The Betterment Project

How to Learn Mindfulness without Relying on Meditation

By Dan Stahl


As a 20-year-old NYU student, Jesse Israel started a record label with some friends. Their first band? The electro-pop duo MGMT.


“We had a band that was taking off,” says Israel.


But he was also trying to focus on school. “There was a lot happening,” he remembers—in retrospect, maybe too much. The hustle continued after graduation when he started running the label full-time.


As his career soared, so did his stress level. “I was already starting to experience moments of burnout,” he says. Those moments were marked by panic attacks, “debilitating” anxiety, and “just really feeling unhealthy.”


What saved him? Mindfulness, which he now teaches to companies like Google and Coca-Cola. Even Oprah’s invited him on tour.


Before going onstage, Israel draws on the practice he’s become an expert in. “I’ll close my eyes for a moment, and I’ll just notice parts of my body, starting from my toes, moving all the way up to my head, and ending at my chest, taking notice of it gently rising and falling,” he says. “This allows my brain to zero in on the moment I’m in.”


Science backs him up. The American Psychological Association (APA) says mindfulness enhances focus, reduces stress, improves memory, and even boosts relationship satisfaction.


And while mindfulness practices often include meditation, yours doesn’t need to. The APA defines mindfulness simply as “moment-to-moment awareness of one's experience without judgment.” That’s good news for guys eager to destress and improve their focus but have no interest in perching on a cushion for half an hour. And really, who has that kind of time?


Zac Armstrong, a master trainer at YogaSix, hears this from men all the time. “A lot of guys aren’t comfortable stepping into a yoga room or sitting on a cushion and meditating,” he says. (Related: There Are a Ton of Yoga Benefits for Men. So Why Am I the Only Guy in Class?)


In those cases, he suggests “moving with intention.” So, if you’re at the gym, focus on what you’re lifting and why. He personally likes to gear his workouts toward a larger goal, like a triathlon. But for you, that goal might be working toward a new, more challenging lift in the weight room or tackling a new hiking trail.


If you’re not sure where to start, endurance exercise has a particularly meditative quality for some people. “I’m an endurance cyclist,” Armstrong says. “Being alone on the road, spinning my legs—I find it very meditative.”


Peiman Raf, cofounder of clothing line Madhappy, also practices mindfulness in motion. “In the last year or so, I’ve been trying to take more walks without being on my phone,” he says.


Other mindful activities Raf practices: workouts, sauna sessions, and dips in a cold pool. “Things like that really bring you into the moment and make you focus on what you’re doing,” he says, echoing Armstrong and Israel. “I’m more at-ease when I’m able to do those things.”


The organization Israel runs, The Big Quiet, focuses on mass meditations, but he has tips for cultivating mindfulness in other ways. One technique is mindful eating. “I’ll close my eyes and eat slowly, really noticing the flavors,” he explains. No TV, no phone, no conversation. “And it’s crazy,” he says, “how different the food tastes.”


He tries to pay equal attention to his emotions, too. If he notices himself stressing about his day while, say, making breakfast, he doesn’t resist anxiety the way he used to. First, he registers what’s happening physically. All right, I’m feeling some anxiety, he tells himself. I’m feeling it in my stomach. I’m feeling it in my chest. Step two is opening himself up to it. It’s okay to be feeling this. This is part of life.


Ultimately, Israel no longer tries to “fix” his anxiety. “I just allow myself to feel it,” he says. “It stays for as long as it needs to, then it melts.”

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