We wake and our minds race to the day’s challenges. If you don’t take the time to stop, your mind will go faster than a greyhound. Kids run around, you check email, problems cloud your view, the mind races faster, you get some coffee, check twitter, oh the errands you have to do. You login to work, you have a bad meeting, an upsetting conversation, some food somewhere in between, more email, dinner and next thing you know the day is gone. You’re tired. You tune into some entertainment and eventually go to sleep.
This is a day of forgetfulness. It’s a day without being present.
The opposite of all this is mindfulness. It’s being able to tune into the present moment. The challenge is it’s really hard to not get carried away by the day... How do you avoid this?
In my first post on mindfulness I quoted Thich Nhat Hanh:
Forgetfulness is the opposite [of mindfulness]. We drink a cup of tea, but we not know we are drinking a cup of tea. We sit with the person we love, but we don’t know that she is there. We walk, but we are not really walking. We are someplace else, thinking about the past or the future. The horse of our habit energy is carrying us along, and we are its captive. We need to stop our horse and reclaim our liberty. We need to shine the light of mindfulness on everything we do, so the darkness of forgetfulness will disappear.
The only way I’ve consistently found to keep forgetfulness at bay is by breaking up the day into purposeful mindfulness breaks - every three hours, I need to stop and do something mindful.
Not coincidentally it turns out this is actually the way that many religions structure their days and prayers.
In Christianity there is the notion of Canonical Hours:
“Already well-established by the 9th century in the West, these canonical hours consisted of daily prayer liturgies:
Lauds (early morning)
Prime (first hour of daylight)
Terce (third hour)
Nones (ninth hour)
Vespers (sunset evening)
Compline (end of the day)
By breaking the day up into three hour increments and praying at each point, clergy ensured they minimized overall forgetfulness and grounded themselves in the bigger perspectives of life other than the mindless to-and-fros. We see this over and over again across religions.
Canonical Hours stemmed from Judaism which was broken up into morning, afternoon and evening
Morning prayer: Shacharit or Shaharit (שַחֲרִית, "of the dawn")
Afternoon prayer: Mincha or Minha (מִנְחָה), named for the flour offering that accompanied sacrifices at the Temple in Jerusalem,
Evening prayer: Arvit (עַרְבִית, "of the evening") or Maariv (מַעֲרִיב, "bringing on night”
In Islam it’s five daily prayers
Fajr (sunrise prayer)
Dhuhr (noon prayer)
Asr (afternoon prayer)
Maghrib (sunset prayer)
Isha (night prayer)
And lest you think this is limited to Semitic religions, in Buddhism we see the same pattern: “First thing in the morning, before the mid-day meal, around 6 p.m and before going to bed which is around 9 p.m.”
So this concept of breaking up your day in order to avoid forgetfulness isn’t novel. But it’s not really the way the world around us works (at least not my world). Most of us work long stretches of the day and don’t have a designated morning or evening prayer. The day is a long uninterrupted string of getting things done. Many people (most?) even check their phones in the morning upon waking and spent hours with their phones evenings before bed. Alas! It’s impossible to create a better recipe for forgetfulness than this.
Whenever I’m unable to introduce mindfulness breaks I find I’m much more frazzled and tired. But by structuring my day into breaks, I find I end the day with a clear mind and more equanimity. (I know this because I’ve been keeping track of my days).
What does this look like in practice?
First, upon waking I have a structured set of rituals I do and I avoid my phone like the plague - this helps me make sure I start the day off centered. If I don’t do this, I am noticeably less equanimous throughout the day. (I’ll write more about my morning routine at some point but for most of my life I didn’t have this set of routines… and it showed!)
After this, I then break up the workday so that every ~3 hours I have some break that forces me to center. This could be mindful eating, seated meditation, walking meditation, walking outside my room, drinking a cup of tea mindfully, petting a cat… Anything that forces me to break the cycle of non-stop work/email/twitter. Sometimes this is difficult with a back-to-back schedule but even taking one minute of mindful breathing between meetings does wonders.
One way I’ve kept track of all these breaks is by jotting down each hour of the day on paper and then mapping to my calendar to find breaks. It ends up looking like the image below where the x-axis is each hour of the day, vertical bars are the breaks I can take and the y-axis is my state of mind during the day. I can usually notice my mind shift after every break.
If you want to try any of this my recommendation is to start by centering first thing in the morning and right before each meal. These are natural break points of the day with clear “cues” that you can use for new habit formation. Whenever those moments come, take a deep breath and monotask to focus on the present moment.
This is what works for me and I hope it’s helpful to you. If you have any other strategies you use, I’d love to hear them :)