February 25, 2019
By eM Life Instructor Mike Engle
Ever wondered what it might look like if you started to practice mindfulness when you were a teenager? You don’t get any super powers, and you continue to be an imperfect human being, but you do learn some habits that make life easier. Here’s a story about my journey through how mindfulness changed my life.
“Have you ever noticed how your mind has thoughts constantly running through it and your attention is always jumping around from one thing to another?” my dad asked me as we drove.
“Yeah, I have noticed that. It’s totally out of control, and it’s kind of annoying,” I replied.
“Well, they call that the monkey mind and it can be trained. You can learn how to quiet the mind and keep your attention still. That’s what mindfulness practice is all about. Would you be interested in learning how to do that?” he asked me.
“Sure, I guess,” I said quietly, not really aware of what I was getting myself into. I was 16 years old and misbehaving like many teenagers. I was also depressed, insecure, and struggling like many teenagers. My friends would definitely think that I was strange for getting into anything like mindfulness, but the idea of training my mind intrigued me. That was the first time that I was introduced to mindfulness, and a few months later I was sitting with my dad listening to a teacher explain how to train the mind.
The Struggle to Balance Mindfulness Exercises as a Teen
I guess I could fairly say that nothing has been the same since. I immediately connected with the practice, even though it was very difficult to do. The possibility of having a mind that was more clear, resilient, and flexible was appealing to me. I tried to practice for a week at home, but I struggled like every beginner and dropped it.
Even though I wasn’t practicing, some seed had been planted, and at the very least I occasionally tried to be aware of my breath. I didn’t tell my friends what I had learned because I was embarrassed, and life continued for about a year before I had another opportunity to learn more about mindfulness.
A year later I started to practice mindfulness again and this time I stuck with it. At that time I also started college. I studied Psychology and Philosophy, and my mindfulness practice helped me to apply many of the things I was learning in my classes in a personal way. I started to develop some capacity to work with my emotions and thoughts. I began to find spaces of calmness throughout the day.
I reconnected with my senses and became aware of the countless details in the world that I normally ignored. I was better able to manage the stresses of life, which at that time were working and studying, combined with whatever social dramas we love to indulge in as young adults. Overwhelming situations were more manageable, and when I found myself off centered, I was able to focus on the breath and settle my mind down.
Taking My Mindfulness Practice into Adulthood
This slowly developed over years of practice with occasional instruction here and there. You probably wouldn’t have been able to tell from the outside, but from the inside everything was more spacious and workable, especially compared to when I was first introduced to mindfulness as a teenager. That’s not to say that my life was full of peace and love, sunshine and rainbows. The reality for how mindfulness changed my life was more subtle than that.
There were the normal activities of work, study, relationships, hobbies; and the normal emotions of pride, jealousy, fear, insecurity, etc. In many ways, everything externally was the same, but inwardly I was relating to my world differently. Above all, I was relating to my own emotions, thoughts, and beliefs differently, and this change in relationship to my inner landscape changed the way I experienced everything.
My interest in learning about my mind carried me for years. Regardless of the external challenges I faced, I typically had space to do my practice daily. It was a staple in my life, something that helped to ground and give clarity every day.
The Transition of Mindfulness into Fatherhood
The big change happened when I started my own family. Suddenly, I lost my space to practice and descended into sleepless nights with fussy babies and the huge pressure of supporting a family. My quiet reflective moments disappeared into the chaos of consoling teething babies and making up the hours to work when I could. It’s been three years since my first son was born and we have another one-year-old baby. With two young children in the house everything has become more intense and demanding. The space to practice has been lost, and I’ve been forced to do everything on the go, so to speak.
And that’s where I find myself today. My practice has gone from having lots of time to study, reflect, and sit quietly, to connecting with moments of awareness as I change a diaper, play on the grass, or sit to work. That’s one of the beauties of this practice. It can be done anywhere, at any time. All we need to do is become aware in the moment and we can start to work with the mind.
How Mindfulness Continues to Shape Me
All those years of mindfulness helped me tremendously through the big changes and challenges of life. I’ve always been able to carry my practice in one form or another. I continue to grow older and mature (losing hair, face starting to wrinkle) and the same practice guides my days and nights, like an old friend helping me to keep my mind clear and open.
The most helpful skill I’ve developed through my practice has been a shift in the way I relate to my thoughts and emotions. Having the ability to work with overwhelming emotions and incessant thoughts changes life a lot. They still come up, and that’s fine, but there’s less chance that I indulge and act on them.
My life is far from perfect and I don’t have any psychic powers. If you met me you’d probably think I was quite normal: big nose, balding, not very well dressed. And indeed I am quite normal. I’m just fortunate enough to have a practice that helps me change the way I relate to my thoughts, my emotions, and the world. A practice that keeps me connected to the moment, and that reminds me not to forget.
About the Author
Mike has been passionate about training his mind since he was first exposed to mindfulness at the age of 16. Since then, his desire to understand and work with his mind has led him to earn degrees in Psychology and Philosophy, to research attention training in monastic education in Nepal, and to sit four and a half years in intensive solitary retreat. After finishing his retreat Mike began to teach mindfulness to others, and after starting his own family he became interested in bringing the benefits of mindfulness to parents, children, and families. He currently lives in Barcelona with his wife and sons where he spends his time teaching mindfulness, coaching, and working in the field of Tibetan translation. Mike has worked as an eM Life instructor since 2017.