May 18, 2018

Like most millennials, I hopped on the hygge train the second it pulled into the station.

I bought fluffier pillows, lavender-scented epsom salts, and even a high-maintenance fig tree I’d spotted on Instagram, all in an attempt to make my space cozier.

The Danish lifestyle trend was meant to help me feel more comfortable in my home, and it did—while I was there. But the second I stepped out of my Brooklyn apartment, the spell was broken. I’d lose my temper over subway delays and daydream in the office, never fully present in my own brain.

One day, it hit me: I’d made my physical space as snug as possible, but completely neglected my mind. I could buy more fig trees, shearling rugs, and limitless Diptyque candles, but it wouldn’t make a difference unless I felt comfortable in my mental home, too.

I’d made my physical space as snug as possible, but completely neglected my mind.

“There’s a sort of misconception that if we get the external world correct, we’ll feel at home and comfortable,” says mindfulness teacher Kate Mitcheom, M.S.N. “But you can try to set everything up and it doesn’t always work out.”

As Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn said, “Your true home is in the here and now.” But I was mentally living elsewhere most of the time. Turns out, it’s a common problem.

“We do spend an enormous amount of time in other places—the past and the future—so it’s very common to not be at home in your present life,” Mitcheom says.

“Your true home is in the here and now.”
- Thich Nhat Hahn

Dwelling on the past, or dreaming about the future, may feel good in the moment—particularly if you’re trying to avoid dealing with the present. But mindfulness, aka feeling at home in your brain, carries long-term benefits. It can help you better handle situations at hand, and feel more stable. A 2003 study found that mindfulness practitioners had better emotional states than their peers, and that increasing mindfulness correlated with decreased stress.

“The idea is that you can be anywhere and comfortable,” Mitcheom says. “The challenge isn’t to be mindful when things are good—it’s to be mindful when things are difficult.”

“The challenge isn’t to be mindful when things are good—it’s to be mindful when things are difficult.”
- Kate Mitcheom, M.S.N.

Achieving mindfulness is tricky, but not impossible. Mitcheom teaches Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, or MBSR—a science-backed program that blends meditation and yoga-like moves, with the goal of increasing present awareness. But she says that any practice that grounds you in the present can help build mindfulness, as long as you make it a habit.

“It’s a serious undertaking, [staying present] in life,” she says. “The only way to make that happen is to practice.”

Here, her tips for getting cozier in your mental home.

Ground Yourself Every Morning

Start your day intentionally. When you open your eyes, take a moment to breathe and settle back into your body, as you would after an end-of-yoga Shavasana (aka the amazing “just lie on the ground” part).

Instead of hopping out of bed, place your feet on the floor and push down through your heels and toes. Stretch, breathe, and even lightly bounce up and down, taking time to experience life in your body after a short break.

Forgive Yourself

You’d never criticize a friend for feeling uncomfortable in your space, right? You’d probably offer your pal a pillow, or a glass of water. Try extending the same courtesy to yourself the next time you feel less-than-present.

You’d never criticize a friend for feeling uncomfortable in your space, right?

“Lend a little compassion,” Mitcheom says. “We’re always so demanding of ourselves, and feel like we’re supposed to be perfect. When we notice that we’re not, we can have a little compassion for ourselves.”

Track Your Breath

There’s a reason why meditation teachers encourage practitioners to return to the breath: Focusing on a physical reflex, like breathing, forces your brain into staying in the moment. Plus, it’s always available—your breath is there, ready to be observed, at any moment. That can mean simply noticing what the air feels like entering and exiting your body, or tracking your breath in some way.

Andrew Weil, M.D., suggests counting your breath—think “one” on your first exhale. Inhale, then count “two” on your second exhale. Count to five exhales, then begin again. If you find yourself on breath six, or eight, or ten, you know your mind has wandered. Don’t panic if it has—just begin again.

Scan Your Body

Finally, try to pay attention to what you’re feeling physically. “I think the best way to do it is beginning to notice the body,” Mitcheom says.

She suggests taking a full-body scan, either in bed at the end of the day, or when you feel particularly out of sync with the world around you.

Start with the top of your head, moving down through your face, neck, arms, chest, abs, legs, and feet. Take note of anywhere that feels tense, but don’t worry about relaxing—all you need to do is observe.

“If you notice your shoulders are up, your belly’s tight, your body’s tense, you have some information,” Mitcheom says. “You can think, right now I’m uncomfortable.”

Embrace the Uncomfy Feels

If you do notice that you’re holding tension, or can feel your brain spiraling into past regrets or future anxieties, sit with it. “Don’t try to make it go away right away,” Mitcheom says. “Usually we’re like, ‘I’m uncomfortable, I want to get comfortable.' But when we relax into the discomfort, people notice the discomfort doesn’t last.”

Trying to bury the negative emotions often means they’ll return later—and makes it harder to stay in the present moment.

Next time you don’t feel at home—whether you’re physically away from home or in your own space but feeling off—try out some of these tactics. You might find they’re even more grounding than that fig tree.

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