With so many approaches to mindfulness, it can be difficult to know where to start. Explore these methods to find what suits you.
Start the day mindfully
Before you fall asleep at night, set the intention to be aware of your experience as soon as you open your eyes in the morning, before you even leave the coziness of your bed. You might feel the bedclothes in contact with your skin, or notice smells or sounds. Check how your body feels (is it refreshed or tired?) and what’s going on in your mind (do you feel alert or leaden?)
You might notice your mind catapulting itself straight into thinking about and planning the day ahead. Experiment with pausing and tuning into the rise and fall of your chest or belly as you breathe. Simply feel the direct sensations of your body: the expanding and contracting, the movement of the air. You might discover something new about your breath, body or mind as you do this. You might find your day unfolds differently if you start off your day in this way – treat it like an experiment, and see what you find out.
Pay attention to daily tasks
You can be curious about all the things you do during the day, paying attention with gentle interest. You can feel the softness of your clothing against your skin as you get dressed, or the froth of toothpaste as you brush your teeth. You can pause to take in how your breakfast looks and savor the aroma before you eat it. As you eat, experiment with really smelling, tasting, and savoring your food. You can get a sense of your bodily sensations, thoughts, and moods as they change throughout the day.
Learn more: Mindfulness Meditation: Does it Work?
Use cues as reminders
Often, the hardest part of being mindful is remembering to experience things with fresh eyes. It can be helpful to renew your intention often, perhaps ‘piggybacking’ your reminders on to ordinary activities, for example, every time a notification arrives on your phone, or every time you wash your hands. Or you can simply pause occasionally during the day. With careful intention, notice the sun on your skin, feel the way your shoulders have tensed up, or savor the taste of your coffee – these can all be moments of mindfulness.
Be prepared for some difficulty
Sometimes, you might not like what you observe. This is not a mistake but the reality of our lives. Mindfulness doesn’t increase challenging thoughts, moods, or physical pain, but you might notice some distress as you become more attentive to your experience. If this happens, it’s helpful to bring a little lightness and humor when you try again. If it is overwhelming, you can always choose to move away or to stop the practice, perhaps returning when you feel more resilient. In time, you can come to understand these experiences are quite normal and nothing to be afraid of. You can start intentionally choosing what you do and don’t attend to.
These informal practices give you the chance to practice paying attention in a particular way without the extra burden of ‘finding time to be mindful’. Mindfulness is not onerous or mystical. Going for a walk, being with friends or family, eating a meal or showering can all become mindfulness practices if you remember to do it, which in this case stands for:
- Direct your intention to pay attention;
- Observe your experience;
- Investigate your responses and reactions; and
- Try again (repeat often).
Formal Sitting Practice,
Formal practices require a commitment to set aside some time to develop mindfulness through meditation. Meditation helps you to stabilize your attention, find a different model to operate in and respond skillfully to your experience. You can meditate in silence or follow an audio guide.
We find that practicing for 10 minutes can be a useful place to start, but this period can be as short as one minute or as long as several hours. Ultimately, the best length of time for practice will be the one that you can actually do.
Bring your attention to your experience
Set a timer for 10 minutes (or whatever works for you). It might be helpful to shift into a more alert, upright position; or you might choose to shift to a more alert mental gear. Close your eyes or lower your gaze, if that helps you concentrate. Approach the next few moments with even-handed kindness, and sense what’s there. What can you experience through touch, hearing, sight, smell, and taste? Take a few minutes to recognize the physical sensations in the body, and how they shift and change. There might be hardness or softness, coolness or warmth, nothing at all – or something completely different.
Don’t fight your thoughts
You might find your mind is distracted or racing with thoughts about the past or the future; they might be regrets, worries, or dreams. If this happens, try to simply observe thoughts as thoughts, without adding anything extra to them. Despite common misconceptions, there is no need to resist distractions. Rather, try to rest your attention on your moment-to-moment experience, letting thoughts come and go without chasing after them or pushing them away.
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Observe what else is happening
You might notice that thoughts are only part of your experience. Maybe you’re also aware of your mood – it might be anxious, sad, happy, or something else. Observe those feelings, then move attention back to the whole body and become aware of any physical sensations. Perhaps you can feel tense shoulders, a tight jaw, or a smile playing on the lips? These sensations are also part of your immediate experience. Take a few minutes to really explore them.
Become aware of your breath
Let go of all these bodily sensations, moods, and thoughts, and become aware of the natural movement of the breath in the body. Notice the flow of air at the tip of your nose or throat or the rise and fall of your chest or belly. Pay attention to the breath in this way for three to five minutes. If observing your breath exacerbates your anxiety or low mood, you could try focusing on sensations in your feet or hands.
Try to meditate regularly if you can – as often as feels right for you – as the benefits increase with regular practice.
Try different meditations
There are many formal mindfulness practices that you can explore – some of which we suggest in the Links and books section below. They each have their own unique purpose (for example, training attentional focus on the body, or self-compassion and kindness). You might find it helpful to experiment with different practices to discern which is right for you at any given moment.