From a very early age, I knew that I was wired to be a high-strung and anxious individual. And so, throughout my life, whether conscious of the decision or not, I have sought ways to relieve my stress and anxiety, which has waxed and waned depending on life’s circumstances. This has certainly included playing sports and training in the gym, which are both excellent sources of stress relief.
To tame my racing mind (and subsequent physiological stress), I have also turned to various other things things: long baths, massages, nature walks, writing. I have even tried stress balls (seriously!). Recently, I tried something new: mindfulness meditation. I signed up for a course offered at a community center, and I finally learned more about this oft-talked about (and oft-misunderstood) practice.
At its most basic, mindfulness is simply tuning in to the present moment. Slowing down, becoming aware, being present. Young children do this naturally. They have neither a past to dwell on, nor the ability to fret about the future. And so, they live in the present. They really feel the present moment. Which is smart, because as Jon Kabat-Zinn, the author of ‘Wherever you go, there you are’ points out, “Like it or not, this moment is all we really have to work with. It is the only time that we have in which to live, grow, feel, and change.”
It would seem smart, then, to pay attention to what is happening – at this very moment. To truly live in the present. Mindfulness is like a muscle. The more you work it, the stronger it gets.
Here are 6 Ways you can practice mindfulness:
- Mindful breathing: Perhaps the best place to start is with one of the most natural things you do: breathing. It’s likely that you don’t pay much attention to your breathing throughout the day. But slowing down and focusing on your inhalations and exhalations can immediately bring you back to the present moment. In a comfortable seated position, take deep, slow breaths. You can close your eyes or keep them open. Breathe from your diaphragm and allow your belly to move up and down as your breath flows in and out of your body. Your mind is likely to wander, especially if you’re not used to paying close attention to your breath. This is to be expected. Don’t be discouraged. Mindfulness is about observation without criticism. Simply bring your focus back to your breath and observe it without judgment.
- Body scan: This can be done either seated or laying down. Focus your attention on your body, from head to toe – one body part at a time. Start with your feet. Pay attention to your toes. Notice any sensations. Move them around. What do you feel? There’s no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ sensation or feeling. Move to your ankles for a few moments, and then your lower legs. Shift to your knees, and then your thighs, and then your hips and pelvis. Spend enough time on each body part to notice what you’re feeling in that area (and always non-judgmentally). Continue on to your lower back, your upper back, your arms and shoulders, your neck and head (ears, eyes, nose, etc.). What sensations do you feel? Throughout this body scan, your mind will wander. That’s okay. Simply bring your attention back to the body. Tuning in to your breath can bring you back quickly to your body scan.
- Tune in to your senses: This is done during the body scan, but it can be cultivated in all that you do throughout the day. Stress has a way of ‘knocking out’ our senses. Of course, that’s not to say that we lose our senses, but rather we don’t register them as our minds run at full speed and we lead our busy lives. Slowing down and being mindful is an excellent way to tune back into your senses – which have never truly left you. Take five minutes and whatever it is that you’re doing, pay attention to your senses – your sense of touch, smell, sight, hearing and taste. Similar to the body scan, you can do this simply sitting in a chair. What do you see around you? What do you notice? Pick up an object. What does it feel like in your hand? Notice any smells in the room. Key in on a smell and identify it. What do you hear? Is there a clock ticking? The hum of your laptop? Take it in and observe it as your body slows down and your mind joins you in the present.
- Mindful eating: This is a great exercise to help tune in to your senses. It’s likely, if you lead a busy life, that eating is something you do all too often automatically and without much focus. Perhaps you eat while doing other things, like checking your e-mail, getting your kids ready for school, watching TV, etc. Mindful eating is a great way to both bring you back to the present moment and develop a true appreciation for food. Start with what’s called the ‘raisin meditation.’ Take five minutes out of your day and eat one raisin. That may sound silly, but this practice can really open up your body and mind to the powers of mindful eating. Take the raisin in your hand, and feel it in your palm. What does it look like? What does it smell like? Put the raisin on your tongue and let it sit there for awhile. What do you taste? Is it sweet? Dull? Does the taste change on your tongue the longer it’s there? Then slowly chew the raisin, paying close attention to the taste throughout. And finally swallow. Imagine, if you can mindfully eat a raisin for five minutes, just how much you should be able to open your senses when eating all sorts of foods. From now on, when eating, try to focus only on the food and tune out other distractions.
- Go for a mindful walk: A nice walk, especially in nature, can have numerous benefits to your overall physical and mental health. And it can be a great way to practice mindfulness. While walking is a great way to shake off the ‘cobwebs’ and think more clearly (and creatively), a mindful walk should be focused not on thoughts, but on the senses, the bodily sensations and, above all, the present moment. Walking in nature is a fantastic way to awaken the senses, which helps to feel more alive – in the here and now. Go on a hike and feel the ground beneath your feet. Walk slowly. Slowing things down, after all, is a key component of living mindfully. Take in the smells of the outdoors – the grass, the trees, the dirt, the animals, the air. Remind yourself that the only thing that matters right now is … right now. Notice your body at different points during your hike. Are you sweating? Do you feel energetic or lethargic? If you have some pain in your knee, focus on that for awhile. Instead of reacting with frustration or anger, simply notice the pain, non-judgmentally. The sensations you feel are neither good nor bad. They just are. Live your reality in the present moment.
- Wash the dishes: Wait, what? Yes, washing the dishes may be one of the more boring, thoughtless and mundane things you do during the day, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done mindfully. Feel the hot water on your skin. Smell the dish soap. Feel the dishes as you pick them up. Identify them without looking down. Believe it or not, studies have actually shown that mindfully washing dishes can decrease stress and increase levels of calmness in an individual. The point is this: you can pretty much do anything mindfully. The key isn’t the activity itself, but rather the ‘mindful muscle,’ allowing yourself to tune in to your body and live in the present moment.