Don’t just stand there – do nothing. Six mindfulness exercises you can’t live without

Updated to Habits, Productivity on December 14, 2022.

I was in a car the other day with a radiologist and a neurosurgeon talking about hypertension. 

This conversation is actually not as unusual as it might sound. I volunteer for a local society that does trail clearing in a popular hiking and mountain bike park and many of the volunteers happen to be recently retired doctors. 

Back in the car, one of the doctors happened to mention that recently his medical partner, who is in his early 60’s, had a mild stroke. As we wound our way further up the dirt road to our work site my education continued. 

I learned that strokes are the second biggest cause of mortality worldwide and the third most common cause of disability. The scary statistics get worse. As you age your chance of a stroke doubles every 10 years after 55

There’s a checklist of health conditions that make you more susceptible to a stroke, like obesity, high cholesterol, and diabetes. But the biggest culprit – six times out of ten – is hypertension or high blood pressure. In my books, that’s worth paying attention to.

What’s interesting is that stress, in itself, is not the direct cause of high blood pressure. It’s what we do when under stress that leads to nasty results. We eat too much, drink too much, and move too little. Basically, we deal with stress by making unhealthy choices.

For me, stress starts with worry.

Ngoc Son Temple, Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam

I’ve had a lot of worries

There is a world of problems you can worry about – take your pick. You can worry that Ukraine will be pummeled into a tiny province of rubble, or that we’ve passed the tipping point with global warming, or the tiny spot on your chin is cancer. 

Or not.

“I’ve had a lot of worries,” quipped Mark Twain “most of which never happened.” Our mind loves a good worry. Like a dog chewing a bone, we want to turn our worry around, looking from all angles, poking and prodding until it swells up into something bigger than it really is.

I used to worry incessantly before every keynote speech. I’d worry I’d miss my flight or wasn’t prepared enough, or I would be greeted by the “audience from hell.” Trust me, when you have 60 minutes to educate, entertain, inspire, motivate, and get laughs from an audience you’ve never met before, any sane person would invent a long list of worries.

It was at one of those events when a fellow speaker opened an exit door for my worries. He suggested that audiences don’t want you to fail – in fact, they want you to succeed. “They want to see you having fun—enjoying yourself. That way,” he explained, “they can enjoy the ride with you.”

When I accepted the long list of what I could never control – my flights, the audience, the speaker before me going overtime – I was free to focus on what I could control.

Enjoying the moment. 

What your life will have been

In her book, Comfortable with Uncertainty, Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön tells the story of delighting in the preciousness of every single moment.

A woman is running from lions. She runs and she runs, and the lions are getting closer. She comes to the edge of a cliff. She sees a vine there, so she climbs down and holds onto it. Then she looks down and sees that there are lions below her as well. At the same time, she notices a little mouse gnawing away at the vine to which she is clinging. She also sees a beautiful little bunch of strawberries emerging from a nearby clump of grass. She looks up, she looks down, and she looks a the mouse. Then she picks a strawberry, pops it in her mouth, and enjoys it thoroughly.

Learning what to focus on, and what to ignore, seems to be the ultimate secret to living a healthy, stress-free life. “Whatever compelled your attention from moment to moment,” writes Oliver Burkeman in Four Thousand Weeks (a must-read for anyone over 50), “is simply what your life will have been.”

So, what are you focussing on?

What to focus on

You can learn a lot when you’re the dumbest one in a car full of doctors. I learned that strokes are a silent pandemic. And that hypertension is the leading cause of that pandemic. And I learned the leading cause of hypertension is stress. 

I was also reminded that stress is a choice.

We all have lions and tigers in our life. Maybe even a mouse or two gnawing away at something we value. Meanwhile, we have the moment.

Choosing what to focus on (and what not to) might just be the healthiest choice you can make.

Got this far? You might also like these posts:

Photo of eggs by Nik on Unsplash
Photo of Ngoc Son Temple by author
Photo of tigers by author

The benefits of mindfulness exercises are numerous. We all need them, and here’s why.

Standing in line at Starbucks yesterday, I felt pretty smug. I was the only one not staring into a phone.

I only noticed because I was doing the same thing that morning.

Face it, we are rewarded for doing. Call client, write proposal, have meeting, make sale, cook dinner, vacuum house, drive kids. Doing, doing, doing.

Even when we get a moment when we could chill (like standing in line), we keep on doing.

Sometimes we shouldn’t just stand there – we should do nothing.

The art of doing nothing

In this post I want share six ways to practice the art of doing nothing. Call it mindfulness, stillness, active meditation, or swarmygoopyblah, it’s all good.

The goal is to slow down, reduce anxiety, and return to an aware, calm state, ready to go. Instead of cranking off more hours, break up your hours with tiny bouts of mindfulness. 

In study after study, mindfulness programs reduce fatigue, symptoms of illness ranging from headaches to chest pain, and depression. Participants can focus more on work, take less sick time, and feel happier – what’s not to like?

Author and CEO of the Energy Project, Tony Schwartz writes it’s not more hours, but quality hours that should be our goal. We want to get the work done, be effective with our time, and return home with energy left the tank. The trick is to cycle between spending and renewing our energy.

“Human beings are designed to pulse rhythmically between spending and renewing energy. That’s how we operate at our best. Maintaining a steady reservoir of energy — physically, mentally, emotionally and even spiritually — requires refuelling it intermittently.” Tony Schwartz, The Energy Project

Here they are: six super simple mindfulness exercises.  They’ll help you to be mindful, restore your energy and focus, and take a health break – all in three minutes, or less. Tell me, in the comments, when you practice being still and mindful.

1. Just sit there

Recently, I was between flights, waiting in an airport, thinking of all the To-Do’s poking at my guilt button. I was so tempted to reach down, grab my laptop, and start typing! All of my get-it-done neural pathways were firing.

Instead, I just sat there. 

Maybe out of exhaustion, or maybe out of need, I just sat, breathed, and watched the river of people flow past. I noticed the urging to get started – I watched that go by as well. 

It was like a mini-vacation from thinking and doing. I was still tired from the long day and travel, but I felt more alert and calmer. When I did open my laptop to do some work, I felt more relaxed and ready to focus on my writing project.

Tomorrow, no one will care what I do in this moment. 

So I let it go and breathed.

2. Breathe

Our breath is the centre point of our being and health. Slow your breathing, slow your metabolism. Even your mind spins a little slower. 

When feeling overwhelmed, notice your breath. You don’t have to change it – just notice it. Awareness of your breathing can help shift from thinking “Holly cr#p, I’ve got a lot to do!!”, to “Ah. What next?”

Simply notice the breath coming in, and notice it going out. Try it now as you read this. Nothing could be simpler, or more profoundly shift your state to mindfulness.

3. “Interesting” 

When I practice yoga, my mind goes to Vegas. Starting with the first Shavasana (flaked out lying on back), thoughts like: ’what-if’s’, ‘I-should-have’, and ‘I-can’t-believe-I-forgot-to’ bounce like unwanted beach balls into my consciousness. It’s bloody annoying!

It’s also natural. Researchers say we have some 60,000 thoughts a day. The problem is most are the same as yesterday! 

Researchers say we have some 60,000 thoughts a day. The problem is most are the same as yesterday!

Just like a mouse running furiously on a wheel, continual, repetitive thoughts keep us busy and blind to other options.

Mindfulness exercises are about noticing, without attachment. Like a leaf floating past on a river, negative, regretful, blaming thoughts don’t have to touch you – they just float past. Notice them floating past and think “Interesting.” 

You can also take this to the street.

4. Free walking

Going to a meeting? Fetching a coffee? Catch yourself going into your head and let it go. For just these few minutes, let it go and free walk. No agenda, no crazy, all consuming thoughts, just walking. You might be surprised what you notice. 

Yesterday, in the space of two blocks, on my way to a local cafe, I laughed with a City employee installing Christmas lights, picked up garbage, and hugged a friend I haven’t seen in a year. I returned to my desk happy and energized. And I was only gone 10 minutes. 

I could just as easily put my head down and rushed by it all. 

You can also focus at your desk.

5. Talisman focus 

Pick something in your office or home and bring all your attention to it. That can be your talisman. Mine is a photocopy of a postcard my brother Dan wrote to me in 1993 – the last time I heard from him. 

Let the world slip by and bring your attention to your talisman. Notice random thoughts trying to pull you away. Acknowledge them (I like to think “interesting”) and return to your focus.

No judgement, simply allow. 

6. Willpower waiting

It takes a bit of discipline to wait without fussing with your phone, or worrying about the 10AM meeting. Discipline builds willpower and willpower builds confidence and strength. 

Waiting without doing can be an act of meditation. At the stop light, the check-out counter, or before the meeting starts. No Ashram, sweaty yoga matt, or wilderness retreat – a moment of willpower waiting can happen where you are.

I’m writing this post just weeks before Christmas – a great time to be mindful. I think any time is a good time to make the best of your day.

Today, how about you put your phone away, take a deep breath, and enjoy a few moments of doing nothing?

Tell me, in the comments, when you practice being still and mindful.