Between deadlines to meet, responsibilities to juggle and never-ending to-do lists to cross off, modern life can feel like a rat race that leaves little time to relax.
Even when we finally do find the time to relax, we often experience the nagging feeling that there is something else we should be doing instead. With these three simple tips, you can reclaim some time (and sanity) to lead a happier, more stress-free life.
Tip #1: Wash The Dishes To Wash The Dishes
At the end of a simple meal, the dinner guest of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh offered to wash the dishes so the two of them could enjoy a cup of tea shortly thereafter.
Hearing this, the master promptly warned his guest: “There are two ways to wash the dishes. The first is to wash the dishes to enjoy a cup of tea, and second is to wash the dishes to wash the dishes.”
Our hectic modern lifestyles fill our days with endless lists of things to do, and in our effort to tick as many boxes as possible, we often end up rushing from one task to the next with little enjoyment, only looking forward to the time we can relax at the end of the day.
However, the constant sacrifice of the present moment in the name of a future conceptual reward can turn our lives into a mad dash for the finish line.
A great deal of enjoyment can come from performing any mundane task–walking, eating a meal, or conversing with a friend–while focusing your full attention on it.
Pick one activity that you are sure to perform regularly, and decide that while you are performing it; your only goal will be to shut off your inner dialogue and focus solely on the physical sensations that you are experiencing.
The voices in our heads often lead us astray, filling us with regret about the past or worry about the future. But when you shut off your mind and focus on your actual physical sensations–the air filling your lungs, the way your skin touches your clothes, the smell and sounds you hear–you are truly in the present moment, and all the accumulated stress can dissipate in an instant.
Tip #2: (Re)Learn To Breathe
If you have a young child (or know someone who does), try to carefully observe the way he or she breathes. Specifically, watch for whether it is the child’s belly or upper chest that moves the most.
Then, perform the same experiment on yourself. Place one hand near your chest, the other near your belly button, then inhale and exhale normally for a few seconds. Which hand moved the most?
Very often, you will find that babies breathe from their belly, while adults (particularly those under a lot of stress) do so from the chest. The best way to fully oxygenate your lungs is to move the diaphragm–which you can learn to do by training to breathe from the belly.
To breathe correctly, imagine you are sucking in and expelling air from a straw placed about two inches below your belly button. Make sure that your stomach, not your chest, moves the most.
If you consciously breathe in this way for as little as five minutes a day, you will soon find that your body has retrained to breathe in the correct way even when you are not breathing consciously.
In the Zen tradition, breathing is the single most powerful link between the body and mind, as it can be done both voluntarily and involuntarily (and luckily so: if breathing were simply a voluntary act, many of us would simply forget about it in their efforts to check off their to-dos and asphyxiate).
Proper breathing can, therefore, serve as the conduit between a hectic lifestyle and a few minutes of full, relaxed awareness of yourself and your surroundings.
Tip #3: Use Reminders
Self-awareness is hard to come by, especially if you are feeling stressed and your thoughts are routinely centered around crossing tasks off a list.
For this reason, you cannot rely on your good will alone to make sure you take a few moments each day to breathe deeply, relax, and cultivate your presence of mind. If you want to build this habit, you must put in place a reminder of some sort.
If you can, make the reminder impossible to miss. For instance, you may decide that the best time for you to learn this practice is right after you wake up in the morning.
Write a short reminder on a piece of paper and use it to cover your phone or alarm clock, so that you will be forced to first see and move that message before you can even turn off the alarm.
Or, if you want to make your lunch and dinner into a time for mindful eating, put a colorful sticky note on the inside of your fridge.
An alternative approach for those of us who work at a computer desk is to set a relaxing but distinctive reminder sound to play at regular intervals, perhaps every fifteen minutes: whenever you hear that sound, make sure to take three or four deep breaths before going back to work.
You might be coming to the end of this article and be convinced that taking a few moments every day to relax and focus as described above might a good idea, but is also a poor use of your time. However, nothing could be further from the truth.
Our culture of “doing” has come to worship multitasking as a way of life at the cost of our mental and emotional health, while our most common forms of relaxation have become to mindlessly watch television, surf the net or play video games.
The problem with these modern forms of stress release is that they act as a distraction rather than a way for us to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. When you live fully in the moment, your newfound self-awareness will lead you to make important realizations about yourself and the way you want to live your life. In the big picture, that is time very well spent.
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