“The Mindfulness Journal” – In Conversation with Anne Marie O’Connor

"The Mindfulness Journal" by Anne Marie O'Connor, available now from Centennial Books

Of all the books that I’ve recently come across, I think that one of the most relevant is The Mindfulness Journal (Centennial Books, 2020) by Anne Marie O’Connor. Part guide to mindfulness and how you can integrate some techniques and practices into your daily life, and part journal to help you carry out some of these practices, in this hectic world of ours — which seems to have gotten much more uncertain, complicated and stressful in the last several months — I very much doubt that such a book could have come along at a more opportune time. Read on to see what she had to say about what mindfulness is, what some of the benefits of mindfulness are, some of the practices that you can integrate into your day-to-day routine, the benefits of volunteering in your local community the benefits of keeping a journal, and much more. 

Anne Marie O’Connor (Photo courtesy of the author)

Andrew DeCanniere: First of all, I just wanted to begin by saying how timely I feel The Mindfulness Journal really is. I think it’s fair to say that these are very stressful and very uncertain times, and so I feel as though becoming familiar with some of these techniques can be particularly useful. That said, I think that they will prove just as useful once we get back to our daily lives as we knew them — or something approaching our lives as we knew them, anyway.

Anne Marie O’Connor: Exactly. Even just worrying over ‘Am I going to get coronavirus?’ much less all the economic worries, along with all of the other things that branch out from there. So, I think that the pandemic has definitely made mindfulness more necessary than ever, because there seems to be so much more to worry about. 

DeCanniere: Right. Actually, I was just discussing this with someone via e-mail. From my perspective, health is the most important. You cannot really do anything without your health. 

O’Connor: Very true. And, actually, mindfulness helps your physical health. There have been many studies. For example, it can help lower your blood pressure, which is very important.

DeCanniere: To sort of begin at the beginning, as it were, I was wondering if you could perhaps get into what is ‘mindfulness’ and what are some of the benefits?

O’Connor: I think that when most people hear ‘mindfulness,’ they think meditation. That’s definitely a huge part of it. However, it’s really anything that brings you into the present, so your mind isn’t racing ahead to some problem you might face in the future, and you aren’t ruminating about the past or something that happened last week — or, for that matter, 20 years ago. You’re just in the present.

A lot of it focuses on your breath. So, you’re in the present, you start to calm yourself. If you aren’t calm, you can’t take any action that’s reasonable. Your mind is racing too much. The classic mindfulness activities are meditation and yoga. Pilates is considered one. Then there’s tai-chi. However, it doesn’t have to be a formal practice. There are a lot of these small breathing practices you can do — where you’re very conscious of your breath, and it really slows down your heart and your racing mind. You’re not going down that rabbit hole of anxiety. Then there are some surprising things that also are mindful — creative things. Cooking can be one, for instance, as long as you’re not frantic. 

There’s even something known as ‘mindful walking.’ It’s not really a fitness walk, but you’re walking and thinking about each step and just kind of focusing on that. 

Some people find classic meditation, where you are just focusing on your breathing to be kind of boring, and so some of these other alternatives might work for them. The end goal of all of them, however, is to bring you into the present, find calm and relieve anxiety.

DeCanniere: Not to get off on a tangent, but I’ve been doing quite a lot of reading and watching quite a bit on PBS. One of the things that they have is this series that comes on in-between programs. Each episode is probably about 10 minutes long or so. I don’t know if you’re familiar with it, but It’s called Urban Nature, and on one particular episode they actually discussed something that sounds very much like what you just mentioned, where you go out into nature and be more present and de-stress by taking a walk in the woods. So, it sounds like that. 

O’Connor: Yeah. There’s this Japanese practice called ‘shinrin-yoku’ or ‘forest bathing.’ It’s sort of this fascinating thing where you’re in a forest — or, in Chicago, maybe you’re in a forest preserve — and it’s just very much about the five senses. You’re walking slowly, and you’re listening, and you’re seeing and you’re smelling. Hopefully you’re not tasting anything, as it could be poisonous, but you’re just feeling the wind. That’s a very calming thing, too. So, but it is different than a fitness walk, which has other calming benefits but it’s a bit of a different focus.

DeCanniere: So, it seems as though there are many ways in which one can incorporate these kind of practices into their lives.

O’Connor: Especially because people are stuck at home and cannot get to the gym, it may be a great time to explore a yoga or Pilates practice. There are tons of streaming videos for beginners, and even for more advanced people. For meditation, there are tons of podcasts and tons of apps that will help you get started. HeadSpace is one of them. 

DeCanniere: I can’t say that I’m really familiar with it, but I think I heard of HeadSpace, actually.

O’Connor: So, you can do these formal practices, but there are all of these little breathing practices you can do when you’re stuck in your car or you’re waiting for water to boil or whatever — where you inhale, hold your breath for a few seconds, kind of tighten your whole body, then exhale through your nose, that will release tension. 

Some people say to visualize stress leaving as you exhale. Just tiny little breathing things like that help. It can be any little formula that works for you — like holding your breath for three counts or inhaling for five and exhaling for seven. 

DeCanniere: I think it’s good — especially when I think a lot of people are stuck inside or are just stuck juggling so much more than they are used to. 

O’Connor: Right. With kids at home and everything, it’s good to have these little practices and techniques you can go to. The other thing is gratitude. That’s one of my favorite practices because it kind of puts all of life in perspective.

DeCanniere: I think that helps at anytime but, again, especially in times like these. I think it definitely helps to keep everything in perspective, rather than letting this one thing consume your thoughts or cloud your judgment. 

O’Connor: Absolutely. I’m sure you’ve traveled to places — or seen pictures of places — where people are hauling water and what a pain that must be. That’s just one thing, much less all the food we [are fortunate to] have and all of these other conveniences. We have Zoom now, and all of these videoconferencing options. Had the pandemic happened even 15 years ago, it would’ve been a little different. It would be much less convenient. 

DeCanniere: Actually, I was just speaking with someone the other day and reflecting on how different things would be if we’d been in this position just a few years ago, before broadband internet and before all of these different services were available. Of course, not everyone has access to all of them, unfortunately. However, broadly speaking, I think that it would have been much more difficult. So, as isolated as people may feel now, you definitely need to keep things in perspective. Unless you have someone who is in the hospital, things could be worse. As I said, I think health is most important.

O’Connor: Of course you can’t be like ‘Everything is wonderful’ all the time. It’s also about embracing the sadness, and the terrible things that are truly happening — whether it’s the wildfires and the pandemic and the floods, or the murder hornets and the horrible racial things that have been going on. It’s one thing to acknowledge all of those things, but to be caught up and not be able to stop thinking about any one of those things, that’s not healthy. Of course, we need to acknowledge them.

DeCanniere: Absolutely. I think it’s not healthy not to do so, and I think everyone can feel like it’s all so overwhelming every now and then. Switching gears, you talk about multitasking versus single-tasking. That seems particularly relevant in the 21st century, when it seems there is no end to the devices and distractions that are competing for our time and attention. I just feel like everyone is so convinced that they are so great at multitasking and, in reality, so few of us are.

O’Connor: Exactly. Even switching between windows — or between Word and Gmail — is what psychologists call ‘task-switching.’ So, your attention is completely shut off from one thing and gone to another thing. I can’t remember the statistics now, but it takes an extraordinarily long period of time — something like 10 minutes, I think — to get back on-task. You’ve lost focus and you’ve lost the flow, and you tend to make more mistakes, because you’re switching tasks so fast that you’re not really paying the ideal amount of attention to either.

I actually just looked up this statistic. Disruptions caused by technology can cost 40 percent of someone’s productive time. That was an American Psychological Association calculation, versus spending an hour working on something, then going to your e-mail and answering them all at once. It’s much better to stay on-task and focused on what you’re doing. Of course, there are exceptions — like if you’re waiting for your kid to call, or you know your boss will need something.

DeCanniere: While I do think that there are many positives about technology, I do think that as things have progressed, there have been more and more distractions. So, I do think it’s a good thing to get into the habit of focusing on a single task at a time, and then stick to it, because I feel like there will only be more and more distractions as time goes on. I’m not saying lets shun all technology, but it’s all about balance. I think that you need to live in harmony with technology rather than letting it take over your life.

O’Connor: Right. You just need to learn to use it wisely. That’s probably the end goal.

DeCanniere: Speaking of technology, you also talk about learning how to prioritize people and developing a meaningful relationship with people — of not allowing technology to get in the way of that. 

O’Connor: I’m sure you’ve been out to dinner with people, and you’re like ‘I drove half an hour to be with you and you’re on your phone?’ It’s just so much more meaningful to have an in person connection than someone who is always distracted with their phone. I think you find yourself living through your phone, not what’s happening in your real life. When you are out with other people, you should be present and connecting with them. That’s a much more valid and much more human experience than constantly being distracted by your phone, and the likes on your sourdough bread picture or whatever. I think it’s more calming and more meaningful. It’s more human and much deeper. Mindfulness helps you get to that, so you can be present and not distracted all the time. It makes you more mindful of others’ experiences and puts your own [experiences] in perspective. 

DeCanniere: I think we all go through times when we’re lured into looking at our phones and paying more attention to them, perhaps, than to the people and world around us. But I feel like you definitely need to learn to put the phone down. I didn’t even have a smartphone until about five years ago. I had a basic cellphone and an iPad. And I remember that over Thanksgiving weekend, I turned the iPad off completely and left it off all weekend. I left my computer off all weekend. The only thing I left on was my cell phone, just in case — though everyone was under the same roof, so I really wasn’t expecting any calls or texts. And I think it was just so much better in many ways. You can just be so much more present. There’s just a significant difference. You are just so much more there, in the moment, that way. 

O’Connor: You’re just so much more engaged. You can listen to, for example, your grandmother instead of cutting their conversation off to do something else, and you never get back to that deeper continuing connection that you get through a long in person conversation.

DeCanniere: Now it’s a little harder, because if I turned my smartphone off, I can’t even get calls or texts. I’m not able to be as disconnected as just a few years ago, but I still try not to look at my phone unless it’s ringing — because people don’t tend to call me over the holiday weekend unless it’s important. Everyone is, hopefully, with their own friends and family. I tend to send greetings out — or to call people, as the case may be — just prior to the holiday for that very reason. And the more you try to balance technology and life, the easier it gets. 

O’Connor: Right. And experts say to turn off the notifications, so you’re not being pinged all the time. You know, maybe keep your text notifications on, because your friend may not know how to get there. Once they arrive, turn the notifications off, or put the phone away. 

DeCanniere: I’m not against technology altogether. But it’s all about balance, for sure. 

O’Connor: I definitely am not, but I think you need to be aware of how it is affecting you, and whether it’s making you happier or not. 

DeCanniere: I think that sometimes you’re unaware of just how much time you’re devoting to being on your phone or whatever, and once you’re aware of how much time you’ve spent on it, you’re actually less happy than you would’ve been had you put the phone down and spent more time with the people in your life, or perhaps spent that time on other pursuits — like, for instance, reading. 

O’Connor: Or that your self-esteem is tied up with various social media things, and that’s not ideal. 

DeCanniere: Right. There really do seem to be people who do seem to hang on every new comment or like or measure their life in number of followers. That just seems so exhausting to me — and really quite pointless in the long-run. Speaking of focusing on a single task instead of multi-tasking, and learning to balance technology and life, I also thought that it is interesting that you touch on how to balance work and life — and how to incorporate mindfulness into the workplace.

O’Connor: Originally — in the ‘before times’ — we would leave the office. Now many white-collar workers are working from home. So, it’s a little bit harder because there’s no physical distinction. However, it’s good to create boundaries. Those will differ from person to person, but generally it is that you’re not on the phone or e-mail all night long — you stop at a certain time. Maybe you can jump back on for 15 or 20 minutes later on, but you still have a real personal life — despite being stuck at home. 

DeCanniere: And I feel like that’s good to keep in mind for when more normal times return, whether we find ourselves going back into the office as many of us did before COVID-19 — even if, at first, that’s a return to the office only part-time — or whether you fall into the group of people that may find themselves working from home permanently. I think that these are habits that are just good to develop. As you say, I think we need to develop these boundaries, particularly living in an era where our bosses can reach out at anytime. 

O’Connor: If you can set certain boundaries — whatever those are for you, so that you’re not always on-the-clock. You can also use some of these other techniques at work, such as single-tasking. Try to focus on getting one thing done, and maybe answering e-mails at the end of the hour or something like that. Obviously, there are exceptions. For instance, if you’re working on a project where you’re communicating back-and-forth all the time, that’s different. You’ll need to adjust to that. If somebody asks you to do something, make a to-do list. Don’t just automatically switch to the other task, and then leave what you were working on half done. Also, take a lunch hour, where you’re focusing on what you’re eating — not where you’re typing a memo while eating. 

DeCanniere: I actually have a family member who was not permitted to even have a lunch hour. Technically, they couldn’t prohibit them from having lunch, obviously. However, their boss did expect them to be available and working through lunch — or to cut their lunches short — regularly. This despite the fact that they allowed other people a regular lunch break — or even allowed some employees to have an extended break, where they were returning from lunch quite late. And there certainly are plenty of situations where employees are being bothered well after the traditional end of the workday.

O’Connor: Exactly. Of course, it will also be a little different for someone working in a supermarket, or for someone who is a nurse or a doctor. Even then, if you can take a few moments and do some deep breathing, practice gratitude, and take a little lunch break, that’s good — a few moments where you’re just you and you’re not dealing with work. It can be really hard but, if you can, train them that you’re not available 24 hours a day. Of course, not everyone can do that. 

DeCanniere: You also touch upon the negative effects that sleeping too little can have, which I found interesting. Though many people sleep less in favor of supposedly getting more work done — or, sometimes, in favor of browsing the web or watching more television — it seems that sleeping too little really can have some rather negative consequences. 

O’Connor: Sleep is important because it helps you be more mindful during the day, whether doing a yoga practice or meditation. You have more energy to get that done. It also helps prevent mindless overeating. If you’re tired, you look for anything to give you some energy, and so a lot of times people overeat. They think it will perk them up, but obviously it’s not really how it works. You just have that impression. On the other hand, mindfulness activities — such as yoga or meditation — help improve your sleep. 

DeCanniere: And I also think that, these days, not only are people getting way too little sleep because there are so many distractions available to us at any hour of the day, but then there is so much in our world and in our lives to be stressed out over. 

O’Connor: Hopefully, whatever you’ve done has gotten that mind-racing thing out of your system, so that when you go to sleep, you’re not thinking a thousand anxious thoughts. 

I’m not saying that any of this is easy, and it’s more challenging now than ever. It’s really not a black-and-white thing. You’re trying to achieve balance. No one is really perfect.

You’re going to be better off than you were, but you might not be perfect and you should accept that. You might still close your eyes at night and be like ‘Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God,’ thinking about things. But it’s probably better than if you hadn’t meditated or done yoga or gardened for an hour or whatever. 

DeCanniere: Another thing that I found to be of interest, which you mention in your book, is that you talk about the benefits of decluttering. 

O’Connor: Well, things don’t need to be Architectural Digest perfect, but if you know where things are, it saves you a lot of time and anxious scurrying around. You aren’t spending as much time looking for stuff. It saves you time and spares you the anxiety. 

For example, back in the days when we actually went places, if you had to be somewhere in ten minutes and you spent five minutes looking for your keys because you left your keys under a pile of mail — it can save you from that. Also, just the visual of a serene space kind of helps you stay calm versus a hoarder house. I’m sure you’ve seen that show, and they walk in and it’s like ‘Oh my God. This place is making me crazy.’ So, it’s both a visual thing and keeping you organized so that you are able to stay calm — and so that you can relax in your space. 

DeCanniere: Well, I certainly need to take the time and really declutter here myself. I could say that it’s so nice and tidy here that licking the floors would actually benefit your health, but that wouldn’t exactly be honest and I don’t think you’d buy that — at least not that last part about the floors.

O’Connor: It’s not even taking cleanliness that far, but it’s just so that you can relax and there’s space on the couch for you to sit down. 

DeCanniere: Speaking of clutter, I also found the part where you talk about focusing on experiences rather than on material things to be of interest, as well as finding a new home for the things that you don’t need. I feel like those are two extremely helpful tips — especially in this country, where I think so many of us tend to have things just piling up over the years. 

O’Connor: Absolutely. That kind of ties into both karma and charity. Hopefully, when you’re giving stuff away, you’re helping a charity make money or you’re giving it to somebody who needs it. That will definitely increase your feel-good hormones. 

DeCanniere: And speaking of charity, you also talk about mindfulness and volunteerism — the benefits of volunteering. Personally, I’ve been volunteering in my community for close to a decade now. I also did some volunteer work previously, mainly during my grade school and high school years. So, I’m definitely a big believer in volunteering in your community, and I feel like I’ve seen the positive impact that volunteering can have — both on the community in which one volunteers, and on oneself as well. I think that if you have the time and inclination, it feels really good to help out when and where you can. I have to agree that it’s really enjoyable to connect with others who feel the same way, and who are passionate about the same things as well. 

O’Connor: I totally agree and, honestly, I didn’t have time to look up the statistics on that before you called but, in general, volunteering gets you out of yourself and it gives you perspective on other people — which goes back to one of my initial points. It kind of gives you a sense of your place in the world, and that you’re pretty luck, and then if you’re volunteering with pets or cleaning up a park, there is a connection with nature that is really helpful and very calming. Being with animals and being outside is associated with relaxation and mindfulness. Also, almost every volunteer — especially long-term volunteers like you — says that they get more out of it. I think that’s really very true. Humans love to help other humans, and that is a great thing to be able to do. 

DeCanniere: You also talk about the benefits of journaling, which I’m not sure everyone is familiar with — and I don’t think everyone thinks about. 

O’Connor: Right. Just the act of sitting down and writing about an experience helps you make sense of it. I think you start to reframe it. Sometimes, you start to see it through the other person’s perspective, if it’s some sort of conflict. 

There are many studies that show it reduces anxiety, it boosts your self-esteem. It has also been used for sexual assault victims, and it helps heal trauma. It helps reframe the experience for them, because many times they blame themselves. It can also be a creativity booster. Most writers keep journals, too. It doesn’t have to be journaling alone. It can be coloring and other things like that. 

And the surprising thing is you don’t have to write for two hours a day or something. I have to look up the exact statistic, but it was something like if you just do it for three days a week for 10 minutes — it was surprisingly brief — you got more benefit from it than people who journaled everyday for a longer period of time. So, none of these things have to take up significant amounts of your time. There are briefer ways to do these things.

DeCanniere: I actually have kept journals at various times — mostly during my grade school and high school years. I know that looking back through some of these, it is clear that I felt that some of these things that happened were these huge things. Looking back on it now, I can really see that they weren’t such a big deal after all. 

O’Connor: And that’s a really good point, because when you read your past journals, you see that you got through things and that you have resilience. It can kind of inspire you and can help you see that you can get through whatever you’re going through right now. 

Anne Marie O’Connor is a native Chicagoan, writer and editor who specializes in health, fitness and nutrition, with an occasional foray into entertainment, celebrities and fashion. Her work has been published in Shape, New York Magazine and Allure. To stay centered amid the frenzy of New York City, where she now lives, she relies on Pilates, mediation and great friends.

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