Do you ever race through life, struggling to keep up? It’s about that alarm clock going off in the mornings, a quick jump in the shower, an even quicker rush through breakfast, and the oh-so-disturbing traffic on your way to work when you’re running late. It’s that busy busy-ness that pushes you through the day, that fight with your colleague, that emotional roller coaster as a work project lives then dies, where you come home and vegetate in front of the TV, waiting for your brain to slow down enough to go back to bed and try again tomorrow. Your emotions are frayed. Your mind is a clutter. Forgotten about the moment? Need to step aside and remember the greater picture?
Mindfulness is about intentionally feeling the moment in a nonjudgmental way. For example, instead of being anxious about a bad day at work, a practitioner of mindfulness backs off to observe their own automatic reaction and the reaction of others, without suffering or judgment. Mindfulness is the ability to be fully present and aware of what surrounds us without being overly reactive or sensitive. It creates space between ourselves and our reaction.
Studies show that mindfulness augments resilience, positive emotion, and satisfaction with life. It also puts us in contact with our inner muse and improves physical well-being. If you haven’t tried it, it’s worth taking a look.
Tips for mindfulness. Before we discuss actual mindfulness practices, here are some hints to help you along:
- Safe place. At first, find a place where you can finish your mindfulness exercises without being disturbed. With time, you’ll be able to practice it anywhere.
- Daily. Set aside time everyday to do the exercises. In the beginning they might not be all that relaxing, but these techniques become more effective if you do them often. Most people find it takes about 20 minutes for the mind to settle.
- Feelings. You don’t have to feel bad to practice these exercises. We recommend you do them no matter how you feel.
FOUR MINDFULNESS TECHNIQUES
There are many ways to practice mindfulness. The general goal is to focus on the present moment by deliberately honing in on sensations. Thoughts, memories, worries, and distractions might come up. When they do, simply relax, acknowledge them, and let them go. Above all, it’s important to maintain that nonjudgmental stance. Don’t beat your mind up for wandering.
Mindfulness can involve looking, listening, feeling, immersion, appreciation, and other sensory experiences. Here are four examples.
Rather than anxiously finishing a daily chore in order to get onto something else, consider taking that task and experiencing it like never before. Start by choosing the chore. For example, consider mowing the lawn. Next, instead of rushing through the task, pay attention to each step and immerse yourself in the process.
As you push the mower across the lawn, pay attention to every sensation, one sensation at a time. Feel your muscles tighten and loosen as you move. Notice the vibration of the machine against your hands, the loud roar of the motor, the uneven ground, and the scent of fresh cut grass.
What else do you notice? What do you hear and see? What do you smell, taste, and feel? Pay attention! Consider the sun over your head, the slight wind, a neighbor waving as he walks by. Take the activity beyond the “normal” by aligning yourself with it physically and mentally.
You can choose any activity to practice single-tasking. This can include being stuck in traffic, washing the dishes, or flossing your teeth. Consider it at other moments too, like when touching a partner, eating a raisin, listening to a song, taking a shower, or studying a familiar object like a cell phone or apple. Pick an activity and do it mindfully by slowing the process down & involving all your senses.
Meditation allows your mind to rest a while. It gives you a chance to exist outside the negative aspects of your life and simply feel free. There are different types of meditation, but here is one method.
(1) Sit comfortably and close your eyes. Forget the past and future, and let your mind focus on the present moment. Let all thoughts go and just be. After a minute of centering yourself, channel all your energy onto your breath. Pay attention to its natural rhythm. Slowly: breathe in, breathe out. Breathe in, breathe out. If your mind wanders, gently bring it back to the breath.
(2) When ready, begin to widen your focus. Become aware of the sounds in the room. What do you hear? Listen to each sound individually. If there is a medley of noise, break each sound down one by one. Every time your mind wanders, relax, acknowledge it, and gently bring it back to focus on the noises in the room.
(3) Focus on physical sensations. Hone in on your skin. Feel sensation. Start with the soles of your feet and, one body part at a time, move on up to your face and scalp. Notice the feeling of air, material, and furniture against your skin. If your mind wanders, relax and gently bring it back to focus. If you’re in pain, relax, acknowledge the pain, and move onto the next part of your body. Spend 5-10 minutes focusing on body sensations.
(4) Next, consider each thought as it arises. Don’t judge your thought as good or bad. Instead, count it and acknowledge it, “that’s a thought,” then let it slip by. Count each new thought as it comes up, but don’t hold onto it. If needed, imagine your mind a white stage and each thought a shadow moving across the surface. If your mind wanders, relax and gently bring it back to focus.
(5) When you’re ready, refocus your energy on your breath. Breath normally, slowly: Breathe in, breathe out. After a few minutes, when you’re ready, open your eyes.
Try to meditate every day. Start with 5-20 minutes at a time and build it up to 45 minutes or longer. Eventually you’ll be able to “meditate on-command” during those rougher moments just by cuing your breathing and refocusing your mind.
Apart from focusing on hearing, physical sensations, and thoughts (described above under mindfulness meditation), consider spending a few moments with your other senses. The following are great grounding techniques to help diminish anxiety, panic attacks, or any overwhelming emotion, as well as methods to gain insight and clarity when it comes to appreciating life.
Vision, just vision. With eyes open, study your surroundings one section at a time, without judgment or emotional reaction. Alternatively, you may wish to choose one piece of furniture, a single picture on the wall, or a part of the ceiling. Notice the colors, lines, lettering, and shadows. Follow each angle and crevice. See light and the absence of light. Each time you feel an emotion or thought arise, relax, acknowledge it, and let it go. Stay here for 5-10 minutes, holding onto that nonjudgmental stance.
Aromatherapy. We all know that smells can trigger memories. That’s because the part of the brain that controls smell is physiologically close to the memory section. Have at the ready a set of items that smell good or scents that bring back good memories. Consider hot chocolate, coffee, vanilla, cinnamon, sunscreen, chamomile, and jasmine. Books, candles, incense, and burning wood also have pleasing smells. Prepare these items in advance in a container or box. Next time you feel stressed or overwhelmed, pull out the box and smell each scent one at a time. If one scent particularly appeals to you, stay with that one. Alternatively, should you have the inclination to bake, think about making bread or chocolate chip cookies. These have lovely smells. Give yourself as much time as you need with each scent, focusing on the moment to the exclusion of everything else. Should a thought jump to the surface, relax, acknowledge it, and let it go. Stay with your sense of smell 5-10 minutes or longer before moving on.
Ah, taste. Taste is closely linked to smell but, still, a very different sensation. Prepare ahead of time a box or container of things that taste good. You can also include intense tastes. Examples include hot chocolate, coffee, tea, vanilla, cinnamon, sugar, salt, and chocolate. Next time you feel overwhelmed by angst or want a boost of creativity, pull out your “taste box” and try each flavor one at a time. Give your palate time to appreciate each item. If you have the energy to cook, consider baking and eating freshly baked bread or cookies — or cooking an entire meal. Alternatively, consider chewing slowly on a piece of popcorn, raisin, or marshmallow. Feel the sensation of the food against your tongue and the tingling of each flavor. Tastes are everywhere! Keep a mindful attitude, free of judgment. Each time an unwanted thought rises to the surface, just relax, acknowledge it, and let it go.
Some people find it helpful to spend ten minutes with each sensory modality, going from one to the other — vision, hearing, smell, taste, touch, and thoughts — whereas others prefer to focus on just one sensory experience a day. Choose which one works for you. With practice, you’ll be able to do sensory mindfulness anywhere: during class, at night when you’re trying to fall asleep, in the car driving, or during a procedure at the doctor’s office.
Mindfulness doesn’t need to be limited to time spent alone with your eyes closed. Consider being mindful the next time you have a conversation with someone.
As the other person talks, be present and do nothing else but engage. Forget the past and future. Forget everything but the moment. Focus on what the other person says, the meaning of their words, without criticism or jumping to conclusions. Step back from the situation and really seek to understand their point of view. Try to relate to what is being said. Each time you feel an emotion or reaction bubble up, relax, acknowledge it, and let it go.
Nonjudgmental stance is particularly helpful during difficult social situations. You know you’ve achieved a mindful stance when there’s no overwhelming anxiety or dread associated with the conversation. Mindfulness allows you to switch to another state of mind, a place of peacefulness during a storm. Ultimately, the goal is to be able to participate without self-consciousness.
Here’s an example:
Imagine you have a very self-centered relative. He likes to talk about himself at length, all his achievements, and never asks how you’re doing. This frustrates you. Obviously he doesn’t care about you and only wants an audience. You always react by putting down his achievements or avoiding him.
One day, you decide to listen to him mindfully. You stop talking and, not worrying whether he listens to you or not, focus on his words. Without judgment, what do you hear? He tries over and over to prove that he’s okay. Objectively, for some unclear reason, he’s not able to listen to others, but he desperately seeks approval.
Out of honest compassion, you decide to empathize and congratulate him (for the first time) on his achievement. “That’s great that you’re a musician. It must have been hard to learn to play the violin.”
He pauses, studying you carefully. “I’m not good at many things, but I loved playing the violin. The problem is my arthritis. I can’t play anymore. I’m not sure you understand, you’re so young, but getting old isn’t for the weak of heart. You seem to have it so easy.”
Mindfully, you see where your relative’s insecurities and defensiveness come from. He might present as boastful, self-centered too, but when you take a step back and put judgment aside, you see the picture more clearly. He’s struggling with growing old. He just wants to feel like he’s worth something. For him, this means reminding himself — and everyone around him — that he used to be someone. You might not agree with his approach, but you understand where he’s coming from. This makes dealing with him easier.
In conclusion, mindfulness is the ability to stay in the present — without judgment or drawing conclusions. We forget about the past and the future and focus on the now. Being mindful gives us space between ourselves and the negative emotions & thoughts that plague us at bad times. In the end, it’s an amazing tool for stress-management and promoting physical and mental health.