down in a chair, lower yourself down, don’t just drop in it. Listen to any creaks or in the wood or upholstery. Feel as it takes on the weight of your body and relieves your legs of their duties for the moment. Pay attention to the sensation of being parked on this new perch. Wherever the chair is, let yourself become comfortable in it. Survey the room from your new angle.

After you’ve paid diligent attention to the sitting experience for the five or ten seconds it takes, you’re off duty again. You can resume whatever train of thought you had going before it came time to sit — wishing you had worn different shoes, or quietly disapproving of the state of today’s pop music or whatever.

Most of the time we don’t put our attention anywhere specific, so it gets sucked into our incessant mind-chatter, not unlike a kid who can’t help staring at the television. You can actually put your attention somewhere on purpose, it just doesn’t often occur to us. Pay it to the door or the chair.

If you can commit to giving your undivided attention to these two things, you will begin to see the incredible clarity that is available to you when your mind isn’t wrapped up in thoughts.

After doing this on purpose a few times, it will start to become automatic. The mere feel of a doorknob, or sensation of moving to sit will remind you to pay attention. It will be nearly impossible to open a door or sit down without snapping back into the present moment.

I must reiterate how small a commitment you have to actually make here. The dividends it pays are incredible. We’re talking maybe five seconds at a time, a handful of times a day, to plant one foot firmly in the realm of greater ease, happiness and gratitude. If you’ve been looking for an easy and powerful way to love yourself, there it is.

You will soon find that the trains of thought you have to interrupt to be mindful are seldom interesting or useful. Most of it is just noise, perpetuating itself only because you’re not putting your intention anywhere on purpose. Junk food for your mind. With these simple rituals, mindfulness — and the bliss that comes with it — will establish a sturdy foothold in your behavior, which you can expand as far as you want to take it.

You’ll begin to notice what it feels like to catch yourself mind-blathering about irrelevant things, and soon you’ll be bringing yourself back to the moment more often, and not just when you encounter a door or a chair. You probably won’t want to let yourself off the hook for everything else.

But you do have to actually do it, not just nod your head as you read this post and think it will happen by itself. These are easy, minuscule amounts of work which yield great rewards over time. But they don’t pay off if you don’t do them.

When you open a door, open the door.

When you sit, take your seat.

You’re going to do it anyway. Make it count.


If you’re interested in living more in the present

I’ve been writing a lot recently about the habit of living mindfully and its incredible benefits. I’ve been getting a lot of emails and comments from you on the topic, and it’s been my personal focus for the last year.  (Some related articles: One | Two | Three | Four | Five )

Exploring mindfulness has truly transformed my life and I want to help other people do the same thing. Over the past few months I’ve put together a full-length guide on making mindfulness a lasting habit. I’ll have a lot more details later, but in the mean time you can learn more here.



Photo by Katie@!

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Chris March 22, 2010 at 1:27 pm

Hi David! I just found Raptitude and wanted to wholeheartedly thank you for sharing. This is my first ever comment made on _any_ blog.

I love the simplicity of your instructions: when sitting-down or opening a door, just experience that — fully.

A Zen-master I know once said, “The _greatest_ addiction we all have is to our own thoughts.” I’m certainly an addict.

David March 22, 2010 at 1:59 pm

Hi Chris.

It really is an addiction, isn’t it? Following the mental noise is comforting. It protects us from moments we’d rather not face, like boring ones or awkward ones.
.-= David´s last blog ..How to Make Mindfulness a Habit With Only a Tiny Commitment =-.

Chris March 22, 2010 at 10:21 pm

Yeah. And the thoughts just “snowball” because, along with the mental noise (for our comforting/avoidance), the original SOURCE of “boring and awkward” is our thoughts too.

David March 23, 2010 at 2:54 am

Yes absolutely. The snowball effect of thinking is such a powerful force.

Brad March 23, 2010 at 10:28 am

Actually, the thoughts about a situation are what give it a boring or awkward feeling, aren’t they?
.-= Brad´s last blog ..Lucent Mushrooms =-.

Chris March 26, 2010 at 9:37 am

Hi Brad. I agree: That’s exactly what I was trying to say when I said, “the original SOURCE of ‘boring and awkward’ is our thoughts too.”

In addition, maybe one could argue that _none_ of our thoughts are absolutely accurate (true). Two different people could have radically different reactions to the “same” experience: one could be bored and the other excited. Who’s right?

Positively Present March 22, 2010 at 1:54 pm

I always have a hard time being mindful so this was a really great post for me. You helped me to realize that it’s not as difficult as I make it out to be — and it’s not something I have to be doing 100% of the time!

David March 22, 2010 at 2:00 pm

Hi Dani. I tried the all-or-nothing thing, but I just can’t keep up with my thoughts. Instead I’m wedging mindfulness in there, bit by bit, and it seems to be working.

Nawala March 22, 2010 at 2:14 pm

this is awesome! i just had the idea today to draw a heart on my palm and every time i glance at 2 be mindful of what i’m doing and to remember connect to my higher self. GREAT Tip thanks!
.-= Nawala´s last blog ..Food for Thought 11: What is spirituality? =-.

David March 23, 2010 at 2:45 am

That’s all you need, some kind of trigger. It will work as long as you don’t ignore the trigger.

Avi March 22, 2010 at 3:05 pm

When I put a cup down on a hard surface, I like to make the clinking noise as soft as possible. (not for plastic)

David March 23, 2010 at 2:46 am

Haha me too. Sometimes I do something so carelessly that it makes a loud noise and snaps me out of unconsciousness.

Darren March 22, 2010 at 11:45 pm

Yoga’s been great for me in this regard; when I’m standing on my head and trying not to fall, I’m not going to be thinking about grocery lists or what tomorrow’s plans are.

David March 23, 2010 at 2:52 am

Yoga is great for bringing you to the present moment. If you can make sure you do it as regularly a sitting down or opening doors it will work even better. Doors and chairs are so good because you can’t quit or skip it.

Char (PSI Tutor:Mentor) March 23, 2010 at 4:15 am

hmmm~ the pic reminded me of a post on Hollyhock…

I try to be more aware of when my mind is “the young elephant untethered”. Sometimes not so difficult, as I’ll be making lots of noise and trampling over things ~:-)
.-= Char (PSI Tutor:Mentor)´s last blog ..Personal Development for Students –> Professional Devlopment =-.

David March 24, 2010 at 12:28 am

Young elephant untethered, that’s definitely me sometimes. Except that I do forget.

Andy Parsons March 23, 2010 at 5:37 am

I have had difficulty with being mindful for a long time like most people, it would seem.

Your idea is a very good one and I’m going to try it.

One thing I have found is in the last few months while I’ve been not working I have naturally become much more mindful, both in terms of living in the moment and also in that my outlook on life has become much clearer and decisions seem simpler to make (well at least some do).

It’s clear to me that the reason for this is that there’s a lot less mental clutter in my life without a stressful, complex job!

I am trying to take small steps now to ensure that this mental clarity continues even once I need to start focusing on making money again! I’m going to give your idea a serious try.

David March 24, 2010 at 12:30 am

It’s always an interesting decision whether to change try to change our circumstances or change our relationship to our circumstances. I think we have to do a bit of both. I was unhappy in my job for some time and I had real difficulty finding ways to like it or even accept it. When I quit it felt glorious.

Tom K March 23, 2010 at 11:39 am

Consider: non-mindfulness – the monkey mind – is *necessary* for capital-L Life’s evolutionary agenda, e.g., civilization/culture. If everyone were mindful at all times and saw what is *actually* going on, it would short-circuit what *apparently* is going on. I like the analogy of the cinema screen upon which the *apparently going on* is projected. To become aware of the screen interferes with the emotive dimension of the movie. Ergo, the “colossal momentum of a lifetime of being lost in thought”. Mindfulness, however, for the properly perceptive, the serendipitously-wired brain, is like a seed that can grow and become fruitful. For it too is part of Life’s agenda. But on the scale and function of say, the secretions of the pituitary gland, regulating growth, among a host of other crucial bodily processes. In human culture the Mindful Man is like a minute growth regulator, a tiny circuitbreaker or buffer that attenuates and mitigates (way beyond his size) a sometimes too unruly dynamic in the Body of Life…

So, thank you David for your little prosaic inroads to a Work of otherwise forbidding aspect. How does one eat an elephant? One bite at a time. But only the Hungry dine.

David March 24, 2010 at 12:33 am

I wonder if we can see what is actually going on, even with if we stay mindful. I tend to think that truth is only what is apparent to us.

Tom K March 24, 2010 at 12:44 am

Okay, I hear that as “truth is appearance”. It is. It isn’t. That’s what’s going on. I’m curious: what does “tend to think” mean? Just askin’….

David March 24, 2010 at 3:08 am

Well, I don’t always think the same thing. I wouldn’t trust anyone who does.

Jim June 8, 2011 at 1:24 am

Don’t you always think that Emerson was great?

For myself, serious enquiry leads to perspectives which are true each time I revisit them!

Jim June 8, 2011 at 1:27 am

Don’t you always think that Emerson was great?
It also appears that you always think that people who always think the same thing are untrustworthy ;-)

For myself, serious enquiry leads to perspectives which are true each time I revisit them!

Josh Hanagarne March 23, 2010 at 4:37 pm

David, I recently ordained myself the first high priest of the church of Don’t Be A Dick. We believe in mindfulness:) If you are brave enough to design a logo for me, you and all of your readers can join!
.-= Josh Hanagarne´s last blog ..I Am The Movement =-.

David March 24, 2010 at 12:33 am

Haha what?

Maria March 23, 2010 at 5:23 pm

What a lovely, useful, and generous idea! It so de-mystifies (is that a word?) meditation but does not make it any less special. Your writing is so clear and approachable, without subtracting any substance or relevance. I am passing this one around. Finally, a true “invitation” to meditate that anyone would like to attend!

David March 24, 2010 at 12:35 am

Hi Maria. Well thank you. Invite anyone you like. The more the merrier.

Yes “demystify” is definitely a word!
.-= David´s last blog ..How to Make Mindfulness a Habit With Only a Tiny Commitment =-.

murali March 23, 2010 at 11:03 pm

Nice post David. Dovetails into one of my favorite sayings from J.K. that helps me tremendously, that is, have an empty mind, but a full heart.

David March 24, 2010 at 12:37 am

I’ve had a lot of Zen parables go right over my head, but the one about the guy with the overfull teacup really struck me. You’ve probably heard it. Emptiness of that kind is a great metaphor for receptivity.

anomalyintransit March 24, 2010 at 1:07 am

Wow, this is such a powerful idea, it really IS amazing how often people “zone out” of their own lives. I guess the saying “Today is a gift, that’s why it’s called the present” is really true. Thank you so much for your wisdom. I’m going to go open a door now.

David March 24, 2010 at 3:10 am

The funny thing is the zoned out state is the normal state. What is amazing is that we can zone in.

May your doors reveal beautiful things. :)

Suzanne March 24, 2010 at 9:18 am

Just what I’d expect from you. This is definitely share-worthy and I plan on doing just that.

What I’ve been practicing since December or so is to stay completely in the moment during a shower. It’s only for 5-8 minutes but that is quite an accomplishment for me! I actually laugh when I realize I haven’t been mindful in the middle of one. It’s funny to realize how our minds do just keep entertaining themselves and we don’t even know it.

Did you know that the products we use have a pretty intense smell? Did you know that using the scrubby thing actually tickles or itches the skin sometimes? Did you know that the changing sounds of the water when it’s hitting the body compared to when it’s not are so beautiful? Hey, if you did, that’s great. That was all new to me. ;-)
.-= Suzanne´s last blog ..A Decluttering Home Run =-.

Char (PSI Tutor:Mentor) March 24, 2010 at 6:31 pm

Hi Suzanne~ I have my meditation spot there too. I have not used a light in the bathroom for over 10 years, imagining it to be a waterfall. Will be paying more attention to sounds of water on my body and not in future~ thx

Brad March 25, 2010 at 1:17 am

Wow! Now that is persistence. I ate and made breakfast with my eyes closed the other day, and while interesting, I feel that it detracted from some of the pleasure I get from seeing my food.
.-= Brad´s last blog ..Risible Rats =-.

Char (PSI Tutor:Mentor) March 25, 2010 at 1:29 am

Brad~ it’s not like the bathroom is pitch black, well none of the bathrooms that I’ve ever used. Your eyes will work without floresccents ~:-))

April I am turning the bathtub into a pond~ I want turtles but think the dogs will munch on them. I am collecting styrofoam from refrigerator boxes and carving and painting a rock wall to glue to the shower walls~ ambience!

David March 25, 2010 at 6:42 pm

Yes! There is so much going on in these everyday moments. The bath product scents you describe are a perfect example. I am now mesmerized by the sounds of one room transitioning to the next as I walk through a door. It’s a unique soundscape every time. Every moment has a thousand signatures.

shan April 29, 2014 at 8:48 pm

Now i know it’s the absence of mindfulness. Most of the time, I could not remember if I had used the soap during the shower. And because of that doubt, I shower twice most of the time!!
My mind is full of useless day dreaming clutter.

Now i’m going to try this simple and easy method, to bring myself down to earth thanks to David.

Mars Dorian March 25, 2010 at 1:59 pm

Easy to say, hard to follow !

My mind is always somewhere else – on a planet full of vibrant illusions. I’m never really fully present – always daydreaming. And I have to say, why not ? If you open that door consciously or not, what’s the difference ? I’m only fully aware when I’m working or talking to people, because it matters. Everything else is optional.
.-= Mars Dorian´s last blog ..Why YOUR Brand Changes the World =-.

David March 25, 2010 at 6:13 pm

If you open that door consciously or not, what’s the difference ?

That’s a fair question. In my experience whole days or weeks can go by in which you are mostly experiencing your thoughts. Everything else (which is life itself, really) is just a background hum. Few of these trains of thought have any practical use, and they tend to bring a certain level of unease or tension. It is out-of-control free association — a perfect breeding ground for anxiety, bad moods and other losses of perspective. Intentional instances of mindfulness interrupt that glaze-over phenomenon. In any cause, mindfulness seems to improve the quality of any action.

Eric | Eden Journal March 25, 2010 at 5:51 pm

I really like your approach here. It’s always easier to focus on small things and then grow them from there. Focusing on the those two little things is a great first step.
.-= Eric | Eden Journal´s last blog ..Embrace Lame Mutant Powers with a New Perspective =-.

David March 25, 2010 at 6:13 pm

That’s the idea. It’s a seed.

LeeShand March 26, 2010 at 5:20 am

What an excellent suggestion!! Can’t wait to try it. Already I relish that moment in the mornings when I step out into sweet melodies of birdsong. Namaste.

David March 27, 2010 at 1:56 am

Ah, that is one of the simple, dependable joys in my life: walking out the door and watching as inside becomes outside. Everything shifts over so seamlessly, it defies description.
.-= David´s last blog ..40 Belief-Shaking Remarks From a Ruthless Nonconformist =-.

Jojira April 2, 2010 at 3:59 pm

Isn’t this one of the principal ideas of yoga, to narrow our mind explicitly on some small thing so that the world around us snaps into focus?

The idea of performing a simple action so completely is very exciting. We are so often caught up in the quagmire of the world’s events, after all. Who can boast that they can “sit on a chair” perfectly? No one. However, there are many people who can boast they have gotten a degree in Economics, or they have started a Leadership club, or they are Student Body President, but it’s just a title. To those of us who are overwhelmed, we are overwhelmed because we believe these achievements to be deserved absolutely. The truth is, for most people the more success they have, the more corners they have cut.

Even seemingly calm and collected people are distracted most of the time. There are very few places in the world anymore where there are no distractions. If in elementary school, teachers taught students how to meditate, how to focus, how to make every action meaningful in the sense that their minds were fully present, those students would surely have more fulfilling lives than their peers who did not have the experience.

Just as surely, the teacher would be fired because teaching in that manner cannot possibly keep up with the expected curricula that is constantly being accelerated in all of our levels of education.

And that’s assuming that the teacher could even perform in such a manner in the first place. After all, it is “common knowledge,” isn’t it, that getting elementary children to concentrate is impossible? Perhaps we should consider that it isn’t the kids who are at fault, and stop trying to use neuroscience to find the problem. The problem is how much we introduce to people in the world.

So yes, it makes sense that giving someone basal tasks such as reaching for a doorknob and opening a door, or sitting in a chair is a very relaxing order. People are used to others’ expectations to be complex. Something simple breeds trust and therefore full compliance.

I know of engineers who report margins of error that are impossibly small considering their equipment. I know of doctors who prescribe medication with absurd profusion so they earn more money. I know of optics managers who have been fired from their position because they FINISHED all their work, and couldn’t look busy enough. Conversely, I know of lighting technicians and electrical engineers with abysmally low efficiency, who are employee of the year because they are good at human interaction and LOOKING busy. I know of teachers who curve tests (much to the approval of their peers and students) because “the test is too hard”.

Cutting corners. Why? Because their task is so complex that they are distracted from perfecting it, and look for the easy and fake fix.

This article is beautiful in its simplicity. It is the solution to a lot of global problems in the human psyche. It may never be employed. The top of humanity is mediocrity after all, and all the truly intelligent and wise people either do not have the confidence to rise to the top, or are confined by mediocrity to remain fettered in place.

So when you see someone working in the supermarket, ask them if they are having fun, if they are enjoying the experience. Could they do it better? Congratulate the street cleaners, who do not cut corners because it is pointless for them to do so. Congratulate those with their heads down who can work perfectly, because they are better than those in management who report lies to their bosses.

Errare humanum est, but sadly it is far too general

David April 2, 2010 at 7:20 pm

Great comments run in your family.

Some very fundamental mindfulness exercises would go so far if we learned them as kids. They don’t have to be difficult, even for kindergarteners. It is making a habit that is so difficult, because most of us never even attempt to cultivate mindfulness until adulthood.
.-= David´s last blog ..Raptitude’s Best Comment Ever =-.

Tatiana April 5, 2010 at 12:07 pm

Hmmm… I struggle with the whole mindfulness thing a LOT. I do find it easy and rewarding to find pockets of mindfulness in my day – often while commuting to work, but I don’t notice a decrease in my dissatisfaction with life.

You opened up your post with happy memories when you are fully present. I find that I am most often present during times when my daily routine is disrupted and I am shaken out of complacency – by a new hike, by a new locale or a new road. I am most aware and mindful when the moment I am in is not correlated to my daily life. So of course it’s easier to evoke memories of the awesome hike by the waterfall or a stroll on the beach than it is to recall vacuuming a week ago.

For some reason we get used to things very quickly, I’m sure it’s some survival mechanism that allows us to drive the same road every day mindlessly, go through the motions at work and that’s when we turn to our thoughts (and the internet) to feed us something new. When we travel to new locations or walk a new pathway it’s much easier to slow down and pay attention. For me anyway. So I find that mindfulness in the small moments of daily life are nice, but still not as vivid or meaningful as the ones I experience when faces with something new (especially if it’s also beautiful or neat or out of my experience). I’m stuck on how to get the same satisfaction out of my same-old daily routine without wanting to insert wanderings and travels into it.
.-= Tatiana´s last blog ..The passage of time =-.

Robin Frisella June 4, 2010 at 8:56 am

Enjoyed your post so much! And the wisdom contained in the comment section have inspired me as well this morning. Thank you all for putting my day on a positive, in-the-moment path.
.-= Robin Frisella´s last blog ..Paws to reflect =-.

Michael June 15, 2010 at 7:57 am

Hi David,

I will start right away. Thank you so much.


jenna whitman June 15, 2010 at 1:28 pm

Thank you for this, I found it via my morning stumble. I’ve been ‘trying’ to be more mindful lately. But your article shows me how to BE mindful. So simple. I am starting with it now.

Thank you.


nahl July 10, 2010 at 6:22 am

I love this! I have been looking for such tips for so long. I always thought that reminding oneself to constantly “be mindful, be mindful” took away the point in itself, so your tips are brilliant remedies. :)

nrhatch September 1, 2010 at 9:21 pm

Open the door. Sit in the chair.
Chop wood. Carry water.

Your blog is terrific. Mindfulness is an amazing tool. Eventually, we realize that the silence is so much better than having a monkey mind that is racing, racing all the time.

Clarity expands. We can hear the pure impulse of spirit. We exist more often in a state of bliss and happiness (except when the EGO gets in the way).

Glad I bumped into Raptitude today. Thanks for sharing tips.

Candida September 25, 2010 at 2:43 pm

I couldn’t agree more – staying present in what you’re doing is so important, but also very hard to master. I’ll remember this article the next time when I realize that my thinking goes out of hand and drags me into the past or future.

Keep those mindset posts coming man! Love them!

TL October 19, 2010 at 4:44 am

great! will start right away

G October 19, 2010 at 2:59 pm

Who is doing the looking, opening, sitting, experiencing? Doesn’t this just make people stare gormlessly at perceptual phenomena and convince themselves of how ‘aware’ they’re becoming? Does it ever really lead to a permanent diminishment or transformation of ego, worry and unhappiness?

I have always been a real smell-the-roses kind of guy; I habitually pay attention to my environment with great curiosity, even aspects that are of no obvious ‘utility’. However, it is a fact of perception that we look for what we are looking for; motiveless perception is physically impossible due to the structure of the brain. So even a whimsical enjoying of a natural scene still contains an aspect of purposeful guided perception, and the potential for self-delusion, confirmation-bias, segues into egotistical daydreaming, etc.

I do not feel that being a smell-the-roses guy who can deeply enjoy walking or drinking a cup of tea makes me assured of happiness now or in the future. I feel that there is a much more serious task for the sincere person who would be happy and good, and that the ego is too resilient to be transformed by a temporary suspension of mental chatter. It may go quiet for a while only to reappear – maybe it never left, but was only rendered quiescent by singleminded focus on a perceptual phenomenon. The Zen tradition, at least since Rinzai if I remember rightly, has always warned against the dangers of mistaking quiescence for enlightenment. In fact, I think the historical Buddha would have called this quieting of the mind ‘self-mortification’, which he himself dabbled in and rejected. ‘Non-thinking’ is still YOUR thinking!

This kind of advice, these kind of exercises and habits, do have a useful place in improving human wellbeing and society. They can be like the thin edge of the wedge that shows people the possibility of a life not governed by a continuous inner narrative of “I want, I must become”. But without a founding, coherent explanation of human nature and a working understanding of the sheer adaptibility of our ever-shapeshifting egos, these exercises will only function as yet another palliative to help people continue lives of deluded, inward-looking self-indulgence, which is what we see in the fantastical New Age spiritual and psychological movements.

I have met several grinning, wide-eyed New Agers who really believe that everyone around them is ‘unaware’, like zombies, and that they themselves are like Neo, living in The Matrix – part of a spiritual elite who see how reality really is. But they always show themselves to be at least as prone to unease, hatred and vanity as most people.

Why am I talking so harshly? I broadly agree with what you are trying to do and I think you express your ideas very well. But judging from the several posts of yours that I’ve read now, I feel you get a lot of support and not enough criticism. If you are going to talk about Life’s Big Questions you should expect to be held to rigorous standards. You talk of ‘loving yourself’ – love whom? Who is this loved person and who is the me who loves? Shouldn’t both of these disappear?

Partha October 20, 2010 at 1:37 am

Very thought-provoking. You’ve obviously thought and read — perhaps even practised — very deeply on this.

You say: “I feel that there is a much more serious task for the sincere person who would be happy and good, and that the ego is too resilient to be transformed by a temporary suspension of mental chatter.”
What exactly, in plain terms, would you say that task is?

And, shorn of esoterica and jargon (don’t mean to criticise your writing style personally, not at all, but that seems to be the difficulty with most “spiritual” literature: an over-abundance of poetic expression, hints, half-implications and jargon, as well as philosophy, and too little spit-on-your-hands directions and instruction), how exactly, would you say, may one approach “permanent” cessation or freedom, as opposed to temporary quiescence of the ego?

After all, plain vanilla mindfulness WAS one of the (many) methods taught by the Buddha, stand-alone and by itself. (The “When you draw water from the well, draw it with full attention, etc.” sermon to the poor old lady who said she couldn’t afford to sit for hours doing “nothing”.)

G October 20, 2010 at 5:47 am

It’s not so much that ‘vanilla mindfulness’ is a bad practice – my point is more that it is a practice with pitfalls and that I rarely hear anyone being warned about these pitfalls, and I see people who have jumped right into the pit with both feet: the starey, self-conscious people. There’s a danger that one will try mindfulness out, feel a bit nice for a while, and prematurely congratulate oneself, believing that one is now on the right and inevitable path to Buddhahood.

In my opinion, the best way to practice correctly is to maintain a sense of inquiry as to who is practicing; who is experiencing this ‘vanilla experience’? You will find that you are not really lost in pure perception at all: there is an intention to look and experience, and intention is ego. The intention can’t be sustained so the mind wanders off onto something else eventually, perhaps triggering an absurd struggle for ‘self-control’. Will, intention – this comes from the ego. The subject-object complex that feels the chair or opens the door or pulls the water from the well – that is ego, even if you are not thinking/verbalising.

When you pull water from the well (or whatever) yes, experience it vanilla – this is a good exercise – and when thoughts inevitably arise ask, “to whom does this thought arise?” This is a practice that must be absolutely continuous and that must become ever more refined, until the question is silently present even when there is no obvious mental chatter going on. You become the question, day and night, until there is a breaking through. It starts off a clunky process but becomes very subtle and intuitive.

Kyle November 22, 2010 at 1:55 am

This article makes me think of marijuana. It forces you into exactly the kind of mindfulness you’re talking about. Controversial as the subject may be nowadays, I’m sticking to this sentiment. Of course the wort thing to do when your high is to ignore this and lose yourself in thought. I think people doing that is what gives weed the bad reputation. Its true purpose is to help us live in the moment, not escape it, like other truly unhealthy drugs. Well, actually its true purpose is to treat one of the many, many diseases, pains, and illnesses that it seems to be so perfectly suited for doing but I digress. Sorry for getting off topic.

G November 22, 2010 at 4:03 am

Do you find you tend to go off on tangents at lot..? LOL.

I think cannabis would be dumbfounded to learn that it has a ‘true purpose’.

On a more serious note – do you think that drugs really are of great spiritual significance? Cos far as I can see they are mostly just distracting entertainment. Yeah, they can shake up one’s preconceptions a bit, but I don’t think stoners are generally more enlightened than others. Buddhist sects tend to have explicit rules against intoxicants.

David November 22, 2010 at 4:30 pm

I think it can go either way. Cannabis seems to increase the rate of thought and it is easy to get distracted. But being distracted by one thing means your attention is being held by something else. I think if you can be aware of the tendency for thought to take over you can use it to help keep your attention on the present.

Having said that, I have found the sober base state to be the most reliable and stable for cultivating mindfulness, but it may be different for different people. Nothing wrong with experimenting though.

Partha November 22, 2010 at 12:00 pm

Actually drugs — specifically, marijuana and cannabis — are quite widely used to induce supra-mental states. Some of course start there and end there, but there are serious schools that systematically use these drugs (in conjunction with specific techniques) to help accelerate the pace into minor Samadhis, and then, when the students are fairly established in those supra-mental states, wean them off them.

Of course, mainstream practitioners and systems tend to emphatically dismiss this kind of thing as a corruption of spiritual endeavour. But although ganja and charas users are a very small minority where I come from (among serious practitioners in general, I mean), that small minority nevertheless comprises a very sizeable number (although their numbers are fast dwindling as times get more ‘modern’).

Incidentally, you can find very graphic descriptions of drug use in spiritual practice in the Americas (amongst the “Indians”, as they’re called, that is) in Carlos Castaneda’s now-famous series of books about the teachings of his teacher Don Juan. (Although all I know about that particular tradition is what I’ve read in C.’s books, nothing more, and there are some people who question the veracity of those accounts.) Either way — whether factual or fiction — they’re fascinating reading.

G November 22, 2010 at 12:10 pm

Yeah, I did have that in the back of my mind Partha; I guess I was being flippant. :-)

On the DVD extras of my Twin Peaks box-set the guy who plays Ben Horn talks about his journey into the rainforest to do iowaska with the natives – seemed pretty cool. I think some amusing camcorder footage was included.

Partha November 22, 2010 at 12:33 pm

Is there a special emoticon for an Oops smile? Can’t think of one, so I’ll make do with the regular one! :-)

Char (PSI Tutor:Mentor) November 22, 2010 at 2:19 pm

Exactly~ it’s the why and how, and what (hydro is mostly synthetic chemicals and fake sunlight and water).

I am ASD, many of us “self-medicate” with ganja (I’m on a break at moment). It helps us focus~ as we tend to have too much coming in.

During my breaks I spend greater periods of time on my own. Whereas, when smoking spliffs, the THC stays in circulation for hours and allows me to interact with others for longer periods of time, or to go to environments where there is a lot of noise and activity, without mentally shutting down.

Sakeenah December 5, 2010 at 10:02 pm

I greatly appreciate this blog. I just found it today and can say that I will be back! I actually got a little teary eyed on this one with the part about finding a way to love yourself. In the past I’ve caught myself and focused on what it was i was actually doing and its an amazing feeling. This explains why i love art and making things with my hands. It requires your full attention and allows your stresses or whatever worries to subside for that moment.

David December 6, 2010 at 9:15 pm

If you look at what happy people do to be happy, it almost always boils down to how well they are able to stay present in their lives. They tend to enjoy doing with their hands like art or music, they tend to have a lot of face-to-face communication, they tend to limit the number of commitments they have… all of it, whether they realize it or not, is conducive to mindfulness.

Partha December 7, 2010 at 4:23 am

The more I think about this the more I’m drawn to this irresistible conclusion: that mindfulness, while necessary, is NOT sufficient, if your goal is the ultimate fulfilment.

You can, for example, be fully mindful while, to take an extreme example, committing genocide, on the battlefield or elsewhere. That’s what the Samurai types (or at least, the best of them) did. That’s bonafide mindfulness, and I daresay that did lead to blipping off of the mind, in other words, minor Satoris.

Or take animals. They have no minds (as far as I know), so what they do is, by one definition, mindless, and by another, unsullied by mind.

I am irresistibly drawn to the conclusion that WHAT you do with your mindfulness, what you do with your non-mental-chatter, is as important as arriving at that state.

That is why meditation (without, at this time, getting into what mediation actually is, and its types: that’s another story, and a long one) is of a different nature of activity than any other. True, the mindful killer is ‘better’ than the mindless would-be meditator, but I believe the mindful meditator is immeasurable closer to the ultimate breakthrough than the mindful killer, or the mindful dancer, or the mindful singer.

So it’s important to be mindful, but it’s not enough. It’s no more than the means to an end. (Provided your aim is the ultimate fulfilment: if it isn’t, then mindfulness alone is enough to give you great benefits, spiritual and otherwise.) At least that’s what I’m irresistibly drawn to believe.

nrhatch December 7, 2010 at 11:37 am

Animals may not be as “mindless” as you imagine. To the contrary, I think they are incredibly mindful of the present moment:


Until we extend our circle of compassion to all living things, humanity will not find peace. ~ Albert Schweitzer, The Philosophy of Civilization

Partha December 7, 2010 at 12:12 pm

I do agree. Or at least, I do not know enough to disagree, and agree with one aspect of that.

One prime difference between humans and animals is the mind. Yet this mind, with all its obvious pluses, confounds us no end.

There are many means devised to cancel out this confounding “chatter” (as the cliche has it, very correctly) of the mind. Mindfulness is one such means.

What I was driving at is this: that overcoming that chatter represents a tremendous advance from the usual human state, but it isn’t the pinnacle of human achievement. (Or so I believe. I do not, I readily admit, really ‘know’.) If it were, then the animals, the tiger chasing its prey, the rabbits mating, the deer running from the tiger, well, they are already there! Surely there is more to human fulfilment than regression to animal-hood.

That’s what I meant (and intended — perhaps inexpertly — to convey) when I spoke of the mindlessness of animals.

Although of course, I do realise that we’re talking of mindFULness here, not mindLESSness.

My point is this: that mindfulness alone, although wonderful, is not the ultimate. (As far as I can understand this.)

nrhatch December 7, 2010 at 12:37 pm

Excellent clarification. Thanks.

And I agree with you:

First, we must quiet the mind of the endless “chatter” (or monkey mind).
Second, we must instill ourselves with “compassion” toward all things.

Master your thoughts. Master your life.

G December 7, 2010 at 1:39 pm

Thought cannot master thought. Until you go beyond thought it’s not a case of ‘I have thoughts that I must master’ – you ARE thought!

nrhatch December 7, 2010 at 1:44 pm

Don’t believe everything you think:


You are NOT your thoughts. Your thoughts are not YOU.

G December 7, 2010 at 1:48 pm

Until you awaken, you are your thoughts – sorry. To reach the solution you have to be clear about the problem.

Partha December 8, 2010 at 10:19 am

No, no, it isn’t a “clarification” at all. Only one who actually knows can clarify on something as subtle as this. I wouldn’t presume to pretend to that!

I’m only thinking aloud here, that’s all, simply mentioning something that I have, at this time, come to believe as what appears to me to be the truth, that’s all. Please don’t take it as anything more! For all I know I could be entirely wrong, and it could well be that all kinds of mind-lessness (whether achieved via [pure practice of] mindfulness or via other methods) are exactly identical: only, I don’t think so at this time.

Talk is fine, and perhaps better than nothing, but one can know only when one does know.

nrhatch December 8, 2010 at 10:35 am

So true. I only know what works for me:


“It’s more than just a way of managing the “petty annoyances” in life . . . it’s changing our perspective in such a way that things don’t often rise to the level of “petty annoyance.” We retrain ourselves to see things as they are, and accept them as they are, without getting our feathers ruffled by the “dive bombers” we encounter along the way.”

“Developing mindfulness cultivates wisdom and inner freedom, which leads not just to a few moments of fleeting happiness, but to feelings of inner peace and lasting contentment which equate to genuine happiness.”

G December 8, 2010 at 11:24 am

You seem to studiously avoid critical thinking. Instead of merely reasserting your assumptions why not engage with the criticism?

What ‘works for you’ now may one day be exposed to you as completely empty. Trying to forge a calmer, more compassionate ego is like trying to forge a calmer, more compasionate devil: he will become better and better at pretense but never become good. This practice may collapse if something really bad happens that brings out the worst in you – you are then liable to become cynical. When this happens I hope that despair leads you to search for the real answer to the problem of ego – to kill the ‘devil’ instead of disguising him as a saint.

All the time I hear about people who practice this kind of mindfulness lapsing into one vice or another; read about the life and career of the US-based Zen ‘master’ Taizan Maezumi.

nrhatch December 7, 2010 at 1:54 pm

See yourself not as the creator of the thoughts arising in your mind . . . but as the detached observer of those thoughts.

G December 7, 2010 at 2:01 pm

I’m more than famailiar with these techniques but the potential for self-deception is very great. I prefer the ‘self-inquiry’ techniques of Ramana Maharshi and Nisargadatta Maharaj, though this is certainly not the only way. But ask yourself, who is this ‘observer’? Is ego gone or just hiding?

nrhatch December 7, 2010 at 6:28 pm

The observer? Spirit.

Is Ego gone? I doubt it.

More likely, Ego remains lurking in the shadows, ready to pounce at the slightest provocation. ;)

G December 7, 2010 at 7:40 pm

The observer is not, as you call it, ‘spirit’ while the ego still lurks in the shadows. While ego-consciousness remains unexamined, unkilled and untransformed the observer is spirit mediated through ego; completely conditioned by ego. Even while somewhat attenuated as in the case of ‘vanilla’ awareness, the observer is still defined and directed by ego.

The ego-illusion has to be thoroughly searched out and destroyed. It’s a pseudo-practice to start from the premise ‘the ego is an illusion’: NO, you cannot really live that way just by asserting it because it seems convincing – you must discover internally for yourself that the ego is illusion. Otherwise, you will continue living via ego except now you have an additional delusion that you can escape what you are.

So long as ego is ‘observing’ or ‘practicing’ you are still getting nowhere as far as awakening is concerned, no matter how pleasant it might feel and no matter what pleasant effects this may have on your life. Real practice is to go beyond practice – you are doing it wrong until you start doing it right. To do it right is to be awakened. So the ‘practice’ of the unawakened who sincerely wish to awake is to fail, fail and fail again until the correct way opens up. To have confidence in a practice and make a ‘habit’ of it is to sink into complacency. That is anathema to awakening; you might as well collect toenail clippings.

nrhatch December 7, 2010 at 9:08 pm

Suit yourself.

Partha December 8, 2010 at 10:33 am

Exquisitely explained, as usual!

Anna February 16, 2011 at 7:40 pm

hmm…we’ll see. i’ll give it a go.

Maggie August 12, 2011 at 5:58 pm

“age quod agis — do what you are doing.” Jesuit maxim.

anti candida dijeta January 11, 2012 at 1:08 am

Great, I’ll start right away. Thanks for great article :)

anti candida dijeta

Anita July 16, 2012 at 8:45 pm

Hi David, my name is Anita and I wanted to take a moment to thank you for sharing on your views on life, I happen to do the same thing for the past few years since I started to figure things out, I guess my life experiences were what taught me that I needed to learn how to play the game of life to get better results, otherwise it seemed like too much work for very little gratification. I share my site with you, I really just write for myself, put it out there into the world, somebody might relate to my “Life Adventure” I certainly wouldn’t want to miss it for anything. Thanks again I will subscribe to your site. Warm regards, Anita
PS A few of my articles are in Spanish since I have a lot of Spanish speaking friends/family but most are in English =)

Leah August 23, 2012 at 11:47 pm

Just stumbled onto this post. It is exactly what I needed right now. I’ve been in a post-break up slump, in a quandary on exactly how to become a more conscious, happy person. Thank you for posting!

Reggie November 4, 2012 at 3:14 am

Hey, great article! This is the best advice on learning to be mindful that I’ve found so far. Definitely going to apply this to my daily routine.

I was wondering what you think about lucid dreaming and if you’ve experienced it. The reason I bring it up is because mindfulness is supposed to increase the chances of becoming lucid while dreaming because it increases self-awareness in waking life. I’ve only done it twice and neither time was particularly vivid.

I’ve read that lucid dreaming also has the potential to greatly increase joy and satisfaction with waking life. Just wondering if someone wanted to share their experience with it if any.

Andrea January 8, 2013 at 9:03 am

Thanks David, I appreciate this post. I’ve been working on enjoying the moment and the thoughts you have shared will come into play. Your writing is delightful as well.
I am usually present in the moment when I wake up and realize I have been blessed to see a new day and I listen to the morning sounds and feel my body and spirit come into “awakeness”. Then, of course my mind gets busy planning for the execution of the day.
Every time I am able to be mindful, it is s rewarding; even when it isn’t enjoyable, it is still empowering to be.
Thanks for sharing.

Erika Hazel January 29, 2013 at 6:27 am

Life wisdom in simplicity. Beautiful.

aditya February 21, 2013 at 6:44 pm

In winter, I get static shocks whenever I touch the door knob. So, these days, I maybe thinking some random BS but whenever, I am about to touch the knob, my mind races to the present. Winter has helped me to become more mindful … hahaha

L. A. Howard May 7, 2013 at 2:20 pm

Every time you update, it takes me a few days and a couple of read-throughs to process what you’re talking about!

I just realized that mindfulness is, perhaps, what people are looking for on vacation. They are looking for a way to re-focus, to relax, to just BE. Somehow, we’ve concluded that that’s impossible in “real life”, and is only possible for folks on vacation, or for artists & writers. We don’t consider that it’s something we can do in everyday life as well. :)

Karen May 18, 2013 at 1:32 pm

I believe we “grow out of mindfulness” – perhaps we are “taught out” of it. Think of a child. A child is present in every moment of “doing” and lost in thought when “not doing”. We are so very present when we are a child, perhaps that is why we slip into our “second childhood” as we age. Those early memories are cemented to us because we were fully present when making them.

Then, mind-chatter takes over. We perform tasks and do things when not fully present, when “lost” in mind-chatter, and we often do not remember a single thing about the previous several seconds, minutes, or even hours or days. We think we can multitask, but we cannot be fully present for any task if our mind is on something else, and then we do not remember doing it. Multitasking is one of the worst things people try to do! It uses our finite energy and time, and gives very little in return for that energy and time. Oh, we can point to several chores managed, or tasks performed, but we cannot say they were skillfully managed or well performed.

I can remember a time when I could have a blank mind, just observing what was going on around me. My brother can remember as well. No one ever believed us at the time. It was such a nice time, no chattering monkeys howling in my thoughts. I can sometimes do that now, but it isn’t easy.

The comment above, about vacations, won’t do it for most people because they cannot leave behind their thoughts of the daily grind except for a few moments, minutes, of their change of scenery times. At least, however, they can try to be more mindful, since their normal routines are on hold and unfamiliar events are occurring. AND, only if they put away the tools of their regular routines, like phones and computers and such!

Tiago Pinto May 27, 2013 at 8:26 pm

Some years ago, somehow I learned to notice those moments when I’m being really happy. Then, I kind of instructed myself to notice them a lot more and get the most out of them knowing “I’m having a great time” and it helps making those times even better, instead of just reminding them afterwards to think “those were good times”.

Somehow this post reminded me of this “thing” I have.
Your writing is top notch and so are the subjects you tackle.

Vobo August 20, 2013 at 2:17 am

Hi all,

Simple, yet full of meaning, but still easy to grasp. I was looking for something to slow life down a little bit, but I didn’t now what I was looking for and how to do it. This post is a great starting point for me to understand this concept of mindfulness.
Thank you, David.

Vishak November 15, 2013 at 10:10 am

Thank u so much David…I have been doing CA from India and have really understood the pains associated with not being in the present…It really puts on a load over oneself in other activities too…Thank u for this simple yet powerful practical example and making it illustrious…Please keep posting more related articles..

Vishak November 15, 2013 at 10:10 am

Thank u so much David…I have been doing CA from India and have really understood the pains associated with not being in the present…It really puts on a load over oneself in other activities too…Thank u for this simple yet powerful practical example and making it illustrious…Please keep posting more related articles..

Sherry J. Faller December 31, 2013 at 6:58 pm

An outstanding share! I have just forwarded this onto a colleague who was conducting a little
research on this. And he in fact ordered me dinner due to
the fact that I discovered it for him… lol. So let me reword
this…. Thanks for the meal!! But yeah, thanx for spending
time to talk about this matter here on your site.

Kat February 8, 2014 at 4:41 am

I have lyrics in a song of mine which says:
Living in reflections of your life is your own demise.
I was trying to finish the rest of my song and was looking for inspiration and then I stumbled across your blog and read this article! Perfect timing :)
It’s been very helpful thank you!

Leilani Hayes May 4, 2014 at 6:33 pm

I so appreciate these words of wisdom. It’s so hard to live “in the moment” because we’re so caught up in the daily life. Anything that can help me to come back to the trueness of me, I greatly appreciate.

G December 7, 2010 at 9:25 pm

I didn’t go to the trouble of explaining this for my own amusement; please consider what I said.

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