I received a surprising cancer diagnosis in 2010, just a few weeks after unexpectedly losing my dad. As a coping mechanism, my “Type A” personality went into overdrive and I concocted a strategy for navigating the journey. I believed that with proper planning I could fight cancer, work full time as a senior-level marketing director and maintain a normal social life, all while mourning my last living parent and helping to manage his estate.
Not surprisingly, it didn’t happen that way. The loss and cancer treatment took its toll and I began to struggle, particularly at the office. Giving presentations had previously been a piece of cake, but the mere thought of it now became excruciating. I found myself at a loss for words, unable to collect my thoughts or think quickly on my feet. To top it off, I felt like a bundle of raw nerves in meetings. My heart would race, my breathing would become erratic, my face would turn hot and flushed, and I often felt disoriented.
Desperate to feel like myself again, I worked with a psychologist who suggested Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) to improve my overall health. My therapist summarized the practice, which was pioneered by Jon Kabat-Zinn in the 1970s, simply: “Imagine your brain as a continuum with emotion on one end and logic on the other, the goal being to center yourself between the two. The trauma you experienced knocked you off center, but mindfulness practice will help you become centered again.” She went on to explain that using the tools could also change neuropathways—or brain patterns—that had been engrained over time, by creating new ones.
Mindfulness and meditation are often used interchangeably, particularly when it comes to mindful leadership, but meditation is just one way to strike a balance between emotion and logic. When I first began practicing mindfulness I hoped for something that could be more easily integrated into my daily routine. I also wanted tools that would help me in the moment, when I felt overwhelmed with emotion. My therapist and a golden retriever puppy named Thor (given to me as a birthday gift by my significant other) became my mindfulness mentors. In the year that followed, the two of them taught me several valuable lessons about mindfulness with no meditation required.
1. Find an object to focus on.
As a retriever, Thor’s natural instinct is to present me with objects; his go-to item has always been a tree branch. As a puppy, when it was time to focus on walking on a leash without accosting other humans and animals, I held a stick in front of Thor’s face. He would sit focused and wait patiently for me to give it to him, distracted from other dogs and people that happened to be nearby.
The takeaway: When your emotions are getting the best of you, shift your focus to an object to center yourself. Choose a random item in the room and study it. Better yet, find something that has personal meaning to you. If your favorite object is not available, visualizing it works just as well.
2. Take control of your body.
As a puppy, Thor was a vibrating ball of fur with little control of his body. With simple commands like “sit” and “down,” he stopped moving, minus his wagging tail. With the “stay” command, he became so focused on remaining in one place that he stayed entirely still (including his tail). At some point, he began flashing a toothy grin whenever he was in the stay position—his way of saying, “Look at what my mouth can do!”
The takeaway: Most of us have experienced emotions so strong that it seemed as if our body was being possessed by outside forces. Acknowledging the connection between your mind and body can help. Intentional breathing is effective, but something as simple as wiggling your toes works too.
3. Nourish yourself joyfully.
Young Thor feared the bright red bowl that held his food. He’d hunch down to examine it from several feet away, refusing to eat. Eventually I convinced him the bowl meant no harm, and when he ate from it the first time he made the strangest sound—similar to the “robble-robble-robble” noise the McDonald’s Hamburglar made in TV commercials. To this day Thor makes happy noises whenever he eats.
The takeaway: Equally as important as the food we eat is the way in which we nourish ourselves. Rather than wolfing down lunch at your desk, make an effort to sit back, relax and enjoy your midday meal without distractions. It’s possible to be intentional about eating even when time is limited.
4. Start your day with gratitude.
After three months of incessant crying in his crate every night, I gave in and allowed Thor to sleep on a cushion in the bedroom. The second I awoke every morning there he was staring at me—big brown eyes, silly smile, wagging tail. Later he expanded his routine to include presenting me with gifts like a toy, slipper or random sock. Thor is grateful for the start of each new day and he lets everyone know it.
The takeaway: Before you get out of bed each day spend a few minutes thinking about what you are grateful for in the moment. Name three things off the top of your head—coffee, bagel, shower. You don’t need to get deep (unless you want to), but work on switching it up every day.
5. Appreciate nature.
I took Thor to the dog park for the first time when he was 3 months old. A month later, I could no longer use the words “dog” and “park” in the same sentence without triggering a jumping/spinning/barking fit that could not be contained. Suffice it to say, the dog park is the happiest place on earth for him. With nothing tethering him to his human he is free to discover new things and engage all of his senses fully. It also acts as a reset button, making Thor a more centered dog.
The takeaway: Nature can be magical if you pay attention. Find a place where you can get away and take in all the beauty that surrounds you. Even a 15-minute sit on a park bench can bring you the appreciation of being free of whatever you are typically tethered to.
The end goal of mindfulness is to be aware of your thoughts and feelings as they happen and to accept them without judgment. Doing so better equips you to be intentional about your actions and enables you to operate from a place of compassion—for yourself and for others.