How Mindfulness Taught Me Not to Sweat the Small Stuff

Photo by Amarnath Tade

Photo by Amarnath Tade

by WITHIN Cofounder Hannah Knapp

When I turned 18, my boyfriend at the time gave me a copy of Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff. We had been together for over a year, so he knew my neurotic mind pretty well.

I still remember the moment he gave me the book. My cheeks flushed, and waves of embarrassment and sadness washed over me. I managed to look up at him and force out, “Thanks.” But inside I was writhing with self-judgment. All I saw in his gift was criticism; all I heard was, “You take life too seriously. Lighten up!”

But, being the ultra-serious, ultra-disciplined teenager that I was, I set about reading the book cover to cover and trying to figure out how to be less serious and uptight. I appreciated every word, tears often streaming down my cheeks as I heard the truth of them - but had no idea how to change my deeply-ingrained habits.

Fast forward ten years later, and I was still trying to figure it out. The jobs I had fallen into after college all took advantage of my expert-level meticulousness and attention to detail – that is, my complete inability not to sweat the small stuff. Every day it was reinforced by the admiration of friends and colleagues that this laser-focus on keeping projects and people on-track was incredibly valuable.

But deep down, I still sensed that there was more to life than completing projects on-time, being reliable, and catching other people’s oversights. All that energy I was pouring into meticulousness was stressing me out, even though it was the very thing that made me valuable to the people I worked with.

I was beginning to realize that I needed to find a way to balance my attention to detail, with acceptance and humor and lightness. And, I had no idea how to do it at 29, any more than when I was 18.

In my desperation, I asked a friend of mine how she had done it. She was ten years older, and really seemed to have figured this out. “Two things,” she said. “I got a life coach, and I started meditating.”  I had no idea what a life coach was, and the closest I had come to meditating was the few minutes in savasana at the end of yoga classes. Without missing a beat, I asked, “Who’s your life coach, and where I can learn to meditate?”

A month later, I began what became a 6-year stint with my friend’s life coach. And two years after that first conversation, I sat my first 10-day silent meditation retreat.

The life coaching helped me tease out what wasn’t working for me in my life, what I wanted to be doing differently, and how to take small steps in new directions. Change was very gradual, practical and manageable. The meditation retreat, on the other hand, was more explosive.

My whole perspective on life, the purpose of living, and my relationship to everyone and everything in my life was turned upside down, in a very short period of time. I came out of it reeling; it took months to integrate everything I had learned into my daily life, with the help of my life coach.

So what was it about the retreat that was so powerful? When you practice mindfulness meditation – as I learned to do on that retreat – you’re noticing that your mind has wandered, and bringing your attention back to the present moment – over and over again. Doing that makes you really, really intimate with your thought patterns.

You realize that your thoughts are just thoughts. They aren’t real, and you don’t have to believe them or get caught up in them. That realization is the beginning of actually not sweating the small stuff.

It’s not like I went on the meditation retreat, realized this truth, and then never got wound up about anything again. Even now, I get caught by my thoughts, especially when I’m in charge of a situation and it’s not going according to plan. But it’s so much more likely now that I’ll notice I’m getting wound up, pause, and find a way to lighten up.

I often shift my perspective by asking myself one of these questions:

  • There’s nothing I can do about it now, so why not just relax and see what happens next?

  • Will this matter tomorrow? Will it matter a year from now?

  • Is it more important to get this right, or to learn from it?

  • Given what I know now, what’s the best next step I can take?

Fundamentally, mindfulness is about realizing that we’re so much more than our thoughts – so much more than the small stuff.

Practicing meditation gives us the opportunity to get in touch with that deeper awareness, that well of patience and curiosity that’s hidden beneath the surface frenzy of our daily lives.

The more often I touch that, the easier it is for me to remember that I’m not actually in control of anything at all, and relax into whatever is happening. When I do, the next best step usually presents itself effortlessly, and I can take action from that deeper place of knowing, rather than out of reaction to the situation.

All these years later, I chuckle when I think of how right-on my boyfriend was with his present. I definitely needed to learn how not to sweat the small stuff. It just didn’t happen quite the way either of us thought it would.

Hannah loves helping new students explore meditation and mindfulness, and learn how not to sweat the small stuff for themselves. She teaches at WITHIN on Mondays, and leads guided meditation sessions and workshops in workplaces all over the Bay Area.