Over the last hour, where has your mind been?
Have you been intently focused on something, or has your mind been bouncing around from your to-do list, to the phone ringing, to your worries, and then on to any number of unrelated thoughts and distractions?
All of that mental chatter is exhausting, especially since most of our thoughts are negative. Some estimates suggest we have about 45,000 negative thoughts a day, which is 80% of all of our thoughts. Imagine how that impacts your emotions — and even your physical health.
Our thoughts have an uncanny way of making us feel controlled by them. When we identify with our thoughts and view them as reflections of our essential selves, we can never be truly content. In our struggle to find peace and happiness, we attempt to think our way out of our thoughts and the emotions produced by thought. That’s when we get stuck in overthinking, worry, and mental looping.
What if you could make a profound mental shift and detach from your thoughts and the pain and anxiety they produce? What if you begin to view your thoughts as mental “clouds” that have nothing to do with you — they just float by at random. And when they float by, rather than jumping in and wrestling with them, you simply observe them and let them float away.
This shift is the beginning of mindfulness. Mindfulness is the ability to be present with right now. You are not only present, but you are aware in a non-reactive way. You don’t label your experience as good or bad, right or wrong. You simply observe and experience it. Why would you want to do this? Because mindfulness creates a state of equanimity and joy not possible when you identify with thought. It also produces an array of mental and physical health benefits that are life-changing.
Every time you try to bring your attention to the present moment, you are experiencing reality. But when you first attempt presence, your mind careens off in a multitude of directions before you’re even aware of it. However, you can tame and train your mind so that it no longer controls you. With mindfulness practices, you can learn to return to the present moment whenever you wish, for increasingly longer periods of time.
Here are five mindfulness exercises you can try:
Conscious breathing reduces stress and promotes relaxation of the mind and body. Slow, deep, rhythmic breathing causes a reflex stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system, which results in a reduction in the heart rate and relaxation of the muscles. Also, oxygenation of the brain tends to normalize brain function, reducing anxiety and stress levels.
When you use breathing as a mindfulness exercise, each breath becomes an object of concentration that draws us inward. Bringing our focus intentionally to the breath, we ground ourselves in the present moment. Observing our breathing without reacting, but simply watching each breath as it happens without needing to change it, is the beginning of letting go of suffering.
Almost all meditation practices begin with focused breathing. Just the breathing itself will calm and relax you, even if you do it for just a few minutes. Here’s how to practice mindful breathing.
- Sit upright in a comfortable chair or on the floor with your hands on your knees or thighs, palms up or palms down, or resting in your lap. Close your eyes.
- Close your mouth so all breathing is done through your nose, which also helps quiet the mind.
- Imagine you have a balloon in your stomach. Each time you breath in, the balloon inflates. Each time you breath out, the balloon deflates.
- Begin breathing naturally, and after the out breath count one. Then breath in and out again and count two. Keep breathing and counting on the out breath this way until you reach ten, then begin again with one.
- Simply notice any thoughts that arise, and bring your attention back to your breathing.
You can practice this breathing exercise anywhere, several times a day, when you feel stressed, overwhelmed, or simply want to be present in the moment.
Breathing is often the first step in meditation which is a more intensified and committed mindfulness practice. Through meditation you can transform your mind and yourself by creating a beautiful state of stillness, silence, and clarity for sustained periods.
You come to recognize the patterns and habits of your mind, and learn to cultivate a calm and positive mental state through the cessation of mental chatter and an increase in focused awareness.
In the beginning, you’ll find you must redirect your thoughts almost constantly. You will often get caught up in the past and future and feel frustrated with your inability to tame your thoughts. But with time and practice, it will become easier and easier to just be the witness to all thoughts and sensations and remain focused in the now.
You can learn more about how to meditate properly in this article. You’ll also read about the positive physical, mental, and psychological outcomes of a regular meditation practice.
We are generally unconscious of the variety of tasks and actions we undertake every day. We might wake up, make coffee, eat breakfast, shower and dress, and drive to work — and then have no real experience of doing any of those things. We’re on autopilot, thinking about the day ahead or worrying about something from the past. We’re asleep at the wheel as daily life passes us by.
Even the most mundane and ordinary actions can be an occasion for mindfulness. In fact, because there are so many ordinary actions in a day, when you awaken to them, you are awakening to life and expanding time. You might wonder why you want to be focused on washing your hair or putting a load of laundry in the dryer. But each of these small actions has meaning and purpose for your life.
From now on, when you do something, simply pay attention. Notice the feelings, sounds, smells, and images of whatever you are doing. If you’re washing dishes, feel the water over your hands. Notice the sound of running water. Look at the way the water spreads out over the plate. Rather than racing through your actions or multi-tasking, express gratitude for the moment and what it represents in your life.
How was your interaction with your spouse or children today? How about with your friends or co-workers — or even the grocery store clerk or the waitress at a restaurant? When you talk with someone, are you fully present or is your mind elsewhere?
Practicing mindfulness in all of your relationships and interactions can be transformative, both for you and the other person. You will feel focused and engaged, and you may discover there’s much more to this person than you once thought. You will have an authentic connection that grounds you in the moment. The other person will notice your presence and will be inspired to connect more deeply themselves. They will feel heard, appreciated, and respected.
You can practice relationship presence with anyone by simply tuning in to them. Look them in the eyes, smile, and use your body language to show you are engaged. Don’t distract yourself with your phone, computer, or the other people around you. For the time you are interacting with them, the other person should have your full attention.
Once upon a time, people used to spend hours producing and preparing food. They would stop in the middle of a day for a big meal called “dinner” when everyone would leave work and sit down together to eat. Later on, dinner happened in the evening, but still it was an occasion when people sat together and spent time eating and talking.
With the advent and celebration of fast food, technology, and multi-tasking, eating is often relegated to a quick meal between obligations, something necessary to keep us fueled for our over-scheduled lives. Not only are we no longer experiencing the ritual of family meals, but often we don’t experience the simple joy of eating. We grab a burger on the go, have a sandwich at our desks, or eat prepared food while watching TV.
It’s true, we don’t have as much time to focus on food preparation as our grandmothers did, but we certainly can be mindful of the food we do eat. Make a decision to eat mindfully at least one meal a day. This means don’t eat in front of the TV or computer. Sit with your family or alone in a quiet, distraction free place. Here are some other thoughts on mindful eating:
- Before you eat, look at the food and notice the colors, smells, and textures.
- Close your eyes and breath in the aromas.
- Notice your own hunger and urge to eat.
- When you put the first bite of food in your mouth, notice the immediate tastes and sensations.
- Then as you chew, notice how the tastes might change or expand.
- Chew and swallow your food slowly, with a thought of gratitude for the plants or animals that provided it and the hands who prepared it.
- As you continue to eat, notice how your stomach feels as you satiate your appetite.
- Be aware of feeling full, and cease eating when you are. Don’t feel obliged to overeat in order to clean your plate.
- After you finish the meal, sit for a few moments and digest your food.
- Then mindfully wash your plate and utensils and put them away.
When you eat mindfully, not only will you savor the experience of eating, but also you support proper digestion and absorption of nutrients. Studies show eating slowly leads to improved satiety and reduced calorie intake.
Remember, the present moment is the only reality. The past no longer exists, and the future hasn’t happened. If you aren’t living this moment, you aren’t really living. When you practice mindfulness exercises on a daily basis, you train your mind to focus and create a time of respite from your daily cares and stressors. When you engage with the present moment, you expand and enhance your experience of life.
How do you practice mindfulness in daily life? How has mindfulness impacted you and made your life better? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.