Happiness Exercise #2: Mindfulness Without Meditation

Mindfulness has become part of everyday conversation. In case you’ve missed overhearing it, Wikipedia defines mindfulness as “moment-by-moment awareness of thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment, characterized mainly by “acceptance” — attention to thoughts and feelings without judging whether they are right or wrong.” Mindfulness meditation research points to health benefits from living in the moment, neither imagining what is ahead nor preoccupied with the phantoms of yesterday. Yet most people can’t, don’t, or are too busy to meditate. We live as if distracted by flies at a barbecue. The insects are replaced by the latest text message, our supervisor’s criticism, or a baby who just pooped. With all this happening, mindfulness meditation seems indulgent.

Americans, in particular, believe they must be going somewhere, anywhere but where they are. Our country condemns stasis in the name of progress, however ill-defined. Even our anger is directed at action, though it keeps us stuck. Someone who is mindful, by contrast, chooses a destination worth reaching and tends to find the ride interesting if not joyful; tolerable at worst.

Today I’ll suggest three simple exercises to buy you some mindfulness. I’ll be like the grocery employee who offers free samples, hoping you’ll enjoy the product and purchase more for yourself. Best of all, you won’t have to meditate, a procedure you might have tried and given up because of little time or frustration.

First, a word about the meditation I won’t be illustrating. The technique is a means to an end. The goal is to help you flourish and become enlivened, not to get divorced, quit work, or spend your days with eyes closed in a trance. Meditation makes your marriage, job, and everything else less troublesome if it succeeds in producing mindfulness that transfers from a quiet, private exercise to the rest of your life. I will offer examples of a more direct way to arrive at the same state. You aren’t required to choose one path to mindfulness, but life satisfaction can be enhanced by any and all methods that get you focused:

  • Eat a meal alone. Try your home, a park bench, or a restaurant, although the first alternative probably will be easiest. It should be quiet to the extent possible. Turn off the TV and smartphone. Give dinner enough time after preparation. Look at the food. Examine it as if you had a microscope handy. Think about its arrangement on the plate. Appreciate the colors and shapes, the aromas and the temperature. Close your eyes and take a bite. Feel the texture with tongue and teeth. Chew slowly. Sense the taste. Be still. If you do this for even a few seconds, you will have eaten mindfully. Nothing but the meal and its qualities should be in your thoughts. Try not to compare this repast to anything in your history of dining.

Most of us tend to eat at speed. We simultaneously converse, anticipate the end of our lunch break, drift toward the events of yesterday or tomorrow, and pass through multiple disconnected emotions and ideas that start in Cleveland and end in Istanbul in 15 seconds time. The common way of eating is mindless, a term associated with Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer. Fueling the body becomes another job done daydreaming, like shoveling coal into a furnace while our brain is somewhere else. We move to the next task as distracted as when we ate. Our brain buzzes with car horns and flashing neon. Sleep alone stops the light show.

  • Wad up some paper or find a small rubber ball and use a waste basket as a target. You are going to shoot baskets in a home-made version of basketball. The goal is not to become a champion or even to test yourself. Concentrate on the task. Focus on your grip of the ball or its substitute. Let the texture of the projectile inform your touch. Notice how the arm and hand are positioned. Sight the target. Watch the ball fly into the basket or rebound away. Sense your body as you bend to retrieve your throw. You might even hear a joint pop. Repeat. Think of nothing else, not even the previous shot. Care not whether you succeed in scoring. This is about the process and not the product. Slow down so the act fully absorbs you.
  • Find a place free from the press of events. Think of someone you dislike. Consider all the negative adjectives you apply to them. Be as specific as possible. For example, words like hard-headed, foolish, demanding, etc. Now search for a different way to describe the same person, considering terms that are less pejorative but no less accurate. Can you recognize hard-headedness as another way of saying strong-willed? How about substituting optimistic for foolish, or acknowledging that a demanding human sets a high standard of performance?

The idea here is get out of the mindlessness groove and think afresh. Evolution led us to make quick judgements about who is on our side and who isn’t, who might be fun to share a lunch with and who might want us to be their lunch. When sticking to our preconceived notions we are living mindlessly, says Ellen Langer. The habit leaves us encumbered, unable to learn new things or correct errors with facility. Our world becomes a set of automatic answers and inflexible reactions, bypassing thought and reconsideration. Instead, try to look at anyone you know well and find something new about him or her. You might be surprised by what you discover.

I don’t want to overwhelm you. Any of these exercises is informative if done mindfully. No multitasking allowed. Mindfulness should enliven you. Observing the world in a new way is interesting. A fresh perspective is good for your brain and your relationships. Therapists sometimes role play with their patients, in part to give them practice in handling troublesome people, but also to take another perspective. In a difficult bond between parent and child — a bond like bondage — it can be enlightening to take your own role and then switch to the other’s role.

A psychiatrist I used to know often told his patients, “Learn or burn.” He didn’t mean it, of course. He wanted to emphasize their need to save themselves from the self-inflicted errors contributory to unhappiness. Abe Lincoln said:

The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves…

I’d take Lincoln’s writing out of its Civil War context by writing the last sentence this way: “We must disenthrall ourselves” every minute, every day.

If your life is not what you wish, I’d say mindfulness, not wealth, is the more attainable, more satisfying alternative to the self-imposed slavery of pre-conceived notions and routine thought-spinning. An interesting life is in the mind of the beholder.

The top image is a symbol created by Mmm Daffodils to signify the “wise mind” concept used in DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy). It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.



Are We There Yet? The Problem of Boredom


The closest I ever came to murder (don’t worry, not close) was on a visit to Cambridge, MA. I’d posted an ad in Harvard Yard, searching for a companion to share the expense of my car ride back to Evanston, IL. Within a few days a pleasant-enough young woman and I set out for the Midwest. The plan required us to stop at the University of Michigan, where she was to begin grad school. I would then continue to Northwestern University on my own.

The 750 mile trip from the Boston area to Michigan takes about 13 hours, plus stops along the way, and more time if you decide to break it up over two days, as we did. It is not an interesting ride. After you get out of Pennsylvania, long stretches of flat ground and bland horizons dull your senses and stretch the time. The conversation didn’t enliven things unless you count the growing disquiet inside of me. A disquieting disquiet: rage.

Indeed, whatever my companion said or didn’t say (I can no longer remember any details) I became ever more irritated with her. As we closed in on her campus, I couldn’t bear being with her for five more minutes. Had Ann Arbor been just a few extra miles, I’d be doing hard time in a Michigan prison for murder. My imaginary plea to the judge? “The car ride, sir, was the cause. The boredom just got to me.”

Irritability and anger, not to mention disgust, are among the characteristics of boredom described in Peter Toohey’s excellent book, Boredom: A Lively History. The book is an easy read and relatively brief — the better, I assume, to avoid boring the reader.

Toohey tells us boredom is adaptive: it signals that we need to get out of the situation we are in and on to something less “toxic.” I’m sure you can create your own list of boring situations, probably not so different from those identified by the rest of us: watching someone else’s home movies, waiting in line, monotonous lectures and sermons, repetitive work, and the like.

I can actually identify the most boring day of my life. I was a college student, just having finished my junior year. The place was a non-air conditioned metal-stamping factory, the site of my summer job. I had two mind-deadening tasks. One was bending the backs of metal bucket seats using a simple machine. The other was assembling a small gasket. Each job took a matter of seconds. Once you learned how to do them you never got better and the assignment never changed. You just did the same thing interminably: for eight hours, five days a week, while swimming in a river of sweat.

I started by clocking-in at 7 a.m., which meant I had to awaken at 5 a.m. If I stayed out late the night before, I paid for it with the extra-strenuous effort alertness required. You know the sensation — each eye lid seems to weigh 600 pounds and even Arnold Schwarzenegger doesn’t have the muscle to keep one open.

The summer was hot and the factory absorbed everything the sun could give it. Water was essential to avoid dehydration. Nonetheless, it was peculiar to be drenched in perspiration at 7 a.m. even in a building where the thermometer registered over 100º Fahrenheit. Dutiful as ever, I did my best to keep from buckling. Three hours must have passed before I looked at the wall clock. Seven-fifteen a.m.! It seemed impossible.

Like a bad science fiction film, time had come close to stopping and eternity was nearer than the end of the work day. A second look at the clock revealed it was actually 7:14 a.m. and two muscular-looking gremlins were working to push the minute hand back.


What produces boredom? Peter Toohey points to predictability, monotony, and confinement. He cites research suggesting low levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine can make one “boredom-prone,” needing to stir up excitement and break some rules in order to escape the internal torpor. Unmedicated children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder are thought to be short on this substance. Consequently, they are at risk of misbehavior, alcohol or drug dependency, and criminal conduct. Extroverts are more boredom-prone than introverts, needing the external stimulus of an eventful environment to avoid the stolid state of stupefaction.

Even so, everyday boredom is something all of us encounter. A 2009 on-line survey sponsored by the website http://www.triviala.com/ found Britons complaining of six hours per week spent bored. But Toohey suggests another kind of boredom, an “existential” condition. This has variously been called ennui, world-weariness, and spiritual despair, and can spill into frank depression.

The existential variety of boredom is present in those who find life empty and meaningless, usually accompanied by a lack of close community or social connections. If you are familiar with French existentialist writers you’ve encountered Sartre, who even wrote a book called Nausea, a fictional riff on the condition. Toohey’s tome argues several historical factors have led to this. He cites the breakdown of religion as a source of life’s meaning and organization, the rise of individualism, and the way in which large cities inhibit the possibility of intimate human contact while shrinking the average man’s sense of importance (the last is my idea, not Toohey’s).

I’d add materialism to the list. We spend far too much time shopping for “things” with the expectation of receiving satisfaction in the package. Habituation happens as often for adults as for a child on Christmas day: having waited all year for a special toy, he (and we) discover that having it doesn’t deliver all that wanting and waiting promised us. Bored, the toy is shelved, while the adult version (say, a new car) loses its new car smell and the first-drive thrill.

Another thought: “wage-slavery” of most modern work may rob us of the sense of pride and control, while reinforcing the notion of being small, disposable people who hardly matter. Contrast this to the old days, when a free man worked on a project he fashioned from start to finish. The act of total responsibility for creation or completion of a job contributed to a meaningful, engaged, and less alienated life, especially when others in his small community depended on his labor and his presence.

Of course, as Toohey is careful to point out, for much of human history the danger of daily existence and the work required to make a living left little room for leisure; and the sheer hardness of life offered minimal amounts of the idle time during which boredom and unsettling self-reflection might metastasize.

Contemporary living presents more entertainment, activity, and distraction than ever, without having eradicated boredom. TV channels and websites beyond numbering, exercise programs and classes — none of these seem capable of erasing the experience or the word from our day and vocabulary.


Historically, many have looked to travel, sex, and alcohol as solutions to everyday boredom, not to mention getting back to work. Changing one’s routine and reorganizing one’s life can also help. Learning new things, exercise, and performing music are recommended. Communities of friends or association with like-minded people within social organizations provide prophylaxis against invasion by the B word: the sense of time stretching into an empty, endless void. Meditation can be helpful and keep each moment alive. TV doesn’t, by the way. Channel changing should tip you off.

How is it possible that we get bored with a plethora of internet sites to visit, criss crossing tweets, and movies to watch? We have plays to attend, games to play, and great books to read. Still we are bored.

Perhaps an evolutionary psychologist might point at those early humans who sat around and were entertained simply by twiddling their opposable thumbs. They weren’t interesting, didn’t attract mates, and failed to notice the hungry animal about to make them into a meal. In other words, we are not the descendants of early men and women who effortlessly defeated boredom.

Thomas Carlyle, the famous Scottish philosopher and writer, said, “I’ve got a great ambition to die of exhaustion rather than boredom.”

I lean toward Carlyle’s view, but suspect I am already too tired to make his goal my own. Exhausted first and bored soon after, the sound you just heard was me yawning.

Top image: A Bored Person by GRPH3B18. Below that is a photo of a Bored Young Girl by Greg Westfall. Finally, the Souvenir Seller, Moscow by Adam63. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.