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Here’s the thing: We all want things to be OK. Of course we do! But (you knew there was a but)… at any given moment, things may not be OK. Even when they are for us (perhaps better than OK), for someone else they’re not. Intellectually, we understand this. However, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually—impulsively—we look for a workaround. A magic pill or secret password. The right SPF. A new diet or religion or hairstyle. Something to scroll or scrutinize; eat, drink, or buy.
I admire the pragmatism of Buddhism in this regard. Years ago, I joined my devoted Tibetan Buddhist friends, Wendy and Nick, at a lecture with a venerable lama named Ling Rinpoche, said to be the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama’s senior tutor in his past life. I was newly pregnant and terribly nauseous. The lecture hall at MIT where we gathered was impressive, with stadium seating and soaring glass windows. Still, I felt cloistered and queasy. Before the program began, a translator took to the stage and outlined some logistics, first in Tibetan and then in English. He identified the bathrooms and fire exits. He invited people to silence their phones.
“If you have a baby or small child…” he began.
I didn’t have either yet, but my consciousness was preemptively attuned to the advice that would follow.
“If the baby begins to cry … because this is what babies do … please step out of the room, calm the child, and then come back.”
I smiled at the pragmatism. This is what babies do. The lecture had not yet started, but already we were asked to cultivate this generous, compassionate, and unflinching attention to reality.
See also: What Is Mindfulness, Really?
According to plan
We want things to be OK and to go according to plan, but the planet is melting, with coral bleaching from vivid to colorless, forests burning from lush to ash, and sea levels rising, rising, rising. Systemic racism is a public health crisis. Food insecurity affects one in five households with school-age children as I write this. The healthcare system is so inequitable that falling ill can bankrupt a person or family. Life can be lonely and short. Wildly unjust. Dangerous or devastating. It is still life.
What can we do about it?
First, we must acknowledge reality and allow ourselves our feelings without making them bad, broken, or wrong. Next, we must attempt to deal with what is happening in a compassionate and useful way, beginning with the present. We can also hold space for more than one feeling. Finally, begin again. This last point is the essential teaching of meditation mechanics. Each time our attention drifts, we start over. We come back. It’s a spectacularly convenient and simple practice (sometimes maddeningly so). And it’s applicable throughout life. Even when the big picture is disheartening, we know what to do with this one breath.
No magic pills
Some spiritual communities are vulnerable to losing their footing when it comes to how we can be OK in a moment of suffering. Part of this incongruence has to do with an inability to decipher between these meaningful practices and the wellness industrial complex with which they overlap. For instance, in trying to sell a product or service, it behooves a brand to suggest that it is the magic pill we need. If we use it, all will be well. If all is not well—the logic goes—it must be user error. Another risk is when spiritual ideas or practices are used “to sidestep personal, emotional ‘unfinished business,’ to shore up a shaky sense of self, or to belittle basic needs, feelings, and developmental tasks,” according to John Welwood, a prominent psychotherapist who coined the term spiritual bypassing, which is in plainer terms a defense mechanism and, when directed at others, a form of gaslighting.
Some signs of spiritual bypassing include:
- Not focusing on the here and now, living in a spiritual realm much of the time.
- Overemphasizing the positive and avoiding the negative.
- Being self-righteous about the concept of enlightenment.
- Being overly detached.
- Being overly idealistic.
- Pretending that everything is OK when it’s not.
With mindfulness we are not trying to bypass any aspect of the moment. In fact, the basic theory is that the best way to pragmatically address reality is to practice. We can use any aspect of the here and now to do this. One opportunity is, first, to consider when in your day are you most mindful? You might quickly jot a list. When are you most present in the moment and focused on what is actually happening rather than how you’d like things to be different? In contrast, when are you least present? What do you rush through, ignore, dash off, wish away, or worry ahead at the cost of experiencing the moment?
You probably notice that some activities land in both categories. This phenomenon happens a lot. Take coffee, for example. People often share how their morning coffee rituals can be habitual impulses possessing minimal awareness. Or they can be the complete opposite: deeply grounding routines that place them in the present moment with full, almost holy attention—to the aroma of the grinds, the feel of the mug in hand, and the sensory impressions throughout the house as the world wakes up around you. The sound of the coffeemaker! Even I, a devout tea drinker, love that sound.
How to make any routine a practice in mindfulness
If you don’t have time to meditate or you need to find a small respite in your day, choose anything you do regularly and turn it into practice. Here’s how.
- Choose a daily routine, preferably something you do mindlessly and automatically most of the time.
- Make sure it’s small and finite. Some examples: brushing your teeth, taking out the trash, washing your face or hands, locking or unlocking a door, logging in to your phone or computer, eating a meal, cooking a meal, or washing the dishes.
- For one week, do this small task with total, unbroken attention. Take three deep breaths before you open the door or enter your password. Feel the physical experience of your body in the moment: how tightly you hold the toothbrush, the cold air on your skin when you step outside holding the weight of the trash bag in your hand, the sound of the gravel beneath your feet as you walk, the temperature of the water as you soak the pan from dinner.
- Notice any changes in your attitude before, during, and after performing this everyday activity.
- Become inquisitive about what it reveals about the way you perform other everyday tasks. What can you learn about yourself through this small task or as it reflects larger actions?
This mindfulness practice through everyday activities doesn’t require altering a daily routine or adding time to an already full schedule. It merely requires a shift in awareness. We’re paying attention to life as it’s happening—the tiny, trivial stuff, as well as the momentous and meaningful. Of course, we can’t operate this way all the time. But it’s powerful and instructive to step out of autopilot and into awareness whenever we can.
By committing to the moment that is present and real—this cup of coffee, this sip of tea, this pose on our mat, this compassionate and clear-thinking breath within our busy day—we reconnect to a sense of steadiness and agency. We cannot guarantee what the next moment will be like, only that meeting it honestly is the best way forward.
Rebecca Pacheco is an award-winning blogger and author who frequently writes about mind-body topics. She’s been teaching yoga and meditation for more than 20 years. You can connect with her @omgal. Excerpted from Still Life: The Myths and Magic of Mindful Living by Rebecca Pacheco (Harper Wave, 2021).
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