How to practice mindfulness

tree-topYou can practice mindfulness at any time no matter where you are; the aim is to meet yourself where you are already at. Formal training or any prior experience is not necessary – you just need an open mind and desire to be in greater relationship to yourself and everything around you. When you find the time to slow down and quiet your mind, you have greater ability to connect with your heart, get out of the busyness in your head and greet yourself with kindness and acceptance. The key in maintaining a successful mindfulness practice is remembering to practice.

There are both formal and informal ways to practice mindfulness. A formal practice is rooted in a traditional sitting or walking meditation (see guidelines below). Informal practices include bringing awareness to all your daily activities and creating shifts in your habitual ways of thinking. While a formal meditation deepens your practice, it is not necessary for you to live a mindful life. You can be an awake and active participant is your own life as soon as you start paying attention, on purpose, to your moment-to-moment experiences.

Formal practice

A formal practice consists of either a sitting or walking meditation. When doing a sitting meditation, set time aside to sit – could be on a cushion, pillow or the floor – just to be with yourself, focus on your breathing and greet yourself with compassion. This provides opportunity to be in greater relationship to yourself, without judgment, and practice extending lovingkindness to yourself and others. Sitting provides an opportunity to experience calm as well as a chance to be aware of your present moment experience, without needing to do anything about it…simply notice. Another formal practice is walking meditation. A walking meditation is walking consciously, bringing awareness to your body, noticing your feet touching the ground, your arms moving in concert and resting your mind’s attention on your movements.

Sitting meditation

A sitting meditation can last for various lengths of time depending on how much time you make available, along with how experienced you are in sitting. In the beginning of your practice, you may find that you only sit for 5 or 10 minutes before feeling like you are getting too restless or getting distracted by too many thoughts. That is perfectly okay and normal. The more often you practice, your sits will naturally become longer and time will pass much quicker. The goal is to make time each day to quiet the mind, connect with your body and give space for whatever is going to arise, to arise. When you sit, simply allow; don’t judge, don’t question, don’t ruminate, don’t give in, don’t hold on, don’t attach. Just keep focus on your breath, watch your thoughts, emotions or experiences arise, honor them, and then let them go. And keep breathing. Whenever you find yourself getting stuck ruminating on a particular thought or emotion, notice it, give it space, breathe out and let it go. There is no need to hold onto what is not serving you. This is preparation for how to use this practice off the cushion.

Often, it can be challenging starting a sitting practice because some people have misconceptions, preconceptions, judgments and assumptions associated with meditating. Try to let all of those go and be open to the experience, not having an attachment to any particular outcome or expectation. It is normal to think, get restless, and have a wandering mind. (One of my favorite New Yorker cartoon is of two monks, sitting meditating and one is saying to the other, “Are you not thinking what I’m not thinking?”) We have the beautiful gift of being a thinking being, and we are never going to be without thoughts; you just need to allow them to come in and then let them go. Making time to sit can be a challenge to our busyness; there will always be to-do list items calling your name. The irony is that when you make time to sit, your focus improves actually making you more productive and present with your on-going list of to-dos. Also, meditation does not preclude any religious association. It is simply breathing with awareness, paying attention on purpose to your present moment experience, exercising compassion and lovingkindness, and focusing on the art of letting go.

Practice a sitting meditation – follow these steps:

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Find yourself a quiet place, free from distractions, and sit in a comfortable, wakeful, cross-legged position, with your hands resting on your knees. Allow yourself to settle by relaxing your shoulders, releasing any tension in your jaw and loosening your hands. Bring awareness to your breath, noticing where in your body you are feeling it – it may be in your abdomen, your shoulders rising up and down, your chest going in and out or the air passing from your nostrils. Wherever it is, try holding it in your mind’s attention, as you silently say the words “breathing in, breathing out.” Begin bringing awareness to your thoughts and allow yourself to simply notice them, honor and acknowledge them, and then let them go; there is no need to jump on board with each and every thought. Your thoughts are not your reality. Remember to keep breathing. Finish your meditation by focusing on something that you are grateful for, allowing the feeling of gratitude to sink into your being. Honor the time you have taken to strengthen your practice, quiet your mind and deepen your mind/body connection. Take this sense of peace, calm and joy with you throughout your day, with the knowledge that you can come back to your breath whenever you need to.

Walking meditation

A walking meditation is useful as an alternative to, or in conjunction with, a sitting meditation. If you find that you get restless sitting or notice yourself getting too caught up with your thoughts, a walking meditation may be a good practice for you. While it can be easy to get distracted when sitting, walking can allow for greater awareness of your body, giving your brain something to focus on and thus making it easier to be in relationship to your present moment experience. Also, being outside is a great tool for heightening your awareness of your senses, such as what you see, what you hear and what the air feels like on your skin. It does not matter what you are paying attention to, it is in the attending itself. Generally walking meditation is done very slowly, in a small area, as you pay great detail to the motion of your feet touching the ground, heel to toe. You could even do mindful walking when you are out running errands, walking from your car into the store or while you are on a lunch break. Walking with awareness draws you back into the here and now, allows you to connect with your heart and mind as well while giving your mind something tangible to pay attention to.

Practice a walking meditation – follow these steps:

WalkingGo outdoors and find an area in which you can walk about 10-15 paces. With your hands crossed low in front of you and your eyes gazed downward, walk slowly and with intention. The direction is to feel as if your feet are kissing the ground, heighten the awareness of your body and allow your movements to become the object of your attention as you continue breathe in and out. Keep the pace slow, and after walking about 10-15 paces forward, turn around and walk back. Allow your mind to focus on your movements, rather than getting caught up with your thoughts. Let go of all that you are holding onto, continue to breathe in and out, and come back into the present moment. Walk for 5-30 minutes.

Informal practice

An informal practice is bringing mindful awareness to all your daily activities. It is cultivating your way of being in the world in which you are focused on your present moment experience and are paying attention, on purpose, to what is going on inside of you and around you. Informal practices heighten your level and quality of attention and presence you are bringing to your life. You don’t have to change or alter what you do; simply do it with mindful awareness and see it as “this, just this.

Examples of informal practices are:

  • Eating
    You already eat, so might as well do it with awareness! Eating provides an opportunity to be mindful with all your senses and strengthen the relationship to your body. If you are truly paying attention, you will only eat when you’re hungry and you’ll stop when you’re full. Check in with yourself to see what your body is craving and then after taking the first bite, check in again to see if your craving is being fulfilled. (If not, then try another food…don’t just mindlessly eat because it is in front of you.) Then using your 5 senses, connect with the food in front of you: notice the colors, textures, smells, any sounds it makes (yes, some foods make sounds), and finally think about where the food came from and what benefit (or maybe detriment) it is doing for your body. Acknowledge any associations you are having in thinking about this food – do you have any memories, aversions, cravings, or attachments arising? Finally, with a moment of mindful intention, put the food slowly into your mouth and be aware of the sensations you are experiencing as you slowly begin to chew and swallow. Continue to eat with this level of attention and note if your experience was altered by your awareness. It is surprising how satiated just one bite can make you feel when you appreciate and are mindful of your food.
  • Parenting
    Parenting is a wonderful opportunity to practice mindfulness on a daily basis. Each moment parents are presented with a new challenge requiring presence, awareness and attention. Mindfulness provides tools to help parents find their place of calm, allow space for the joy amidst the chaos and the ability to respond and not react to whatever is arising in the moment. The goal of mindful parenting is to be fully be present with your child. Look them in the eyes, listen with an open heart and speak with intention. Practice being non-judgmental and parent consciously with the understanding that your child is their own sovereign being. Strive to parent to who your child actually is, rather than who you think they are, who you want them to be or who you think they should be. The practice is to provide unconditional love with the intention of raising your child to be their authentic self. Don’t forget to take a minute and just breathe…it will help get through the most challenging moments and heighten the most wonderful ones. To receive a copy of Joree’s Take a Mindful Minute – a booklet guiding mindfulness practice between parents and kids, click here.
  • Work/Homework
    Our society has us convinced that in order to be productive you need to multitask. We always have so much to do that it feels as if we can never get everything done, so often the solution is to do many things at once. The problem is, when multitasking we are never fully present in any one thing; we truly can’t give full attention to multiple things at once. If you look at that huge stack of work, emails, or homework in front of you, chances are you will feel overwhelmed by it all, often stopping you before you even start. In that moment, rather than getting swept away with being overwhelmed, take a deep breath, bring your mind’s attention to the present and focus only on what is in front of you. You can only respond to one email at a time; when that’s done, then do one more. You can only do one math problem at a time; when it’s done, go on to the next one. Seeing your to-do list as individual items makes them more attainable, rather than feeling like you have to get everything done at once. Mindfulness keeps you present with the task at hand.
  • Communication with Others
    When you communicate with others, you can practice mindfulness by asking yourself the following questions: How present am I in this conversation? Am I listening but not really hearing? Am I bringing judgments or expectations or am I being open-minded? Am I wishing I was somewhere else? Am I expressing gratitude or compassion? Mindfulness helps us get out of our heads and into our bodies, so paying attention to sensations and visceral reactions can provide useful information as to how you are really feeling. For example, if you are experiencing anxiety, dread, frustration or increased heart rate, you might consider what is occurring on a deeper level in the relationship with the person with whom you are communicating. Another thing to consider in your communication is your speech – are you actually speaking your truth? Are there things you want to say but are holding in? Are you contributing to the conversation in a way that strengthens the connection? You can also bring awareness to how you are feeling about this person and the ways in which they are responding to you. Are you feeling validated, heard and understood? Mindful communication is a beautiful opportunity to strengthen your relationships, deepen your connections and practice being your authentic self.
  • Driving
    When in your car, simply be in your car, breathe and be present for the drive. So often, we go from point A to point B and don’t remember how we got there; which actually is a phenomenon that parallels life – sometimes we wake up and ask ourselves “how did I get here?” Mindfulness provides the tools to actually be an active participant in your life. Remember to breathe, notice your surroundings, and practice self-compassion that you are doing the best you can. Stressing out about the traffic isn’t going to make it go away, you’ll only arrive at your destination full of tension. Know that you are exactly where you are supposed to be, and your time in the car doesn’t have to be judged negatively; it is simply a way to get from here to there. And shift your perspective to view your time in the car as a gift of time – turn off the music, put down the phone, quiet the mind, connect with your body, have compassion for all that you’re accomplishing in your day, appreciate the surrounding beauty and continue to breathe. If that is the only time in your day you get to practice mindfulness, that can be enough…or at least it’s a great start.
  • Chores
    (i.e. doing the dishes, folding the laundry, cleaning, etc…). When doing the dishes, simply just do the dishes. When folding the laundry, simply fold the laundry. When cleaning the bathroom, just clean the bathroom. The more you negatively focus on what you have to do, the worse it becomes and the more difficult the task is to complete. The practice is to allow yourself to be fully present in the moment, notice any resistance or aversion arising, but choose to not give in to it, and – just let it go, breathe and get the task done. There is no need to get overly caught up in the process. When you approach your chores as “this, just this,” you attach less negative meaning to them, which helps to quiet the mind, slow the internal chatter and just get them done. Practicing gratitude for having chores, such as a dirty dish to clean or laundry to do is another way to bring mindfulness into your daily routine.
  • Responding to Stressful Situations
    Taking a mindful minute provides clarity, peace of mind and allow space to respond and not react to whatever is arising in the moment. Often, we react in unskillful, habitual or mindless patterns that don’t serve us, or the situation, very well. However, when we can remember to take a minute and just breathe, we are able to slow down, connect with ourselves, and decide with skill and intention how to proceed forward.
  • Intimacy
    When practicing mindfulness, we strive to get out of our heads and into our bodies. Intimacy can be often clouded by thoughts, judgments, expectations, previous hurts and trust issues that can sometimes make it difficult to connect with others. When practicing mindfulness, the practice is to become aware of those thoughts arising and instead of giving in to them, simply see them as a thought pattern and then let them go. Once you are able to see your thoughts as just thoughts and not your reality, the less control they have over you and the greater ability you have in being present with what is. Intimacy can also be heightened through being present with your sense of touch. When you touch with intention, compassion, love, presence and attention it strengthens your connection with others. Allowing yourself to focus on the sensation, rather than any negative thoughts or associations that may arise, creates more authentic and meaningful relationships.
  • Sleeping
    Many people have difficulty falling asleep because of the incessant thoughts that never seem to end, which can often lead to insomnia. Fears, anxieties, worries, and to-do lists float through our mind, keeping us forever trapped in our head. However, focusing on your breath gives your mind a positive task, grounding yourself in the present moment and help those thoughts not take over. When having trouble sleeping, say silently in your mind, “breathing in, breathing out” or simply tell your thoughts “not now.” With practice it will become easier to fall asleep and stay asleep. Additionally, if you cultivate a formal practice and give yourself time during the day to be still and quiet the mind, you will find that those thoughts don’t bother you as easily at night.