Lessons from a Mindful Summer

Ahhhh . . . these long, sun-filled summer days are the perfect time for most of us to unwind a bit and slow down. Each summer I ask myself, "Why is summer so much more relaxing than the rest of the year, and how can I keep that relaxed summer vibe going all year long?" 

Summer provides a wonderful opportunity to reflect on the busyness of our lives and more time to be mindful of how we spend the precious time we have. During these warm summer months, I alway seem to slow down a bit, be more present, find some true peace of mind, and foster a greater connection with myself, with nature and with the people around me. So, I plan to take these lessons that I've gathered from my mindful summer and use them to extend that relaxed summer vibe all year long. 

(1) Become more aware of how you spend your time.

 This summer, I vowed to spend less time surfing the web, checking email and logging on to social media and more time exploring the world around me. Spending more time in the present moment - watching a summer sunset, hiking through a plush green meadow or spending an evening with good friends - I also found that I had much less interest in escaping into my digital world and more interest in being exactly where I was. Making a point to keep my eyes in the real world instead of on a screen, I was able to savor all those precious moments right in front of me and appreciate them fully.  I also felt less distracted, more relaxed and more alive.

The latest research shows that we experience the same reward pathways in our brains from our use of smartphones as we do from the use of drugs. It's like having a slot machine in our pocket enticing us to power on and take a chance at some feel-good moments. The truth, however, is that we suffer real negative consequences from this technology addiction such as increased stress, lower self-esteem, lack of focus and concentration, poor sleep, and exhaustion, to name a few.

So, begin to notice your technology habits and how often you are on your devices. Notice how that time spent on your device makes you feel. Then, notice how you feel after a long summer walk, time spent with friends, or a few minutes of quiet during those long summer days. Begin to increase your awareness of how each activity or non-activity makes you feel and do more of what feels good, restful and nourishing.  As the summer months fade into fall, give yourself more opportunities (like you do in the summer) to savor your time outside, to be fully present with friends and to make time to enjoy quiet, peaceful moments.  This will help you keep that quiet, relaxed summer feeling alive all year 'round.

(2) All we have is time, it's up to you to decide how you chose to spend it. 

Summer days consist of the same 24 hours as fall, winter, and spring days, yet summer days feel so much longer and are often much more relaxing. Why is that? We may think it's because we have more hours of sunlight to fit in all that we want to do or maybe it's simply that we have less to do since school is out and our schedules are less crammed with activity. This summer, notice your pace of activity each day, what you fill your days doing, how much "free" time you have for yourself, who you are spending time with, and how you feel. Next, think of your fall schedule and answer those same questions. (I can see those shoulders tensing up already.)

I often hear from people who want to learn to meditate that they just don’t have the time. But during the summer months, I am reminded once again that all we really have is time, it is really a question of what we choose to do with our time that matters most. We make choices every day of how to spend our time. It may be a question of choosing to take 10 minutes to truly listen to a child or friend, to gaze up at the sky, to take a few deep breaths or to scroll through our social media feed. It’s all up to you each and every day. You have that choice and I encourage you to become aware of what feels good, right, healthy and is truly important to you. These moments may seem small, but it is these moments that add up to our lives. 

(3) How are your connecting? 

I recently attended a lecture with Tal Ben-Shahar, Professor of Psychology and author of many books on happiness, in which he described the characteristics of happy people. One important trait of those who are truly happy is that they have strong social connections. When he described those strong connections to other humans, he was not referring to how many followers they have, or how many likes they get, but he found in his research that having real social interaction - - actually spending time together talking, sharing, eating -- was a key component to happiness for people.  In these summer months, we often spend more time with friends and family, and more time connecting in a real, personal (and in-person) way. 

Although technology can help us stay connected and informed on what's happening in each other's lives, Ben-Shahar explained that this does not give us true human connection. It's a bit of a fake or false connection. In fact, our devices very often take us away from where we are and keep us from being fully present with (and connected to) those around us. For example, think about how often we take pictures of a beautiful sunset or a video of a concert or sporting event, so we can enjoy it later or share it with others online, rather than truly experiencing what is happening as it unfolds and being in the moment just soaking it in. Similarly, instead of truly connecting with those around us, we are busy sending snapshots of where we are to all those not present, missing the opportunity to truly connect to the people we are with. In my family, we joke, "Does it really happen if we don't post photos of it?" The answer, of course, is "Yes!" There is nothing wrong with sharing special moments with others or creating photos to enjoy in the future to remind you of the wonderful times you had, but make sure you make plenty of time to be in the moment, so that you can be fully present where you are and connect with the people you are with. Don't let those moments pass you by while you are busy trying to capture them for later.

(4) It's OK to do nothing. 

In our culture, we pride ourselves on our busyness. The more we do, the more "alive" we think we feel. But are we truly feeling "alive" or are we mistaking that feeling of "aliveness" for low-grade chronic stress (a steady release of the stress hormone cortisol and adrenaline which can wreak havoc on your body) and a false sense of productivity (what is it we are actually accomplishing)? We often feel that if we are not multitasking or busy doing something, we are not making the most of our time, our talents or our lives. But, is this busyness really making us happy? Is this truly the way to achieve "success"? The more we try to cram into our days, the more we find that we are not enjoying what we are doing and we are not doing it well. Try instead doing nothing for a little while. Experience what that feels like. Be bored. When you immerse yourself in your surroundings it is amazing what you will notice. It is hard to be bored for long when you learn to simply be where you are and notice all that is around you. You may find that it is not boring at all, but peaceful, interesting and enjoyable. Boredom also sparks creativity and imagination. Some of the greatest and most innovative minds of our time found their greatest inspiration when they were simply doing nothing (Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, Philippe Starck, to name a few). Doing nothing also helps us get more in touch with ourselves, to better understand what is really going in, to connect to what makes us happy. With this insight and wisdom, we can make more informed and healthier choices on how we want to spend our time and what we really want to be doing. So, this summer, give yourself permission to do nothing and see what happens.

(5) Unplug. 

To help you do a bit more of nothing and to give yourself more quiet time, leave your phone at home for a while or power off. You will be OK - I promise. The world will still spin without you when you are unplugged. This summer or while on vacation, make a rule to only check your email one or two times a day (instead of all day long), at a particular time, and stick to it. Set expectations that you will respond, but that your response will take a bit more time. See how that feels. Studies have shown that people who do this are more efficient, more productive, make fewer mistakes when replying to emails and report lower levels of stress and fatigue. The bad news is that teens and adults are now reporting that their phones are one of their greatest stressors. The good news is that we can do something about it -- turn it off.  

(6) Set Your Intention to Slow Down and Savor the Moment.

Notice how it feels to move more slowly and truly savor whatever it is you are doing. Whether it is simply taking a slow deep breath, going for a walk, drinking your morning coffee, watching the sunset or talking with a friend, set your intention to slow down, savor the full experience and be fully present. It is amazing how alive you will feel and how rich and full those moments can be when you slow down and really show up for it.


Happy Summer!