I was cruising across the Burnside bridge on my bike, en route to a volunteer gig downtown. I was a few minutes late, but all was good – I knew I'd make up time as I leaned into the pedals.
Rena: "You got this!"
Universe: "Ha, nice try!"
Up ahead, the red lights began to flash and the candy cane guard rails lowered as the *DING DING DING* alarm reverberated across the water. Drawbridge time.
I spent the next 15+ minutes watching as cars, bikers, and pedestrians stacked up like dominoes to wait. Several people paced anxiously, scowling and checking their watch every 30 seconds. Others sighed loudly as they leaned up against the side rail, arms crossed, annoyed. The guy in front of me on his bike grinned big and squinted toward the bridge as the massive slab of concrete began to float upward (what?!). A woman next to me set down her bag and began to stretch her quads. Every single parked driver I could see was immersed in their phone. Except for one fellow, who was looking contently out his window across the water.
As I stood there, this quote from Sharon Salzberg surfaced in my mind:
"The difference between misery and happiness depends on what we do with our attention."
I know we all arrived on the bridge from different walks of life, in varying circumstances, and yet I couldn’t help but recognize the valuable seconds of life that were unfolding for the 100+ commuters, myself included, as we waited. I was aware of how easy it was to squander those seconds, lost in the loud and persistent assumption that life is always happening somewhere else: across the bridge at our destination, in our office, next month on vacation, inside the shiny metal container of our phones.
The sky was blue and vibrant, the sun (yes, SUN) was shining, catching the water in beautiful cascading sparkles. The city and all of its majestic bridges stretched north to south, the blossoming trees and crisp green lawns lined the waterfront. We were all alive, breathing, on a bridge, on a giant rock soaring through space! And yet, it was so easy to feel totally stuck and annoyed. How dare this get in the way of MY agenda.
When we have no power to change our circumstances – whether we’re waiting on a bridge, standing in line at a grocery store, or delayed on a runway pre-takeoff – we have the power to choose what we do with our attention.
At first, the choice may not be accessible. When we're zipping through life on autopilot and encounter an obstacle, we may instinctively reject or resist the experience, especially when we're in a hurry. Unfortunately, this resistance only compounds our problems. Fixing attention on the obstacle (or what it's preventing us from doing) will cause the experience to intensify like a pressure cooker – further stressing our bodies and minds and getting us absolutely nowhere. See: miserable.
With mindfulness and greater self-awareness, we can pause this chain of reactivity by recognizing and investigating our resistance. We may discover that cursing the bridge is futile, and that we have a choice – we can stand (or sit) there and squander our mental energy, coming out the other side in a ball of frustration and stress...OR we can employ our attention to nourish our well-being and possibly even access a sense of joy and freedom.
This may sound nice in theory, but how do you actually do it? We’ve compiled seven tips below to get you started.
1. PAUSE + INVESTIGATE
Begin by pausing and simply acknowledging your experience. Ask yourself, "What emotions am I feeling right now?" Anger, anxiety, annoyance, defeat – whatever feelings you discover, take a moment to label them in your mind. Next, see if you can investigate where these feelings are in your body. Chest, gut, fists? You're not trying to change, analyze, or override the feelings, simply allow them to be there and notice what and where they're present for you. This acknowledgment alone can be powerful – we call it "name it to tame it". Naming and locating feelings is an important first step in working with frustration or impatience. Your feelings are valid, and honoring them (instead of stuffing or resisting them) is the first step to working with them.
Seems obvious, right? But did you know breathing is a highly effective way to regulate your emotions. Interestingly, every emotional state has a signature breath pattern. This means we can use the breath as a tool to influence our emotional state, instead of trying to "think" or "reason" our way to calm (like trying to talk down a t-rex – yikes). Instead, take a few deep breaths, following the full cycle of breath as it moves in through the nostrils, down the throat, filling the lungs, and gently expanding the abdomen. If possible, slow down the pace of each out breath, letting the air go very slowly, gently. You might try breathing all the way down into the pelvic basin, seeing if you can feel the air move deep into your abdomen. You can also notice the breath at the tip of your nose, feeling the subtle sensations of cool air on the inhale and warm air on the exhale. Deep breaths help your body naturally shift out of fight or flight mode (sympathetic nervous system) and into rest and digest mode (parasympathetic nervous system). Deep breathing also helps lower blood pressure. Bonus!
3. TUNE IN TO SENSATIONS IN YOUR BODY
As you breathe, tune into various sensations in your body. You might begin by noticing the surface of your face – the forehead, space between the eyebrows, lips, cheeks, jaw. Perhaps softening any tension you find here. Is there a breeze moving across the face? Warm or cool sensations? Guide your attention to the tops and sides of the shoulders, allowing them to melt away from the ears. Let your attention trickle down into the arms and hands, softening the palms and fingers. Notice any sensations in the chest – the subtle rise and fall of the collarbones with each breath. Feel the core of the body, the torso, and the length of the legs from the hips all the way down to the toes. Sense the feet firmly planted on the ground or floor of the car, feeling the weight of the body or legs collected in the feet. Become aware of all of the toes, nestled together, and perhaps the spaces between the toes. Your body is always rooted in the present moment. While your mind wants to run willy-nilly, grasping onto the frustration of waiting and the future that awaits, gently shifting attention into the body can help your mind calm down and ground in the present.
4. PLAY WITH YOUR VISION
Take a moment to recognize that you have EYES – these miraculous objects that allow you to see. Woah. Feel the eyeballs resting in the sockets, taking in all of the light, color and texture around you. Instead of focusing on individual objects, see if you can soften your gaze and play with this experience of seeing, similar to those old-school optical illusion posters. What details are revealed to you when you relax your focus? What moves? What holds still? What do you actually see? Notice how your attention may be drawn to different stimulus within your visual field. Play with slowly closing the eyes, noticing the world around you go dark, feeling the lids as they close shut, and seeing what color/texture shows up behind the eyelids. Then, slowly reopening the eyes, perhaps being surprised by the light as it fills the corneas. We often take sight for granted...but what does it feel like to really, truly see? And to know that you're seeing?
5. LISTEN TO THE SOUNDS AROUND YOU
Shift your attention now to the ears, noticing their shape and structure, and becoming aware of this experience of hearing. First, noticing sounds farther away, and then sounds drawing closer. You're not trying to label or identify sounds, but simply hearing the raw sensations of sound – waves that are moving through the air and making contact with your eardrums. Hear the sounds blend together, as though you were listening to a soundtrack. You might envision yourself as a microphone, every pore of your body taking in the sounds around you. It can be helpful to notice any judgement that arises – is your mind "liking" certain sounds and "disliking" or resisting others? This is perfectly okay – just noticing. Maybe becoming curious about the pauses of silence between the sounds. If it's quiet where you are, maybe hearing the silence. What does silence sound like? As you continue to listen, perhaps finding playfulness or curiosity in the next sound that arises. You really have absolutely no way of knowing what sound will show up next. And next? Aha! Interesting.
6. NOTICE SOMETHING PLEASANT
The neuroscience of positivity teaches us that when we see something we like, our brains release natural opioids (pleasure molecules) that prompt us to approach and engage with the world, rather than withdraw from it. In contrast, disliking things can activate our neural networks of pain. While you're waiting, look around or tune into your body to find just one thing that is pleasant. Maybe there's a beautiful tree or leaf in your environment, or maybe there's a place in your body that feels good – you're satisfyingly full, your t-shirt is comfortable, you like the shape of the watch you're wearing. Find one thing, and rest your attention there for a moment, noting what you appreciate, and allowing this sense of enjoyment to grow. Be mindful of this experience of liking something. We're not suggesting you put on rose-colored glasses, we're simply inviting you to see if you can find something you like in your immediate experience. When we overlook things we could authentically like, we pass up chances to feel good, engage with life, and activate the positivity centers in our brain.
7. FIND ONE THING YOU'RE GRATEFUL FOR
Gratitude determines your latitude. Hundreds of neuroscience studies are revealing how gratitude generates positive emotion and supports our well-being. Ask yourself, what's one thing I'm grateful for today? Instead of searching for an answer, see if you can ask the question, breathe, and notice what arises naturally in your awareness. Once it surfaces, rest your attention there for a moment, perhaps taking a deep inhale, really breathing it in. Gratitude can act as a natural antidepressant. It activates neural circuits that are connected to the production of dopamine and serotonin (happy chemicals), stimulating the "bliss" center of the brain. Conversely, when we're angry or stressed, the brain sends signals for the body to release testosterone and cortisol (the stress hormone) which increases our heart rate and blood pressure. In short, get your gratitude on!
REFLECTION: After exploring one or several of these steps, consider taking a moment to reflect on how you feel. How did this impact your experience? Is there anything else you notice?
About the Author
Rena is a meditation instructor, writer, and designer and has been practicing meditation and mindfulness for eleven years. Her studies began in college at the University of Redlands Meditation Room, one of the first "contemplative classrooms” in the country, where she studied meditation alongside her degrees in business and graphic design. She worked as a health coach for a Portland-based wellness organization, and spent six years developing her coaching and meditation skills through her work in the nonprofit sector.
Rena is currently studying positive neuroplasticity with Dr. Rick Hanson, founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom, and is pursuing Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) certification through the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.