There’s a lot of talk about the importance of “being mindful” or “living a mindful life” and many would agree that their life could benefit from an increased awareness and openness to the present moment. But with the modern world being so busy and always connected to events, people, and things outside of your present moment, what’s right in front you, it can seem nearly impossible to be mindful.
So what is it to be more mindful? It might be more helpful to look at it not as “being mindful” but as practicing mindfulness. “Being mindful” infers an entire transformation of your life, being a certain way constantly. That’s a huge task to take on and will likely result in nothing getting done. Alternatively, practicing mindfulness is breaking that huge task down into something much more manageable.
Mindfulness is the intentional awareness of and openness to the present moment without judgment (Center for Mindfulness). It is focusing your attention on the moment and grounding yourself in your current experience with a sense of curiosity and observation rather than evaluation. Practicing mindfulness can benefit your life in many ways. It can improve your feeling of connectedness to your environment and help you begin responding to situations rather than reacting to them. Practicing mindfulness can even lead to changes in your brain structure. Focusing on the present moment strengthens certain neural pathways that can lead to changes in brain tissue density in key areas linked to anxiety and depression (American Psychological Association). This means that practicing mindfulness can actually help you experience fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression.
There are numerous exercises and activities to help you practice mindfulness. Below I have compiled 7 exercises that are brief and can be done whenever you have some time: waiting in line, sitting in traffic, at home, or at work. Try incorporating at least one into your schedule every day for at least a week to help you feel less stressed and more connected with yourself and your environment.
1. Focused Breathing
This exercise can truly be done anywhere at any time and can have a huge impact on your mood. Breathing is something that we humans do quite mindlessly. It’s necessary for survival that we don’t have to think about getting oxygen all the time, however increasing your focus on your breathing when you have a spare moment can decrease tension and improve your mood.
Have a seat or find a relaxed standing position. Breathe air in through your nose slowly, counting to 3 or 4. Hold it for 1-2 counts then release the air slowly out through your nose for 4-6 counts. Repeat this for about a minute.
Your mind will want to wander. That’s okay. Just gently redirect it back to the sensation of breathing. Notice how the air feels coming through your nose. Observe where the breath is sitting in your body. Do you feel it in your chest? In your head? Does it land a little lower in your core? Keep your thoughts on the sensation of breathing. Focus on the breathing.
How’d you do? Feels pretty good, huh? If you enjoyed this for 1 minute, try graduating to 2 after a couple days or pepper a couple sessions of mindful breathing throughout your day!
2. Taking Mindful Notice
This exercise also has the flexibility to be done just about any time, any place. It is simple and can have an intense impact on your connectedness with your environment.
Pick an object that is around you in your everyday life. Something you see all the time. This could be something natural like a flower or the moon, or it could be something as ordinary as your pencil.
If you can, pick it up. Examine it and explore it with your eyes as if you are looking at it for the first time. Can you see anything about this object you don’t remember seeing before? Consider what its purpose and role is in the world, how it impacts your life or the lives of others. Take notice of it.
I bet you’ll never look at that pencil the same way again.
3. Mindful Listening
Mindful listening has some limitations as to when and where it can be practiced.
Find a song or piece of music that is unfamiliar to you. This can be something that’s in your music library but you’ve never got around to listening to, something on Pandora, a free song on YouTube, a song on the radio or perhaps just the sounds in the environment around you.
If you can, put in some headphones, close your eyes, and listen to the song. Try to detach yourself from judgment about the song’s artist, genre, lyrics, origin, etc. Just listen and allow the song to take you on a journey. Truly experience it until the end of the song
If you’re listening to the sounds around you instead of music, try not to make judgments about where the sound is coming from or other information about it. Just listen. Soak it in. Perhaps if a name for the sound pops into your head, label it then move on to what it feels like, new sounds that you notice.
4. Five Senses
This exercise builds on the Mindful Observation exercise but engages more of your senses.
Grab that pencil you had earlier. We’re going to examine it even further and engage as many senses as we can in our observation of it.
Pick it up. Look at it closely. Any etchings, scratches, writing that you didn’t notice before? Is it dull, sharp, have no point at all? What does the eraser look like? Take note of the colors and design of this particular pencil. Consider the materials it is made of.
Switch your focus to your sense of touch. How does the pencil feel in between your fingers? Run your fingers along the pencil and notice how the texture of it changes. The smooth metal join to the rubbery eraser. The rough area of the sharpened end before the silky graphite point. Consider all elements of sensation you can.
This one is a little tougher but can still be done. Write with the pencil. Notice the sound of the graphite against the paper. Bend it and listen for the creaking of the wood. Erase what you wrote, take note of this sound.
That’s right. Give it a big sniff. Reserve any judgments. Just notice. Notice the smell of the wood, the rubber of the eraser. Are there any other smells your nose can pick up?
Yeah, this is one doesn’t work great for the pencil example. Feel free to skip this one if it makes you uncomfortable or grosses you out. If you’ve chosen an item to exam that is edible, notice the flavors that wash over your taste buds.
Try this on other items in your environment for other mindful, observation experiences.
5. Touch Points
This is another exercise involving taking a closer look and having a more connected experience with a mundane situation or object. It helps you slow things down and truly experience something that was done thousands of times before, most likely mindlessly.
Pick an action or experience you have multiple times per day, like turning on a light switch. At the very moment your fingers touch the switch, notice where you are, notice what you’re doing. Be in this moment and mindful of how you feel.
This can be done with any moment or action you do every day. Choose different touch points, connect yourself to these experiences and take a mindful moment.
6. Mindful Walking
You have learned body mindfulness and now you can try to be mindful while your body is in motion.
Make sure you have a clear space and some room to walk. If you’re in an area where you can remove your shoes, this will help you have a more connected experience.
Stand up. Feel the connection of your body with the ground. How does it feel under your feet? Notice your arms by your side.
Now shift your weight to your right leg and lift your left foot up. Move it forward and set it back on the ground again. Mindfully shift your weight from your right leg to your left then lift your right leg and move it forward. Continue this walking, paying attention to the sensation on the soles of your feet. Notice the feeling of pressing your foot into the ground as you prepare to lift it and move it forward.
Find a good walking rhythm, turning around as you need to. Be mindful of your rhythm, your balance, your body.
7. Leaves on a Stream
This exercise requires that you take a little extra time out from your day, but I promise it’s not much. This is a wonderful exercise that can help you relate to your thoughts and feelings in a very different way. Now that you have learned to have mindfulness of the breath and mindfulness of the body, it is time to try mindfulness of thoughts.
Leaves on a Stream will help you distance yourself from your thoughts and experience them in a less judgmental way.
While sitting quietly, first bring your focus to your breath. Then begin imagining yourself sitting against a tree by a stream. As thoughts begin to enter your mind, place each thought on a single leaf. Watch as that thought on the leaf floats by you.
Don’t try and be on alert for thoughts or wait for them, just let them come as they do.
Reserve judgment that may come with the thoughts. Just let the thought happen, put it on a leaf, and watch it drift by you then away down the stream.
Your mind will begin to wander, especially at first. That’s okay. When it does, notice what’s happening and then gently return your focus to the leaves on the stream.
After a few minutes, gently return your focus to your breath again for a moment and open your eyes.
Challenge yourself to be mindful at least once a day this week!