❝Mindfulness means seeing things as they are, without trying to change them. The point is to dissolve our reactions to disturbing emotions, being careful not to reject the emotion itself.❞ -Tara Bennett-Goldman
I'm standing at a bus stop with my wife getting ready to jump on the approaching bus. We are on the Las Vegas Strip, taking a free shuttle to a hotel off the strip to see Penn and Teller do their magic show. I consider myself a bit of an amateur magician, so I'm very excited; I've been a fan of Penn and Teller for years.
On the bus, I'm staring out the window, looking at the sites, when I hear somebody talking loudly. I turn to see who is talking. There aren't many people on the bus, so it's easy to spot the culprit. I expected to see him talking to somebody but was shocked to find out he is simply talking to himself. He is having a two-sided dialogue with himself, both asking and answering questions. So naturally, I start judging him. I wonder what kind of crazy person sits on a bus and has a conversation with himself.
I'm relieved when we get to the hotel because I can finally get off the bus away from the crazy guy. After eating dinner, we walk into the theater, and I am blown away by how big it is. The audience is invited to go onstage to sign a guestbook and to check the stage. While on stage, we look out towards the audience, and the theater is even bigger than we thought.
After finding our seats, the show starts, and Penn and Teller do a couple of tricks before requesting an audience member. Penn jumps off the stage and starts heading straight for my wife while making eye contact with her. She gets nervous, and I get excited, hoping to see her on stage.
Penn stares into my wife's face but then turns, looks at me, and asks me for my name. I'm so shocked that I don't even have an answer at first. He invites me onto the stage, and I prevent Teller from getting out of a garbage bag he jumped into while Penn fills it up with helium.
In a flash, the garbage bag is over my head like a balloon, and Teller is shaking my hand. I make my way back to my seat and my wife, after making fun of me a little bit, said it was pretty funny to hear what Penn said while we were going up to the stage. I admit I had no idea what he said while we walked up to the stage because all I remember was telling myself that I needed to focus on not tripping on the stairs. I asked myself why they picked me. I wondered if I looked okay because I didn't have a chance to check my appearance before going up on stage in front of all these people. My wife tells me that he made some jokes about how escape tricks are usually masculine and rugged, using ropes and chains, but they are instead going to use a garbage bag.
It was quite funny, but I didn't know because I was lost in thought. And at that moment, I realized I'm no different from that person on the bus that I was heavily judging an hour ago. The only difference is I kept my conversation with myself inside my own head but make no mistake, I'm not that different from him.
MINDFULNESS IS NOT WHAT YOU THINK
When people hear the word mindfulness, they often have thoughts about monks in a monastery meditating for hours a day. Even those with some familiarity with mindfulness, like those who use a meditation app, often aren't thinking about mindfulness in its most pure way. Below are some common misconceptions about mindfulness. Most of these misconceptions have some kernel of truth behind them, but they have been misinterpreted.
Mindfulness is a relaxation technique. While it may be true that mindful people appear more relaxed and indeed may even be more relaxed, that side effect is not the purpose of being mindful.
Mindfulness means avoiding planning for the future. Mindfulness does mean paying attention to the present moment. However, that gets misinterpreted as meaning that people avoid planning for or thinking about the future. Mindfulness is not about letting life happen to you.
Mindfulness is about changing your thoughts/mindfulness is about positive thinking. Mindfulness has nothing to do with changing your thoughts. It's not about being positive all the time or about always looking on the bright side.
Mindfulness means not thinking. Mindfulness is not about "clearing your head" or going through life without having any thoughts. Thinking is incredibly helpful, and you will only cease having thoughts when you have died.
Mindfulness means thinking about the present moment. Mindfulness is not about an attempt to induce any particular thought.
Mindfulness and meditation are the same things. They are not the same thing and should not be used interchangeably.
ELEMENTS OF MINDFULNESS
If all the above elements are what mindfulness isn't, then what is mindfulness? To answer that question, it's often helpful to define its opposite, mindlessness. Most of us will go through life lost in thought, that is, thinking without knowing that we're thinking. When we are lost in thought, our attention is in the past or the future.
When we are lost in thought, thinking about the past, we are often replaying things that have happened that we wish turned out differently. We ruminate about what ifs and what could have been. We feel shame, guilt, and regret.
When we are lost in thought and thinking about the future, we often worry about events that haven't yet happened and probably won't happen, thinking about all the ways in which the future won't go as planned. We are rehearsing conversations that we need to have.
With all this attention placed on the past and the future, the now gets squeezed. The past and the future are nothing more than thoughts. Now is all we ever have. Now is all we can ever experience. As you look back on your life, you'll realize that your life is a series of nows. But most people missed most of their now moments, living life on autopilot.
Living more mindfully means training your attention. There can be demands on your attention, or you can have control of your attention. Being more mindful means having more control of your attention. Being mindful helps you recognize your judgments and accept the present moment without trying to change it. Over time, mindfulness means learning to break identification with thoughts and emotions. Most of us are identified with our thoughts. When we can't separate ourselves from our thoughts, we're being tugged around by whatever that next thought happens to be.
Lastly, mindfulness does not dictate any particular action. But by being more mindful, you can respond with a choice that's more likely to be helpful rather than react in an unhelpful way.
MINDFULNESS AND MEDITATION
In my experience, one of the most common errors people make when thinking about mindfulness is that mindfulness and meditation are synonyms. They think that doing a 10- or 20-minute meditation means that you are indeed mindful. Or vice versa - they think that to be mindful means you have to be meditating, and when you're not meditating, you're not mindful.
We can break that misconception by thinking about meditation as practice and training to be more mindful. There are many kinds of meditation, but when I refer to meditation, I'm specifically talking about mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness is a way of living, and meditation is the workout that helps build your mindfulness muscle.
Mindfulness meditation is simply the act of paying attention to your experience and recognizing when your attention has been called away. The simplest way to do this is to focus on your breathing. You are not trying to control your breath or do any other breathing exercise. You are simply paying attention to your breath, no matter how it appears, wherever you feel it most prominently. As you do this, you'll start to notice that your mind has wandered. You may have noticed that you started thinking. Thinking is simply paying attention to your thoughts, so when this happens, bring your attention back to your breath.
That's the game; recognizing when your attention has been called away and redirecting it back to your breath.
Over time you can experiment with focusing your attention on other aspects of your experience besides your breath. These are called anchors; they can be anything, like sound, sights, or bodily sensations.
The insight with meditation is to better recognize when you've been lost in thought. The curious paradox is that when you get better at meditating, it feels like you've gotten worse because you recognize when you're lost in thought more often.
MINDFULNESS AND MONEY
You might be wondering what mindfulness has to do with personal finance. It doesn't seem obvious at first, but the principles of mindfulness apply to every area of your life. Mindfulness and money have to do with how much you are aware of money's role in your life and financial decisions. It's about what you choose to pay attention to and whether or not you judge the financial events that happened. It's about whether or not you accept the situation you find yourself in. But most of all, it's about making financial decisions on purpose and with intention rather than on autopilot.
There was a time when we had to be acutely aware of how much money we were spending. We used cash, and when we bought something, we had to count the cash and hand it over to somebody else. We were very aware that we were spending our money. Then we started using checks and, although they are a little bit more abstract than cash, we still had to write how much we were spending at least twice and probably three times (if you were keeping track in your register).
Fast forward to today, and it doesn't even feel like we're spending money anymore. We linked a card to our online accounts or apps once, and now we just perform a couple of clicks or taps and whatever we want just shows up at our door.
The awareness of our spending has disappeared, making it easier for us to spend mindlessly. It's not just spending decisions either. Many of our financial decisions are made on autopilot. Being more mindful of your financial life simply means being more aware of money and its role in your life and making financial decisions with more intention.
Mindfulness means paying attention to and accepting your experience in the here and now without judging it, breaking identification with thought and emotion, and making intentional choices that are more likely to be helpful.
Living more mindfully helps you pay attention to the now so that you can design and live a more meaningful life.
You get one life; live intentionally.
If you know someone else who would benefit from reading this, please share it with them. Spread the word, if you think there's a word to spread.
Related Money Health® Reading
References and Influences
Ben-Shahar, Tal: Happier, No Matter What
Burkeman, Oliver: The Antidote
Dalai Lama & Howard Cutler: The Art of Happiness
Hagen, Derek: Money’s Purpose in Your Life
Hagen, Derek: Your Money, Your Values, and Your Life
Haidt, Jonathan: The Happiness Hypothesis
Hanh, Thich Nhat: You Are Here
Hanson, Rick & Richard Mendius: Buddha’s Brain
Harris, Dan: 10% Happier
Harris, Sam: Waking Up
Hefferon, Kate & Ilona Boniwell: Positive Psychology
Ivtzan, Itai, Tim Lomas, Kate Hefferon & Piers Worth: Second Wave Positive Psychology
Kabat-Zinn, Jon: Wherever You Go, There You Are
Kinder, George: Seven Stages of Money Maturity
Kinder, George: Transforming Suffering into Wisdom
Krueger, David & John David Mann: The Secret Language of Money
Manson, Mark: Everything is Fucked
Note: Above is a list of references that I intentionally looked at while writing this post. It is not meant to be a definitive list of everything that influenced by thinking and writing. It's very likely that I left something out. If you notice something that you think I left out, please let me know; I will be happy to update the list.