By now you’ve probably heard about mindfulness and its many benefits. Mindfulness—a way of paying attention to our present-moment experience without judgment—can help us focus and live in the now.
A regular mindfulness meditation practice can be a wonderful thing, but it’s not the only way to practice mindfulness. There are many different ways to cultivate mindfulness, and some will work better for you than others. If you have tried meditating and have found it overwhelming, or if you find yourself resisting trying meditation even though you think it might be helpful for you, consider the options below.
Starting your day by practicing mindfulness doesn’t have to mean waking up half an hour early to meditate. Thích Nhất Hạnh has said that mindfulness is simply ‘keeping one’s consciousness alive to the present reality.’ If your present reality is packing a school lunch for your child, taking a quick shower, or eating a bowl of cereal, by all means, be alive to it. Appreciate the smoothness of the peanut butter as it unfurls itself over the grain of the bread. Become sensitive to the water’s insistent warmth against your back in the shower. Wonder why you are an adult and still eating Cap’n’ Crunch. Just kidding.
Try picking one thing that’s already part of your morning routine, like brushing your teeth. Then notice. Notice the feelings, notice the thoughts, notice you. The place you are in when you’re doing your noticing—that’s the place you want to acquaint yourself with. It can become a safe place from which to observe and to feel. And as you become more used to its being part of ordinary moments, you may come to find it meaningfully supportive. Many people find mornings a good time to introduce mindfulness but find what works for you. If evening routines sound like a better place to start, then start there.
This is similar to morning mindfulness but extends the idea of mindful awareness to tasks which are less automatic than our morning routines. Most people have a dreaded chore, whether it’s doing the dishes or folding the laundry. Maybe you put these things off until they become even more intimidating. Next time you’re facing down one of these chores, try transforming them from a barrier between you and whatever you’d rather be doing into an experience of intentional presence. Own the moment. Light a candle, play some music, brew some coffee. If you’re going to spend 20 minutes ironing, why not experience those 20 minutes instead of enduring them? Notice the texture of the fabric, the hiss of steam as wrinkles give way to the weight of the iron under your hand, the sharpening of collars, ordering of hems, the grace of your own comings and goings as you attend to all of these things.
Mindful eating is about bringing non-judgmental awareness to hunger, food selection and preparation, eating, and satiety. When you savor food, you are attentive to the experience of eating: the appearance of the food, its taste and texture, and your own thoughts and feelings as you eat. You don’t have to sit in silence, eat alone, or give yourself over to intense contemplation of every morsel in order to eat mindfully. Simply take a moment before you begin eating to slow down, take a deep breath, and open your senses to enjoy what you are about to eat. Food nourishes us not only through its provision of calories, vitamins, and minerals, but also through the experience of eating. That deeply satisfied feeling that comes after a particularly delicious meal in which flavor, temperature and texture were counterbalanced just-so is a feeling we can miss if our mind outruns it.
Your meals don’t need to be exquisitely prepared in order to qualify for mindful eating, either. A crisp apple, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a perfectly cooked egg—these foods can really sing if we give them a chance. If you have ever heard Lynne Rossetto-Kasper on NPR’s The Splendid Table, you’ll have a sense of how the sensory experience of eating can be a whole world. Mindful eating is a way into that world and, delightfully, we have to eat about three times a day anyway, so we may as well make it satisfying.
Though mindful eating is free and asks little in terms of a time commitment, it isn’t without its challenges. If you have an eating disorder or have suffered with disordered eating in the past, eating attentively may be overwhelming. It is important to ease into the experience of mindful eating gently and with guidance from a therapist if you are currently in treatment. If you find yourself getting too anxious when you try to eat mindfully, back off and allow yourself to eat with less awareness until you’re ready to try again.
Mindful motion can be deeply restorative and, for many people, combining movement and mindfulness can make it much easier to enter into open awareness of experience without feeling anxious. Think yoga or Qigong. Our nervous system is a two-way road. We send messages from the brain through nerves to the muscles to generate and direct our movements, but we also send messages back to the brain through those very movements. This is why standing in a power posture actually makes you feel more powerful or holding your hands palm-up in front of you can dissolve anger.
If you already take breaks throughout your day to stretch, try bringing mindfulness in. One way to do this is to sustain awareness throughout the arch and duration of your movement, rather than focusing on its completion. (You know: journey over destination.) Think of the stretch as a journey, and think of the transitions between stretches as stretches of their own. The message in the movement is a powerful one. Imagine honoring all of your in-betweens in a similar way. In-between tasks, in between jobs, in-between sickness and health, in-between sorrow and joy. Even in-between attention and inattention. If you’re looking for a more guided experience, you can check out some of the shorter sequences on the excellent YouTube channel Yoga with Adriene.
The mindfulness walk is another take on mindful movement. This is a good one if a walk is already part of your routine, or if you want to get some exercise in with your mindfulness or some mindfulness in with your exercise.
Some mindfulness walks focus on the body, while others on the world around you. In the latter, we move our bodies through the world, and what we observe becomes our medium for mindful experiencing. The ordered chaos of more leaves than you can count playing out their subtle dynamism. A dog who barks as you approach, triggering a cascade of other barks. An old sock on the street. (Whence, why, and whither?) A frenzy of wildflowers in an unkempt lot.
Thoughts or no thoughts, feelings or their absence—all are permitted and observed and allowed to pass on or to linger without obscuring the flow. The point is to walk, and to attend.
Breath Poems & The Befriending Fear Exercise
I first came across the breath poems of the Buddhist teacher Thích Nhất Hạnh when I was looking for a way to practice mindfulness briefly but impactfully with individuals referred for brief counseling intervention for depression, anxiety, grief, or trauma during their primary care medical appointments. With 15 minutes together, we had limited time to tap into the experience of relaxation and self-acceptance in a way that would stick.
We have all been advised to breathe deeply for relaxation. (I use the 4-7-8 method: inhale through your nose for 4 seconds, hold for 7 seconds, exhale through your mouth for 8 seconds.) But sometimes, that’s not enough to touch the pain, or the worry, or to counteract the numbness. Breath poems bring feelings and words, in the spirit of mindful acceptance of the present moment, to deep breathing. As you take your first deep breath in, recite the first line of the poem to yourself, and hold (no need to count). As you release the breath, speak the second line of the poem, and so on.
I have arrived
I am home
In the here
In the now
I am solid
I am free
In the ultimate I dwell
A closely related exercise is the “Befriending Fear Exercise,” which I came across in the book Change for the Better by Elizabeth McCormick, and which can be found in this compilation of mindfulness exercises from her book. Like the breath poem, this exercise links deep breathing with words. In this exercise, we directly acknowledge our pain, worry, sadness, anger, or other difficult emotion, and then speak to this feeling with compassion from our own strength.
I love this exercise because it is a door into mindfulness. When we begin to experiment with being intentionally aware of the present moment, it is likely to turn the volume up on difficult feelings that are usually imperceptible to us, or which are usually only a background hum. The Befriending Fear exercise allows our own discomfort with mindfulness to be part of the process, rather than being an impediment to it or a sign that we aren’t “good at” mindfulness. This is also a wonderful exercise to pair with others. You can try opening with the Befriending Fear exercise as a kind of warm-up, or you might prefer to wait until you feel yourself pulling away from present-moment awareness and then bring yourself back by speaking to the feelings that may be rising up with this exercise.
This exercise recognizes both your strength and your fragility. You don’t have to deny one to acknowledge the other, and when you allow your power and your pain to speak to each other, you may experience a shift toward peace. Not a permanent or a certain peace, but one that is accessible as a process. This is one of the gifts of mindful awareness.