I used to roll my eyes whenever someone talked about mindfulness. Then, I realized that basically every problem I had came down to not being mindful. My relationships felt empty. My work felt passionless. I just felt, well, not totally there. Like I was half present in my life and half in my own little world. I still do, but at least I've identified the problem: I'm checking out. The goal? To check in to life.
Spacing out can be a defense mechanism. After all, the world is a lot to handle, especially for a highly sensitive person. Everything from an unpleasant smell to an itchy sweater can get overwhelming. But rather than decrease how many emotions or sensations we're feeling, what if we increased our capacity to feel them?
The easiest way to become more mindful is to focus on our five senses, Mindfulness meditation coach Lindsey Pearson, founder of Do You Mind(Fully)?, tells Bustle. Notice the hot water in your shower, the trees on your way to work, and the seasoning in your food. These mundane sensations might seem boring, but once you cultivate awareness, everything becomes more interesting.
Here are some signs that you're checking out of your everyday experiences — and some ways to check back in.
1. You Forget How You Got Where You Are, Literally Or Figuratively
Arriving at a place or a train of thought without knowing how you got there is a sign that you're on autopilot, psychotherapist Jessica Tappana, LCSW, tells Bustle. Slow down and be deliberate about where you're going and how you get there, perhaps by taking a new route. Take time to enjoy the scenery. You might be surprised by what you find.
2. Your Thoughts Race At Night
One sign of being in your head is getting lost in thought as you lay awake at night, says Tappana. Chances are, the same thoughts distracting you from sleeping are also distracting you from valuable experiences in your waking life. Try to pay attention to the rhythm of your breath, the feel of your blanket, or other physical sensations. This will also help you fall asleep.
3. You Avoid Situations Where Something Could Go Wrong
Sometimes, we stay in our own heads because it feels safer than throwing ourselves into experiences. If you avoid social situations, new work opportunities, and other experiences because you feel something could go wrong, you may be keeping yourself in a bubble, says Tappana. You also may not be putting it all out there when you do find yourself in these situations.
4. You Can't Remember The Last Thing You Ate
The way you experience a meal is the perfect test of mindfulness, says Tappana. You could enjoy all the distinct flavors and textures, or you could have absolutely no recollection of what you've eaten because you were in your head the entire time. Enjoying a meal can also be a great way to practice mindfulness. Try to eat slowly without any distractions and taste everything.
5. Nothing Seems Fun Anymore
The cruel irony of spacing out is that we do it to entertain ourselves, but it frequently leaves us bored, since we're not taking in any new information. "When you are always looking to the future or remembering the past, the present might be escaping you," psychotherapist Julie C Kull, LCSW, tells Bustle. "To truly enjoy where you are right now in your life, you have to be present."
6. You Think Everything Is A Stepping Stone To The Future
Many people have a habit of setting a future goal and deciding that once it's achieved, they'll be happy. Once we have a new apartment, a new job, a new relationship, or more money, the story goes, we can stop planning and live in the present. Then, when we reach that goal, we come up with a new goal. It's a never-ending cycle of infinitely delayed gratification. The whole point of these goals is to enjoy ourselves, and we never get to do that if enjoyment is always reserved for the future. "When the present is just a means to get to your future, you are not being present," says Kull. "There will always be future goals/plans to strive for."
7. You're "Bad With Names"
Being bad with names is often just the result of not paying attention. After all, it's hard to remember someone's name when you never actually learned it. "When we aren't present, we aren’t listening," Mar Soraparu, an empowerment coach and yoga instructor at Studio Three, tells Bustle. The more present we are to each moment, the more we'll remember about it.
8. You're Hooked To Your Phone
When we're uncomfortable in the moment, our gadgets can provide a convenient escape. And when we actually want to be present, our notifications can take us out of the moment. "Social media eats our time and distracts us from our own thoughts," says Soraparu. "Controlled time is one thing, but mindless and endless exposure takes you out of your life and numbs your experience."
9. You Feel Disconnected From People
When we're truly present, we feel hyperconnected to others. Every facial expression, body gesture, or tonality becomes information that tells us what they're thinking and feeling. When we're not present, we tune out these cues. It's as if we're communicating through a screen, even if they're right in front of us. We have that nagging feeling of being alone even when we're together, and communication becomes a struggle. "If we are combative at work or with our loved ones, we aren’t working through our emotions clearly or we are avoiding them outright," says Soraparu. "Or, we are unable to communicate because we are worrying or numbing with other activities."
The thing about being present is that you can't only be present to the pleasant things — you have to take the unpleasant ones along with them. But once your relationships are richer, your heart is in your work, and you feel more alive, you just might find that it's worth it.