Developing mindfulness triggers

A mindfulness trigger is something that will remind you to break out of “automatic pilot” so that you can be mindful, spontaneous, calm, and free.

Mindfulness triggers are reminders for you to come back to awareness so that daily activities can become more meditative and so that your whole daily life can become a meditation practice.

The Vietnamese Buddhist Teacher Thich Nhat Hanh suggests posting little notes that will remind you to smile and relax. You can post notes so you will see them first thing in the morning, helping to set the tone for the day.

You can stick a note to your computer screen or wherever you work, in order to remind you to detach yourself from the flow of habitual thoughts and emotions for a few breaths.

Mindfulness triggers can also be ordinary actions or objects in your environment. You can learn to associate those actions and objects with being mindful, so that they act as reminders to be aware. I find that what I call “transitional events” make the best mindfulness triggers.

A transitional event is an action that involves changing from doing one thing to doing another. So walking through a door can be a transitional event that acts as a mindfulness trigger, as can getting into your car, or stepping onto a train, hearing your phone ring, or putting down a briefcase.

One of my students told me that he spontaneously started using the act of walking through a tunnel on the way to the train station as a mindfulness trigger.

Cultivating mindfulness triggers

You can cultivate mindfulness triggers by choosing a particular transitional event, and consciously reminding yourself to be mindful whenever that event occurs. For example, when the phone rings, you can remind yourself to take our awareness to your breathing, and to smile, and to breathe deeply three times before we reach for the phone.

Mindfulness triggers can be very powerful “wake up calls”. We might be in the habit of grabbing habitually for the phone as soon as it rings. This tends to add to stress, since the compulsive nature of the grabbing suggests that the phone is in charge of our lives — since we can’t control when the phone rings we’re not in charge of our own lives, which is inherently stressful.

That small gap that we produce after the phone rings and before we pick it up reminds us that we have choices. We can choose to calm ourselves by consciously taking a few deep breaths, and we can choose to pick up the phone in a friendly state of mind by smiling.

Any other mindfulness trigger can be used in a similar way. We use mindfulness triggers as opportunities to wake up from automatic pilot and to be more fully alive in the present moment. We let go of thoughts of past and future, and in doing so we let go of some of the emotional turmoil that those thoughts engender.

You can even associate a phrase or image with a trigger – for example you could say to yourself “opening my heart” as you open the door to your house, and take your awareness to your emotions as you do so.

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