Gold stars to those who can make it through this article without wondering about dinner or unattended emails, mindlessly scrolling through Instagram or scanning half a page before realizing you have no idea what the heck you just read.
Amit Sood, author of the upcoming book "The Mayo Clinic Guide to Stress-Free Living," calls this autopilot daze, in which we're physically here, but mentally elsewhere – our "default mode." And it's not a great place to be. We spend about half of our day in default mode, in which we're typically unhappy, he says, adding that too much time in this mode can lead to increased risk of depression, anxiety and attention deficit.
Our brain's counter to default mode is its focus mode. Imagine if, as you were reading, a giraffe walked up to you. Chances are, you'd stop reading and thinking about emails, dinner and Instagram, and focus entirely on the giraffe. A perhaps more realistic example: You're driving home from work, thinking about who knows what, when a police car pulls up behind you. Even if you're obeying the law, your attention may now shift to the rearview mirror and speedometer, as recollections of the workday are replaced with silent urges for the police car to change course.
We may not want a police car (or a giraffe) following us, but it is helpful to engage that focused attention these experiences beckon. Meditation is essentially the process of doing just that – cutting through our brain's static and finding focus. The practice not only offers a slew of health benefits, from stress management, to possibly helping with high blood pressure, heart disease and depression, but it's also something you can weave into your everyday life. If you simply want to give it a try, there's no need for a trip to the doctor's office or a monastery. "Meditation is nothing mystical," Sood says. "It's basically your trained attention."
Beginners can try the three simple meditation exercises below just about anywhere, at anytime. Before jumping in, here's a bit of advice from Catherine Kerr, director of translational neuroscience at Brown University's Contemplative Studies Initiative: "Go slow, and be compassionate and gentle with yourself." It's natural for your mind to wander as you try to focus, she says, so when it does, don't distress.
Walking meditation. This practice is "very traditional, simple and well suited for stressed out people today," says Kerr, who used walking meditation to manage the overwhelming emotional energy she felt while grieving for her father. Find a space outside, and simply walk at a slow or medium pace, focusing on your feet. Try to distinguish when your toe touches down the ground, when your foot is flat on the ground and when your toe points back upward. Feel the roll of your foot. Observe sensory details: a tingle here, a pull of the sock there.
When your mind wanders, and it will, gently bring your attention back to your feet. You're building a skill of noticing when your attention drifts into default mode and bringing it back into focus. This ability can help you be more present and in control of your attention every day, especially in times of stress.
Plus, Kerr points out, this practice is a mild form of exercise. Start by dedicating a specific time and place to practice, and when you become comfortable with walking meditation, try it as you walk to the bus stop, office or just about anywhere.
Novel experiences. The next two tips come from Sood, and they're a bit more modern. Remember how you jump into focus mode when you see a police car behind you or unexpectedly meet a giraffe? We escape our brain's jumble of day-to-day thoughts when we experience something out of the ordinary. Similarly, Sood points out, you may greet a loved one with more attention after you've been apart for a month compared to if you see him or her daily.
Try this: When you come home and meet your family at the end of the day, pretend like you haven't seen them in 30 days. To an extent, yes, you'll be faking this feeling. But it may help to think about transience, Sood says. There's only a finite number of evenings you'll have with these people you love. For example, Sood thinks of his oldest daughter, who is 8 and 1/2 years old. "She will be off to college in 2,000 evenings, and 2,000 is a very small number."
Another way to support this feeling of novelty is to aim for acceptance. "Our brain is a fault-finding machine," Sood says. "My goal is that, for the first 10 minutes at home, I try to improve nobody."
This practice isn't limited to family. Try creating a fresh perspective of just about anyone you see in your everyday life, such as co-workers and neighbors, to pull you into focus mode. Sood explains how, after back-to-back-to-back appointments, some doctors run the risk of seeing their patients as problems. When Sood, a doctor of internal medicine, begins feeling this way, he looks at patients in a new light to give them undivided attention. He tries to think, "There's a part of the universe that deeply loves this person and cares for him," he says. "If I carry this feeling with me, I will find this person novel and meaningful."
Gratitude exercises. What are your first thoughts as you awake? Maybe: What am I going to wear today? When is my first meeting? Where's my coffee? Even as we're still yawning and stumbling out of bed, we often dive head-first into default mode. "I invite people to delay that by two minutes," Sood says. Take two minutes when you first awake to find focus.
Try this exercise right now, as Sood walks us through it: Close your eyes. (Well, maybe read through this first, and then close them.) With your eyes shut, imagine you're waking up this morning, as you picture the layout of your room. Now think of the first person for whom you're grateful. "Bring that person's face in front of your eyes," Sood says, "and focus on one part of their face that you really like." Now send them what Sood calls a "silent gratitude," or "just a note of thankfulness that this person is in your life." Do this for a second, third, fourth and fifth person – perhaps someone who has died. Picture him or her happy; try to imagine the color of their eyes. Sood, who is also the director of research and practice at the Mayo Clinic Complementary and Integrative Medicine Program, says people often cry when they try this exercise. One man came to tears upon realizing he didn't remember the color of his teenage child's eyes, signaling that he's perhaps spent a lot of their time together in default mode.
These silent gratitudes work for early mornings, as well as between appointments, waiting in the checkout line or during one of Sood's go-tos: stopped at red lights. "I've connected with all kinds of wonderful people in my life – my high school teacher, my grandmother who is no more … you start feeling like you're not missing out on life."