Before I get to the 3 practical ways to apply mindfulness let me first talk to you about food, specifically sushi. “What does sushi have to do with mindfulness?” stick with me for a bit, I promise I’ll make it make sense.
There are these Sushi restaurants where plates of sushi (and a variety of other Japanese side dishes) are served on a conveyor belt. Picture in front of you a moving menu of dishes to browse and choose at your discretion. Kind of like the baggage claim at an airport only instead of luggage, tiny little plates of delicious food rotating on an endless loop right within reach. So imagine you’re sitting at the counter of this restaurant watching sushi rolls riding along the conveyor belt and one makes its way in front of you. You have a few options, reach for that dish and proceed to enjoy your meal, or wait to see what other dishes will come and allow that particular plate to continue its journey around the restaurant.
What does the ingenuity of serving sushi on a conveyor belt have to do with mindfulness? The definition of mindfulness usually contains some version of “To be mindful is to bring your full awareness to the present moment, then observe and accept your thoughts non-judgmentally.” That definition sounds great and maybe you feel relaxed even just saying it, but what does all that word salad really mean? To be mindful means you are sitting at the counter of the restaurant of your mind, and on the menu as always, are your thoughts. Just like at the sushi place, these thoughts are on a conveyor belt looping around and making laps endlessly in front of you.
You have a few options: 1. Reach out and grab a hold of that thought, lifting it off the conveyor belt of your brain and placing it in front of you where you will proceed to chew on it. OR 2. Choose to notice that a thought has appeared in front of you, accept that the thought is there, say ok that’s interesting but thanks no thanks, let that particular thought continue on its journey, and be curious about the other thoughts coming your way that you might want to chew on instead.
On occasion you will grab thoughts off of the conveyor belt and realize oh no, this is a plate full of regrets, or a dish of worries about the future, or a moldy bowl of mean self criticism. No need to judge yourself for picking the wrong dish, just set it back on the conveyor belt of your mind, send it on its way, and choose a plate of better thoughts. Our brains are constantly trying to serve us thousands of thoughts a day, not all of them appetizing. Sometimes we are aware of the thoughts we chew on, and sometimes we drift into autopilot and chew on a bunch of thoughts that don’t make us feel good. You are not your thoughts, you are the observer of your thoughts, and you get to choose which ones you focus on and which ones you let pass.
And now, 3 practical ways to use mindfulness daily:1. Choose good thoughts ahead of time: The great and wise Oprah Winfrey once said “What you dwell on is what you become.” Some people refer to this as “Setting Your Intention.” If you are going to be faced with a stressful situation- take a test, go on an interview, shoot a free throw, be around people who are difficult, etc., make a short list of thoughts ahead of time to focus on. The thoughts can be as simple as “You got this,” “I am not giving up,” “I’m uncomfortable, but I’ll be alright,” “I will do my best, and let the chips fall where they may” and “I can figure this out.” Going into tough situations can set the table for your brain to offer thoughts that fuel anxiety, fear, panic, sadness. It’s easier to pass on unhelpful messages and choose thoughts that fuel resilience, when you’ve already set your intention ahead of time and picked good thoughts that you want to dwell on instead. You got this!
2. Focus your attention on an activity: Do you ever notice yourself thinking the same thing over and over, have no clue how it got there, and can’t seem to let go of it? No matter how many times you put that unwanted plate of stressful messages back on the conveyor belt, it feels like you keep choosing and chewing on the same unwanted thoughts over and over. Focusing your attention on an activity can help interrupt this cycle by giving your mind something else to concentrate on. Wellness people, myself included, like to say “focus on your breath” which is decent advice because the activity of breathing is always available as an option to focus on, and also provides the opportunity to breathe slower, calming your body and mind. You can turn anything into a mindful activity, the trick is really giving it your full attention. Like carefully typing in your password on the last try before you get locked out, full attention. For example, you can focus on the activity of pouring water into a glass and give that your full attention. Notice everything about it. The sound the water makes as you pour, how much pressure you’re using to hold the glass, the way the water reflects the light. Focus on taking a walk, focus on sipping a cup of coffee, focus on listening to music, focus on journaling. Will your mind continue to bombard you with distracting or unhelpful thoughts, YES. Does the continued existence of those annoying thoughts mean you are doing something wrong, NO. Those thoughts are on the conveyor belt and they will eventually loop their way back to you, AND that’s ok. Choose to let those thoughts pass and instead gently focus your full attention to your breath, that glass of water, your favorite song, your afternoon walk.
(Explore a Guided Mindfulness Meditation)
3. Notice that thought and then ask yourself “What else?” Imagine you are back at the sushi restaurant and you see someone across from you grabbing stuff off the conveyor belt indiscriminately. Just whatever comes their way, food, sauce, empty plates, the little signs, if it's in front of them they’re taking it. That is NOT how you want to be with your thoughts. Be curious and discerning about what thoughts you are grabbing and setting in front of you. Be the decider and chooser of your thoughts. See that thought come into your field of vision, consider it, be curious about it, and if it’s not something you want to think about ask yourself “What else?” What other thoughts are floating around in my mind that I can choose to think about? Just because your brain has presented a thought to you, doesn’t mean that you have to give it your time, attention, or energy. You don’t have to do anything other than notice that it’s there and ask yourself “what else?” We can get stuck in patterns of subscribing to and acting upon unchecked and unfiltered thoughts, that’s ok it happens, just ask yourself “What else?”
To sum up: Definition of Mindfulness = Sushi conveyor belt restaurant. Know the thoughts you want to dwell on ahead of time, focus on an activity to help yourself reset, and take the time to ask yourself “what else?” This is all of course easier said than done, so don’t get too hung up looking for immediate results, be kind to yourself, find opportunities to practice mindfulness throughout the day, and enjoy the process!
About the author: Joey Estella LMFT, is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, EMDR Practitioner, and Mindset Training & Performance Coach, based in Long Beach, CA. You can connect with Joey directly via his Frame Therapy profile.