In 1977, Roald Dahl published a lesser-known collection of short stories called The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More. The titular tale is about a beleaguered British billionaire who finds peace (and eventually, fantastical powers) by learning to calm his brain with a variety of techniques. One such method involves focusing intensely on a single image in the brain for a long period of time.
In the book, Sugar manages to picture an orange for more than 10 minutes. I can remember putting my dog-eared copy down and trying my best to do the same. When that failed after eight or nine hopeless seconds, I thought of apples, blueberries, pears. No luck. Each time, memories from earlier in the week or stresses about the upcoming one managed to invade my brain and tear me from the moment.
Fast-forward a couple decades, and whenever I try to sit down to meditate — yoga mat, dimly lit room, relaxing music, a scented candle or two — I still think of this failed fourth-grade experiment. Formal attempts at proper, popular meditation often end prematurely for me, with my mind whirring like the wheel of death on an old Dell desktop. I think about interviews I have to schedule, flights I have to book, contact lenses I have to order. Eventually, I call it, thinking Damn, didn’t work. After these “failures” I’m less likely to attempt meditation again; ironically, I now associate the practice with stress.
This isn’t uncommon. According to a 2016 study, only 12% of American adults practice meditation, a number that nonetheless represents a 50% increase from earlier in the decade. That uptick has coincided with an ever-growing wellness industry that includes functional exercise, apps and products that encourage embracing the present, from mat Pilates to Calm to the Wave meditation system.
But that number’s still low, and the difficulty surrounding the practice is a prevailing reason why. In order to achieve mindfulness — the practice of paying attention to one’s thoughts and sensations in a particular moment — people assume they need to first create a perfect environment. Noise at a minimum, pleasant scents and legs crossed, with enlightenment just a few deep breaths out of reach. This line of thinking, though, ascribes too much importance to the activity. It’s self-defeating, like punching a pillow in anger while trying to fall asleep. Traditional meditation may indeed work well for many, but if it doesn’t do it for you, there are other ways to achieve mindfulness.
Think of activities in your life that erase hours from the clock. The ones you look forward to, or perhaps the ones you don’t think much about at all. They come, they go, but by the end of it all you feel measurably more relaxed. These activities can be considered “backdoors” to mindfulness. They’re inherently meditative, because you derive the same benefits from them that might come from 10 good minutes spent picturing an orange.
Below, we’ve assembled seven different activities that have been known to universally encourage elements of mindfulness. Importantly, we chose pursuits that an overwhelming majority of human beings can participate in at the drop of a hat. Surfing big waves, practicing magic tricks or playing the French horn may help you achieve mindfulness, and walking a dog may get you there too (assuming you’ve got one), but these examples are inclusive and easily incorporated into the mornings, afternoons and evenings of just about anyone.
The future of on-demand food ordering is absolutely insane: the industry is projected to rake in a whopping $365 billion in revenue by 2030. Why? Millennials buy fewer groceries than older generations, and devote just 13 minutes a day to meal prep. I can identify. Three nights a week, I’ll bring some sort of $13 grab-and-go market bowl back for dinner. I often think of it as a chore handled, and an opportunity to watch TV the second I enter my apartment, fork shoved firmly into my mouth as I do. But I’ve noticed that on days I cook up a meal, however simple (I’m a big fan of shrimp mixed with rice and veggies), I’m able to go on a rare, much-appreciated, end-of-day autopilot. Heat the pan, prepare the rice, wash the veggies, cut and season the shrimp — I’ll generally perform these tasks with music on, while talking to my roommate or in silence, the only sound the gentle sizzle of the cooking food.
There’s an exact phrase for this experience: behavioral activation. It refers to a positive activity that necessitates presence of mind. Cooking requires decisions from your brain, motor skills from your body and an end goal that can fill your brain with a feeling of accomplishment. Plus, cutting and tearing are proven methods for handling a tough day, while the recipes can be both comforting and expected, or unusual and creative. Either way, they demand your attention, and will keep you looking at the pan, instead of your emails.
The restorative effects of cold-water immersion are well-documented at this point. From ice baths to plunge pools to Scottish showers, the practice has near magical benefits for the body. It catalyzes post-workout recovery, staves off injury, lowers blood pressure, increases metabolic rate and stimulates the immune system. But there is mindfulness in freezing your butt off, too, believe it or not. You’re outside in nature, for starters, which we know does wonders for mental health. And cold water encourages the release of neurotransmitters like dopamine, adrenaline, norepinephrine and serotonin, all of which have anti-depressive effects.
I jumped into the North Sea a few days ago, when air temperatures were hovering around 30°F, and can assure you that I wasn’t thinking about anything but exactly how my body felt in that exact moment. It hijacks your afternoon, in a good way; I took a long, hot shower afterwards, and then felt alert and alive for a good six hours. On the other, less-Bear-Grylls end of the spectrum, lounging into warm water or having a bath at the end of the day are other forms of highly effective “water therapy” which should march you one step closer to mindfulness.
According to a team of researchers from Princeton University and UCLA, those who take notes on computers are less likely to summarize and retain information than those who take notes with their hands. The study (and others like it) has long been cited as a reason to save handwriting: save a lost art while boosting our memory! But handwriting’s effectiveness also extends into the realm of another mindful activity: journaling. A nightly commitment to putting pen on paper will add special significance to your days; what’s remembered as banal or unspectacular two months later might’ve actually been exciting or unusual at the time, and you’ll have the notes to prove it. On top of making you a better handwriter, it will make you a better writer, period, and it will happen in an arena that’s rhythm, old-timey and devoid of stress-inducing blue light. In case you have no desire to catalogue your own life — find writing prompts online. Scribble nonsense. Sometimes, when I finish writing for 10 minutes or so, I wake up as if from a drunken trance. It’s a lovely feeling.
When you’re a kid, there are times that your parents, needing an afternoon to wash dishes, pay bills and do other real-world-things, will order you to “go play.” It’s a typical childhood exultation, and from a young age, we oblige. We pick up branches and have stick fights. We “run the bases.” We invent games on trampolines and whack each other with styrofoam noodles. But somewhere along the way, play stops. For some medical professionals, the lack of play among adults is public health issue. Dr. Stuart Brown, who founded the National Institute for Play, explains that play is instrumental to optimism and self-motivation, while fostering a sense of belonging and community with others.
Unfortunately, it’s long been difficult for the average individual to find play in the adult world — let alone the heaping helping of mindfulness it delivers. Adults are an insular bunch, and those that do join groups often do so for competition. (Think: weekend warriors in intramural leagues.) But in the last few years, more groups have come about that prioritize the relaxation involved with simply running around. From DC to San Francisco to Greensboro, more cities are starting “adult recess” leagues, where the stakes are low and you’re free to think about nothing but throwing or kicking a ball for 90 minutes — with drinks often on the docket afterward.
I’ve written about my return to running in the last couple months, after a six-year break. For years, I associated the activity with stress, expectation and pre-race nervous pees, but my recent reentry to the tribe has been calm and easy. I feel an appreciation now for the ways in which both pain (mile repeats on a track along Manhattan’s East River) and wonder (tripping up snow-covered hills on the outskirts of Edinburgh) seem to remove me entirely from the world of 9-5. I don’t need a scientific study to confirm the inherent meditative qualities of running, though there are many. Runs with destinations, runs that meander, runs desperate to hit a certain time — they’re all about the sweaty, heaving present. That state of being is usually a struggle, but it can be euphoric, and that’s why we do it. You should do it, too.
A massive trend in the mindfulness space is the composition of music specifically geared for achieving calm. They can be lovely, and I can mellow into them easily, but they’re often too ethereal and not very sustainable. Who can listen to that stuff for 45 minutes? I contend that mindfulness can also be found in the General Admission section at a concert, or in a booth at an Irish pub that brings some Van Morrison sound-alike out every Tuesday evening. Live music is effortless presence of mind, especially when we leave our phones in our pockets. It represents a deviation from the norm (very few of us experience live music every day), which heightens the importance of the moment and your concentration relative to other earthly concerns. And it often rewards your ossicles with a series of mini-eargasms, which is nice.
Home and Garden
One of the surest signs that you’ve become an adult — aside from a strange desire to receive socks over the holidays — is that you actually enjoy performing household chores. I get giddy when I have a solid two hours to push my vacuum around, make the kitchen sparkle and point a hose at the gutters. Similar to the behavioral activation associated with cooking, busying about a home or apartment offers tasks and results, concentration and satisfaction. They’re an exhilarating change of pace from the mind-numbing practices of day-to-day work in a sedentary society. After a week of sitting at a computer, I will gladly Lysol the hell out of a coffee table. And I can’t remember ever thinking about much while I’m doing it. Not to mention — there are endless opportunities to personalize and perfect a space, from DIY projects to caring for plants, that will also transport you to a relaxing place far, far away.