The Ultimate Guide To Practicing Mindfulness
Answer this honestly: how much of your day do you give up to stress, worry, regret, and rumination?
How much time do you spend thinking about the future — the next thing you want to do or achieve?
How much time do you spend longing for things to be different than they are?
What if you could live each moment as a microcosm of your happiest, most contented times, without the mental and emotional baggage of distraction and anxiety?
Every day there are challenges to face, painful memories that bubble to the surface, and unexpected emotions that wash over us.
Our minds respond automatically, sending us down rabbit holes of negative thinking or longing. It feels like our minds determine our emotional well-being — like we have no control over what pops in our heads and takes over our thoughts.
But we do have control. And we do have the ability to transform many of our moments into peaceful, happy, and contented experiences through the practice of mindfulness.
How to Practice Mindfulness
Mindfulness isn't a complex concept. It simply means paying attention and being aware in the present moment to what you are doing, thinking, feeling, and experiencing.
When you pay attention with awareness, you can fully experience the only true reality that exists — this moment right now.
What happened an hour ago, a day ago, a decade ago — these things are dead. They are no longer real. They only exist in your mind.
What you are planning or worried about for later today, for tomorrow, for next year — these things are only mental constructs that have no form or substance.
Right now. This is where it's all happening. And you have control over your experience of right now.
I hear what you're thinking: “What if right now is filled with pain and suffering? I don't have control over that.” You may not have control of certain circumstances, but you do have control over how you experience them.
The Power of Non-Judgment
That's where another aspect of mindfulness comes in — non-judgment. Rather than judging your thoughts and experiences as good or bad, right or wrong, hurtful or helpful, you simply observe them with compassionate non-attachment.
Judgment is a thought that arises within awareness, and left to it's own devices, the brain will immediately begin assigning a label to thoughts and feelings.
“I'm feeling lonely. That's bad. Loneliness makes me unlovable.”
“My friend hasn't called me. She must not like me anymore.”
“That sales person didn't speak to me. She is really rude.”
These assessments happen so instantaneously that our experiences are colored before we can even process them. Mindfulness is about being aware of that tendency and slowing down enough to take a fresh perspective.
It's about bringing awareness and intentionality to the moments of our lives so we can pause to notice our feelings in a detached way. This allows us the space to reassess and see the world without our own filters.
Why Should I Practice Non-Judgmental Awareness?
You may wonder what the point of mindfulness is — why you should bother practicing awareness in the moment and why you need to observe what you are aware of without judgment.
Perhaps you see it as naive or ridiculous to avoid judging experiences that are unpleasant or negative. Loneliness does hurt. People do reject you. Sales people can be rude.
But when you judge, you add another layer of suffering to painful events. I'm lonely, and now I feel bad about myself because I'm lonely. My friend didn't call, and now I feel like a rejected loser because I think she doesn't like me.
Also, when you layer judgment on top of experiences, you put a filter between yourself and the experience, watering it down and diverting your awareness from the moment.
This is true for positive and negative experiences. Once you start labeling the beautiful mountain you're witnessing or the exquisite moment with your lover, you've lost part of the experience.
Does all of this make you feel like trying to twist yourself into a pretzel just to enjoy the moment?
Think about it this way: have you ever been so engaged in what you are doing that you get lost in it? Maybe it's practicing the piano, working on a puzzle, or writing a blog post.
You aren't thinking about whether or not the activity is good or bad, or whether you are doing it right or wrong, or when you need to have it finished. You are just doing it and enjoying the experience of doing it.
With mindfulness, you bring that same sense of aliveness and attentiveness to everything you do. Your thoughts aren't wandering. You are just there — feeling it, being it, doing it, experiencing it with all of your senses and emotions.
And this pure awareness affords an incredible sense of freedom, contentment, and inner peace. It liberates you to fully live your life.
Easier Said Than Done
It may sound simple to just focus on the moment without judgment, especially when the moment is neutral or positive. But it's harder than it appears, especially when the moment is difficult or painful.
Your mind is like a distracted monkey, swinging from thought to thought, easily pulled this way and that. With the best intentions for staying present in the moment, your mind has other ideas, and before you know it you are hundreds of thoughts down a path of rumination you never intended to follow.
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That's why mindfulness is a practice. Like any habit or skill, it requires time and practice. You have to retrain your mind to follow your rules by redirecting your attention over and over again to the task or experience at hand — and by reminding yourself to stop judging the moment.
What Are The Benefits of Mindfulness?
A daily mindfulness practice has many benefits beyond enhancing your daily experiences and reducing the suffering that comes with rumination and judgment. Mindfulness has been researched extensively and shown to:
- Reduces rumination and overthinking.
- Reduce stress by decreasing the levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
- Improve memory, concentration, and performance.
- Help maintain emotional stability.
- Improve relationship happiness.
- Reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression.
- Improve sleep.
- Protect against mental illness.
- Provide pain relief.
With repetition of mindfulness activities, you will create real changes in brain function and structure, fostering a state of mindfulness that can become an enduring trait.
Just as exercise habits will change your body, mindfulness habits will literally reshape your mind.
There are many ways to exercise your mindfulness muscle and deepen your skills as a practitioner of present moment awareness. Let's go over them.
How to practice mindful breathing meditations.
Noticing your breath is the best way to ground yourself in mindful awareness, and it is the beginning point for most mindfulness meditation practices.
Mindful breathing helps you manage stress, anxiety, anger, and other negative emotions. It also improves your ability to concentrate and stay focused without the distractions of your “monkey mind.”
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Mindful breathing grounds you in the immediacy of your own body, as you simply focus on your inhalations and exhalations.
- To begin a mindful breathing meditation, find a relaxed, comfortable position seated on a chair or cushion. Keep your back upright, and take one or two deep cleansing breaths to get started.
- Direct your attention to your breath. Follow the breath as you inhale and your lungs fill up and as you release the breath and exhale through your nose. Try to breath naturally but with awareness.
- Pay attention to where you feel your breath in your body — your abdomen, your chest or throat, or in your nostrils. Notice all of the sensations of breath, one breath at a time. Notice the fluidity of breathing when one breath ends and the next breath begins.
- You will likely notice your mind starts to wander. Gently usher your mind back to your breathing, as you would usher a toddler back to bed. Try not to judge your mind wandering.
If you need help staying focused on your breathing, count with each exhale up to ten, and then start over from one to ten.
Practice this breathing meditation for five to ten minutes, increasing your time over the next few weeks. As you improve with your focused attention on breathing, you'll be able to apply your skill to other areas of your life.
Practice mindful gratitude daily.
Gratitude is a mindfulness practice that opens you to joy, compassion, and appreciation of the life that sustains you. It focuses your attention — with intention — on what you have in your life right now that is good and positive.
When you practice gratitude, it's much harder for your mind to wander into longing, regret, worry, or despair. And fortunately, research has shown that the more you practice gratitude, the happier and more grateful you will feel.
Buddhist monks start the day with chants of gratitude for their blessings. Native American elders begin their ceremonies with prayers of gratitude to mother earth and father sky, to the four directions, to the animal, plant, and mineral brothers and sisters who share our earth and support our life.
Tibetan monks and nuns even offer prayers of gratitude for their suffering saying, “Grant that I might have enough suffering to awaken in the deepest possible compassion and wisdom.”
An excellent gratitude practice is daily journaling. Just the effort of journaling itself is a mindfulness practice, because you are willfully encouraging your mind to be present with your writing.
It forces your brain to slow down to better organize your thoughts and consider the big picture. It is an uninterrupted connection between thought and language.
- Take time in the morning or evening to journal about the people, events, possessions, experiences, and gifts for which you feel grateful.
- Go into expressive detail, and attempt to really feel the feelings of gratefulness for everything you write about. Contemplate each item for a few minutes after you write about it.
- Consider what your life would be like without these people and things you are grateful for, which will enhance your experience of gratefulness.
- If your mind wanders, or you find yourself just methodically listing items, return your attention to the experience of gratitude.
Practice noticing your thoughts.
Your random thoughts can trigger anxiety, unhappiness, and anger and can keep your mind trapped in a cycle of longing and negativity.
This cycle happens because we are unconscious of our thoughts, and allow the monkey mind to run rampant without challenging it. Rumination becomes a bad habit, almost an addiction, that leads to suffering and undermines the quality of our lives.
When you apply mindfulness to your thoughts, you can change this cycle of suffering. By becoming the silent and dispassionate watcher of your thoughts, you understand how unsubstantial and often misguided your thoughts are, freeing you from the emotional power they have over you.
- Any easy way to begin noticing your thoughts is by using a physical reminder, like wearing a rubber band on your wrist.
- Use the rubber band as a trigger to stop and notice your thoughts. Just pretend to be an outside observer, and look at your thoughts as you would notice clouds passing in the sky. Just notice, don't judge.
- Pay attention to how often you are focused on negativity, longing, or some distraction that pulls you away from the moment.
- Pay attention to how often your thoughts are in control and how your thought patterns impact your emotions and moods.
- Gently redirect your thoughts back to the task at hand or to a more positive, productive mindset.
Practice mindfulness in your daily routine.
The opportunity for mindfulness is in everything you do, in every task and seemingly unimportant activity of your day.
Even the most experienced mindfulness practitioners are faced with the day-to-day tasks of living and must translate the freedom of mindfulness into real life experiences.
When you align your attention and mental focus to whatever you are doing, you are truly living.
You aren’t regretting the past or longing for something in the future. You are here, now, experiencing the beauty and perfection of the moment.
In our hurried and hectic lives, when we race from one thing to another, it can be challenging to slow down enough to savor what you are doing in the moment you are doing it. But the benefits of slowing down allow you to have a more expansive acquaintance with even the most mundane tasks.
- When you make your morning coffee or tea, pay attention to each step. Notice the steam rising from your cup. Smell the aroma of the tea leaves or coffee beans. Savor each sip.
- When you wash the dishes, feel the water running over your hands. Notice the smoothness of the dish. Dry the dish thoroughly and tenderly.
- When you mow the lawn, notice the neat rows of mowed grass, the smell of the freshly cut lawn, and the way your body feels pushing the mower.
Bring attention and presence to whatever you are doing, and you will discover a much more intense appreciation and joy in every element of your day.
Practice mindful presence with loved ones.
How many families in how many households around the world begin their days with little to no interaction with the people they hold most dear?
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They rush to and from work, school, and other activities. When at home, they are distracted by technology and television.
What are we working so hard for anyway, if not to spend quality time with our loved ones? How can we have close and connected relationships if we aren’t fully present for those we love?
Being present with someone means you are fully attentive, engaged, and focused on the other person.
You aren’t looking at your phone, distracted by the television, or thinking about the next thing you need to do.
You are actively listening, responding, and showing with your words, expressions, and demeanor that you are completely in the moment with this person.
Practice mindful awareness of nature.
The tender beauty and simplicity of nature is what makes it so ideally suited to practicing mindfulness.
Unlike our daily lives and the hectic world around us, nature’s allure is often subtle. The light filtering through trees. The call of a bird. The wind rustling through leaves. These things quieten us and call us more deeply into ourselves.
The simple experience of walking outside in your own back yard is a great opportunity to practice mindfulness. Sights, smells and sounds are ever present, yet often go unnoticed.
When you pay attention, you discover a universe of bliss available to you in the intricacies and the grandeur of the natural world.
- Walk outside and look at a tree. Stand a distance away from the tree and focus all of your attention and senses on this tree.
- Sit outside in a quiet spot in nature and just listen. Notice all of the sounds around you, from the wind rustling the leaves to the call of birds.
- Take a blanket or towel outside and lie on your back. Look up at the clouds and just observe them floating by. Notice the shapes of the clouds and what they remind you of.
- Take a walk in the woods and collect items from nature that speak to you (a rock, a leaf, etc.). Pay attention to the smallest elements of the natural world that you feel connected to.
Practice mindful body awareness.
Most mindfulness practices begin with your body by drawing your attention to your breath and the quality of sensation.
In ancient Buddhist teachings of “The Four Foundations of Mindfulness,” the first teaching is “mindfulness of the body,” which involves becoming familiar and even loving with the body. Body mindfulness anchors you in the here and now.
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Your body can reveal so much about your inner world if you pay attention to it. Every tight muscle, aching joint, and anxious breath gives you a clue to the worries and challenges you carry inside of you.
Through body awareness, you have the power to release both the physical and mental distress, as you breath relaxation and healing into each part of your body.
- Scan your body for any aches, pains, or tension. Notice these feelings and how you might be resisting them. What are these aches and pains telling you about any mental distress or behavior changes you need to make?
- Take a few deep breaths and focus attention on your energy level in my body. Do you feel tired, restless, sleepy, or depleted, or are you energized and invigorated?
- Sit quietly, take a few deep and cleansing breaths, and perform a relaxation body scan. Starting at your toes, focus attention on each part of your body, breathing relaxation into each area. Move from your toes upward, relaxing every body part until you reach the top of your head.
There are so many ways to apply mindfulness to your life and practice being present and aware. If you begin with seven activities outlined here, you will have an excellent foundation for deepening your practice and strengthening your skills.
Our hope is that you come to view mindfulness as a way of life — a choice for embracing every moment as though it’s your last.
It won't be possible to be mindful 100% of the time, but you can train yourself to be more mindful, more often. In doing so, you'll enhance your life with more appreciation, compassion, self-awareness, and joy.