The one thing I have learned from spending time with Buddhist monks is that they optimise every minute from the moment they wake up (which is usually pretty early in my experience, between 4.30am and 5am). When designing a morning routine for yourself, one that has your overall wellness in mind, that doesn’t mean to say you need to rise at dawn but there are certain things you can do to start your day in a beneficial way taking inspiration from Temple life.
Practising Gratitude. When you first open your eyes in the morning, take a few moments to be grateful. I always take just a couple minutes to remind myself to try to be aware of all of the little things that I am grateful for throughout the day ahead. Even if I am feeling tired or slightly resistant to actually getting up, I know I have another twenty four hours ahead to practice gratitude, and that could start from that exact moment with something as simple as be thankful that my bed is warm and comfortable. I may have slept well. The sun may be shining outside or It may in fact be cold outside, but the house is nice and cosy. The trick with gratitude practice is to think small, not big. It’s very easy to know we are grateful for our family, our house, our pets or our jobs etc, but the transformation comes when we actively bring our attention to the smallest things we are grateful for.
Do not look at your phone during your morning routine. This is a biggie! How many of us wake up and immediately pick up our phones? Literally within seconds of opening our eyes, there we are filling our brains and senses with an onslaught of images, emails, text messages, social media, voicemails, or news. We do not give ourselves any time to truly wake up. To settle into our bodies or our day. Or begin our morning with a positive energy or focus. Our attention is immediately being dragged away from ourselves. I learned the benefit of disconnecting from my phone on one of the first spiritual retreats I ever attended. It was the same time I also learned just how addicted to our phones we are. When I get into bed at night, I personally put my phone on silent and charge it at the opposite end of the room to my bed and I do not pick it up again until I have woken up the next morning and completed my morning routine. For me this was a game changer. Try this for a week and see for yourself how attached to your phone you are, you may be surprised at just how strong the desire to pick it up is.
Meditation. Don’t under estimate the power of a morning meditation practice. Even a practice as short as five or ten minutes enables us a space to simply check in with ourselves. To notice our breathing. How we are feeling emotionally. How we are feeling physically. There are some amazing free morning meditations, or body scan practises you can find on the free meditation app Insight Timer. If you are someone who finds sitting in silence a little too challenging to begin with, and may benefit from listening to something guided, I can highly recommend the app. There are also paid app options too, three good ones are the Calm App, Headspace, and Mindful. The two founders of Headspace and Mindful are both ex Buddhist Monks, so have a wealth of personal experience on the benefits of mindfulness meditation. When I worked in London, and before I started training in Zen, I would still meditate in the morning but I would do it on the tube. Now I actually wake up an hour earlier to practice meditation before I leave for work.
Mindfulness. Mindfulness is simply the art of bringing our attention to our experience in the moment without trying to change anything about it or judge it. You can bring the simplest of mindfulness practice into your morning as you get ready for your day. In the shower you can gently bring your full attention to the temperature of the water, and the sensations of the flow of the water on your skin. Noticing the scents of the products you are using. Or bringing your awareness to your breath. Noticing the lowest part in the body you can feel the gentle rising and falling of your breathing or the pattern of your breath. For me mindfulness has an instantly grounding effect on my body. It moves our attention from our thoughts to our actual experience. In my Zen Meditation and Mindfulness courses, I teach students how these micro-mindfulness moments (as I like to call them) can expand throughout our day. The more we learn to pay attention to the smallest elements of our experiences, the more our relationship with our experiences change. The same goes with our thoughts. The relationship that we have with our thoughts can also slowly change.
Movement. Just as stillness is important for our minds, movement is important for our bodies. When I started training with my Zen Master, how I viewed exercise honestly began to change. He teaches that movement isn’t just good for us physically, but it is also directly connected to how we feel emotionally. What I mean by that is that it goes beyond the endorphins that we all know our brains release when we exercise. In Zen we understand that everything is energy (something that is widely proven in physics). Our physical bodies are energy of course, but so are our thoughts and our emotions. And all of things impact greatly how we feel. If our emotions, feelings and thoughts are all energy, we of course store all of this energy in our bodies. And daily movement can helps us move, shift or unlock certain things we hold or store within our physical form. That is why regular movement is so important. My teacher (a Zen monk) told us that in the Buddhist Temples in Japan the monks always start their day with Qigong practice (a gentle martial art). This is always done before they then go into the meditation hall to practice zazen (sitting meditation). For them, they are fine tuning, sensing and moving Ki energy though the body prior to sitting in meditation for long periods. Try and bring some form of movement into your morning routine; a few minutes of gentle stretching, yoga, a walk to the station or a few weights. If you can move in nature even better.
Two years on from starting my formal training as a Zen student with my teacher I value the importance of cultivating good habits throughout my day, but particularly in the morning. My morning routine has change dramatically in those two years and looks very much like the points above. I rise at 5.30am. I have an hours morning meditation practice that will consist of both zazen and movement. I shower, put my make up on and dress in complete silence, it’s important for me to have no distractions. I make my coffee mindfully. And then at 8am two and a half hours after I get up, only then I will then go and get my phone. If I am working from home, I will always also take my dog out for his morning walk by about 9am. Getting out with him amongst the fields or the forest, no matter the weather, never ever fails to make me feel better, no matter what is going on in my personal or working life. It’s the perfect energy booster prior to my ‘office’ time even beginning.
Mastering a morning routine that will ultimately support your physical and emotional well-being really is a very easy and accessible way to start mastering so many other areas of your life. Start small, and build on that, it’s a really good place to start.