by Maria Dow, Contributing Writer
Over the last decade I have studied meditation, read numerous self improvement books, listened to various motivational podcasts and attended a few leadership seminars. From these various “self help” practices, I have concluded there are 5 simple practices I can do a daily basis to improve my quality of life.
- Live in the present
- Be mindful
- Compare who “I” am today to who “I” was yesterday.
- Stop setting expectations
- Let resentments go
I have not been able to practice these perfectly, but I have been able to practice them.
Live in the Present
Living in the present is much harder than it sounds. I never fully understood this concept. I always thought “I am living, how could I not be in the present?” Over the years, I have become more aware of my thoughts and have noticed that a majority of them are focused on the past or future. Rarely am I focused on the present. I get in a routine, I know what I am doing, I know what to expect, my body is in autopilot and my mind no longer has to focus on the task I am doing in the present. For example, I take a shower every night, drive the same route to work every day and countless other tasks that make up my daily routine.
While in the shower, I think about my day, what my day will look like tomorrow, what was positive, what was negative, what I ate for breakfast/lunch/dinner, what am I going to wear tomorrow, the list goes on and on. Rarely do I stand in the shower thinking about picking up the bottle of shampoo, pumping the shampoo into my hand, placing the shampoo on my head, scrubbing the shampoo in, rinsing my hair, repeat with conditioner, etc. Now, there is not necessarily anything wrong with taking time to reflect on my day and setting an intention for the next, this is just one example of how my mind wanders. Instead of being in tune with what I am doing in the present, my mind focuses on just about anything/everything else.
I have noticed that when I am living in the present moment it is hard to be mad, sad, happy, overwhelmed, anxious, jealous, etc. Things just are. Life seems simpler. I have slowly learned how to check in with myself and observe where my thoughts are taking me. Am I reliving my past or am I making a story for the future or am I truly living in present. If I am ruminating on the past, I question why I am thinking about the event, I try to understand if I am repeating the event over and over because it made me feel happy/sad/mad/anxious/etc, and then I try to logically understand why this event has significance in my life. If it has no significance, I can easily let the thought go. If it does have significance, I have to sort out the feeling associated with the thought and then appropriately respond to the event.
Reflection/ Daily Challenge: Take the time to check in with yourself. Listen to your thoughts, do not make a story for them, just observe. If you are not in the present, try to challenge your thoughts and change them to the present moment. What is going on in front of you, this moment, now.
The shower example ties into the idea of mindfulness or being mindful. Now, it may not be possible to always live in the present moment. But there are countless tricks I have picked up that have made a difference for me. As hard as I may try to get out of a scheduled routine, I somehow always find myself repeating tasks. To become more mindful, pay attention to all of your senses when doing anything.
For example, I go for daily walks with my pup lily. While walking around the neighborhood instead of merely walking down the road mindlessly, I have been practicing mindfulness. I concentrate on the feeling of the concrete under my feet, smell the air, pay attention to the direction of the wind, feel the warmth of the sun as it touches my skin, look around me, notice how many blades of grass there are, notice there color, shape, try to hear the sound the wind makes when it touches the grass, touch the grass and feel its texture, is it wet, dry, soft, sharp, etc., listen to the sounds, try to hear everything, the cars nearby, airplanes in the sky, people walking or talking nearby, birds chirping, dogs barking, etc. I walk a similar path every day after work, but they are now far from routine.
Reflection/ Daily Challenge: Take 1 minute out of the day to STOP and take notice. Standing or sitting, pay attention to all 5 senses, go through each of them one by one. What do you feel? What do you see? What do you hear? What do you smell? What do you taste? Do this various times throughout the day if possible.
Compare Who “I” am Today to Who “I” was Yesterday
Comparing myself to anyone else is unfair. It is not easy to stop comparing my life to the life of others around me, but it is possible. It's easy to compare myself to my best friend, my mom, strangers on the street, my coworkers, famous actresses, my doctors, the homeless people at the beach, the struggling addicts, the list goes on and on. Perspective is everything. If I compare myself to the struggling addict, well yes, I have been there myself, but in relation to my life today that comparison does me no good. I was struggling with substance abuse 3.3 years ago. According to my sobriety calculator, that was 1,220 days ago. So, yes, I am doing great today compared to me 1,220 days ago. But a lot has happened in those 1,220 days. I have grown and improved my life. But today, at 3.3 years sober I cannot compare myself to the struggling addict I was, that leaves way too much room for me to slip up and regress from where I am today.
The same goes for every other comparison I find myself making daily. I am not as successful as my father was at this age, my brother gets in less trouble than I do, my hair is not as long as hers, I am not as skinny as her, I don’t have this or that, I’m sure you get the point. If not, the point is, there will always be someone better off than you and someone worse off than you. But there is only one “you” only one person with the unique set of fingerprints. Ha, that was cheesy. But, the best way to gauge who I am as a person is not by what others have or do not have, but who was I yesterday. Am I better today than I was yesterday? Or am I making choices that are leading me astray?
Reflection/ Daily Challenge: Be comfortable with who I am today. If I catch myself comparing my life to others, stop. Think about who I am today. What do I have? What can I improve?
Stop Setting Expectations
This means exactly what it sounds like, stop setting expectations for yourself, people, places and things. The idea of “I should” and when “I do, I will” is an awful trap and leads to disappointment more often than not. I am not saying to get rid of your goals and or dreams. Never give those up. What I mean is, stop setting the expectation of how you will achieve that goal and what the reward will be when you do. Having an expectation of how things will be, for better or for worse if/when something happens is unfair. We are setting ourselves up for failure.
I have two examples, one positive and one negative. On the positive, the first time I went to Disneyland, I was 13 years old, I had seen commercials, ads, magazines and countless other material. I had this idea in my head of what Disneyland was going to look like. When I got there, well, it looked like the pictures, but it was much more marvelous than I could have ever imagined. All of the Disney princesses I grew up with were life like, they hugged me, they called me beautiful. The rides were fun, the food tasted great. My expectations were affected in a positive way, I did not expect to experience half of the things I did.
Now, my brother on the other hand, he had the expectation of seeing the beauty of Disneyland, but he also expected to ride all of the rides and see the entire park in one days time. As most might already know, it takes nearly 2 hours to stand in line for one ride at Disneyland, in one day, that is about 5 rides maximum. For him, his expectations were crushed. He left Disneyland feeling sad that he did not get to see and experience everything he had hoped. While expectations can lead to a feeling of complete happiness when they are met or matched, if they are slightly altered most people are left disappointed, sad, irritated, etc.
Not setting or having expectations is tough. Friends/Family make plans or promises that do not work out, or they do, but the plan/promise does not meet my expectation or it exceeds my expectations. Regardless, if I set an expectation, I am not fully present, I am waiting for my expectations to be met or fall short rather than focusing on what I am doing. For example, a friend asks to go shopping at 2pm. I meet her at 2:05pm, we go to one store, she leaves. Maybe this was a great experience. Maybe I wanted to spend the entire afternoon going store to store. Maybe I had expected to do something after. Whatever the expectation may be. If I don't set an expectation, I am in the store, shopping with my friend, enjoying the time at the store and then, when it is over, it’s over. Now I myself still have a hard time with the whole no setting expectations thing, but by limiting my expectations I feel more rewarded for the things I do. I am less critical on myself and am not left disappointed when things do not go as planned.
Reflection/ Daily Challenge: Take notice of the expectations I have set for myself and others. What expectations do I have for the day? What are my expectations for the week? Great, now get rid of the expectation and just be.
Let Resentments Go
Resentments are not good for anyone. Holding onto the pain is only hurting yourself. As hard as it may be to let shit go, you have to let it go. I grew up in an abusive household, was sexually assaulted, abandoned by friends and family, participated in self harm, etc. I had mad amounts of resentments towards my parents, brother, ex boyfriends, best friends and myself. It was not easy to let these things go. It is not simple, it still hurts and that pain may never go away. However, coming to terms with my past and forgiving myself and others has definitely made my life much happier.
I once swore that I would never forgive my father for the pain he caused me. I would never forgive my ex for shoving my head in a pillow while he took advantage of me. I would never forgive my friend for forging my signature on a check. I would never forgive myself for harming my body. Well, I did. I let that shit go. It wasn't easy, but when I look back on my life and see my part, it made forgiving others much easier. My father was physically and verbally malicious. And you know what, so was I. I have said some things to friends and family that I am not proud of. I have taken advantage of others hospitality. I have wronged people that did not deserve it. These experiences in my life do not make me a bad person. I am human, I will never be perfect. Some things will never be forgotten, but being able to forgive is a gift.
Reflection/ Daily Challenge: Ask myself who/what I am not letting go? What am I mad/sad about? Understand why I am mad/sad. Recognize my part and take responsibility for it. If I do not have a part, how can I begin forgiving? Ask myself, what needs to happen to let this resentment go. And then try my hardest to let it go.
Progress, not Perfection
I try to practice these guidelines for living daily. From time to time I slip up and forget, I go a week without meditating, I do not read a book for a month, I stop observing my thoughts and start making stories in my head, I hold onto the misdoings of others, I lose my temper, I forget to stay in the present and be mindful. However, I have noticed my life has been impacted in a positive way since I started implementing these principles daily. I am less hard on myself and am able to get out of my head! Like I mentioned in the beginning, I have been working at this for about a decade now. This has been a long and imperfect journey of self discovery. Life is a journey, why not try to enjoy the ride.
Books I recommend
- The Four Agreements - Don Miguel Ruiz
- The Slight Edge - Jeff Olson
- The Power of Now - Eckhart Tolle
- 12 Rules for Life - Jordan Peterson
- How To Win Friends and Influence People - Dale Carnegie
- Sometimes You Win, Sometimes You Learn - John Maxwell
- A New Earth - Eckhart Tolle
- Unfu*k Yourself - Gary John Bishop
Maria Dow lives in Los Angeles, and works in Recruiting/Human Resources. She has a background in philosophy and psychology.