What is Mindfulness?
If you’ve been around here for long you’ve already heard of mindfulness. I’ve talked about it more than once, and it’s something I believe can be incredibly important to our lives. At its most basic mindfulness simply means to be fully present in the moment. But since you are here I’m guessing that you have discovered, like most of us, that what sounds simple turns out to not be so easy after all.
Mindfulness as practice
Mindfulness is something that takes continual practice. And those who are most successful at living mindfully don’t add it as an extra activity outside their regular lives, instead they live their regular lives mindfully. However, mindfulness practice of this kind It isn’t easy. We meditate as a spiritual practice because maintaining that sort of awareness all the time is incredibly difficult.
Most of us will manage all of two minutes before our minds have resumed their hamster wheel run. So, which the goal of mindfulness is for it to infuse everything we do it can be incredibly helpful to have specific mindfulness activities we can engage in. When you were learning to spell you specifically practiced spelling. When you were learning math you practiced your addition and subtraction, you learned your times tables (well I did, I suspect that might be out of date now).
If you want to learn a musical instrument you’ll need to learn scales because they are the building blocks of any other kind of playing you’ll do.
Mindfulness activities are like practicing scales, or your times tables. Or, if you prefer, they’re like training wheels on your bicycle. They aren’t the end goal, but they are an incredibly useful tool for getting there.
15 Mindfulness Activities
We spend a great part of our lives on auto pilot. Days blur into one another, then weeks, months, and suddenly we’re twenty years down the road and wondering how we got here. Your first mindfulness activity is to pay attention. Don’t worry, you don’t have to do this all the time, but each day collect (mentally, or in your journal or notepad) a list of at least five things you might have otherwise not noticed. It could be a particularly spicy taco, a moment when the sun lit up the hillside, an incredible hug, or the feel of clean sheets. The point isn’t how large or small events were, even if they were good or bad. The point is to notice them, to spend even a moment fully aware.
When was the last time you listened to something and did nothing else? For most of us the answer is probably: I can’t remember. Music is usually the background soundtrack to our lives. Unless you are going to a very formal music performance it’s likely that listening doesn’t take up much of your concentration at all. So change that.
Put on some music (or a podcast, or audiobook) get comfortable and just listen. Put down your phone, turn off the computer. Close your eyes and let your ears do all the work. Be present with the music. I love old fashioned records (LPs) for this because they have a definitive start and end. But you can do it with any music. Do your best (without judgement) to just listen. Don’t think about how much you like this song, or don’t like that one. Let go of wondering what the heck the artist was thinking, or wondering who is playing guitar on this piece. Just listen. You may find it harder than you expected.
When I lead retreats (I have a guide you can use to create your own mindfulness retreat!) I try to include an activity where I ask everyone to go outside and find something to show everyone else. Usually this begins poorly with confused adults wandering around grumbling about mad retreat leaders. But then someone will notice the gorgeous color of a fallen leaf, or a oyster shell 10 miles inland, or how friggin’ perfect this pinecone is and suddenly they are a bunch of kids running up to each other saying “look what I found!”
When we are little we observe automatically. We can spend long, long minutes watching ants march along a log, or turning a polished pebble over and over in our hands to see the light flash in its mica chips. Children who are just discovering the world are wonderful observers. Adults less so. We move on to “more important” things and tend to totally miss the details around us.
Find something, anything really, and really pay attention to it. Pick up a rock out of your garden and examine it’s color, feel it’s texture, taste it if you are really brave. Or spend half an hour watching the birds on a bird feeder, the ripples on a pond, or anything else that strikes your fancy. If you find yourself wanting to show someone else the wonder you’ve found? You are doing it right.
You have a body. This might come as a surprise to many of us, but it’s true and it is good news. Your body is amazing. And if, like me, you live in your head 90% of the time, it misses you. For this mindfulness activity get comfortable, you can lay flat on the floor or a bed (think savasana in yoga), or sit in a chair or on a meditation cushion. You can even do this walking if you like, though I do not recommend that to start.
Relax and feel your body. Spend just a few moments being aware of your body in general. Maybe listen to your breath and notice how deeply (or shallowly) you are breathing. Maybe you will hear your stomach rumbling or gurgling. Maybe there is an itch on your nose.
Now start with your toes, and moving to your heard, spend as long as you like paying specific attention to each and every part of your body. Don’t rush. Notice your toes, wiggle them if you like. Rotate your ankles and feel the joints crunching (maybe that’s just me), tense the muscles in your calves and relax them. Work your way slowly through your whole body, being aware of each part. Do not judge any parts. Some parts of your body might feel odd, itchy, achy, or numb. Some parts you might not have noticed in ages.
Simply be in your body, notice it, and do not judge any of it.
Do one thing at a time
You just thought “pft, that’s easy.” But it isn’t. It has likely been years since you actually did one thing, and only one thing. You and your spouse probably talked about work while you washed the dishes. You keep flipping from this page to your Facebook page to refresh the page. How many times in the last week has your phone mysteriously ended up in your hand and unlocked?
One Thing At A Time: Reduce interruptions
There are lots of options here but here’s my suggestion. First: turn off all notifications on your phone. All of them. You don’t need to know when email arrives (you used to wait days fo a reply to a letter, email can wait a few hours), you don’t need to know when someone likes your tweet, or shares your Facebook post. And you definitely don’t need some game nagging you to log back in. Turn them all off. Here’s why: we’ve been conditioned from a very young age for interruptions. The phone rings and everyone in the house jumps to answer it, there’s a knock on the door and we get up from the dinner table.
While some interruptions are necessary (if the fire alarm goes off you should stop reading and deal with the possible fire), most of the interruptions in our daily lives are not. They fragment our attention, and train our brains to the quick flip, making it harder and harder for us to actually stay on one thing at a time.
My phone shows zero notifications for applications. It will notify me of text messages or the phone ringing, but only when I don’t have it on silent (it spends probably 80% of the time on silent.) I listen to a lot of voicemail folks (once a day) and call people back if necessary (90% of the time it isn’t necessary.) I respond more slowly to texts than some, but that’s OK, ten years ago I didn’t’ even have the ability to text and we all survived just fine. Eliminate other things that frequently interrupt you, as much as you can.
One Thing At A Time: Pay Attention
Once you’ve eliminated as many interruptions as possible make an effort not to task switch. There are lots of methods for this, an example would be the Pomodoro Technique. You could also just make a list of the things you need to do today and do each of them (one at a time) from start to finish before moving on to something else.
We’ve all been there. I’m washing down the kitchen counters and run into the pen I used to write a check two days ago. I grab it and head down to my office to put it away, in the process the rag gets left on my desk and I get distracted by all the coffee mugs there, and now I’m carting them to the dish washer, which is nearly full so off I go on a mission around the house… You get the idea. Six hours later we go to cook dinner and the kitchen counter is still dirty.
Make it a point to finish what you are doing, notice those distracting things (maybe even add them to your list so they don’t hang around in your head distracting you) and then go back to what you were doing in the first place.
You may be able to guess how this one works. Practice being present in a conversation. First rule of mindful conversation is to put down your phone. Silence it, stick it in your bag, or in another room. Phones aren’t our only distractions but they are a big one, and the less accessible your phone is the easier this will be.
Now, be present. That means more than just being there, it means being mentally present and there are a few components to that. To have a mindful conversation you have to really listen to the other person. That means no planning what you will say while your conversation partner is talking. This will likely trip you up more than anything else. Really listen. Then think about what you would say in response, that might mean there is silence, that’s OK. (If this feels super weird tell the other person or people what you are doing, get them in on it.)
Silence slows down a conversation, it gives everyone time to think and process. And frequently you’ll find that you can actually respond to what they said, not what you thought they were going to say (what we are generally responding to when we spend the other person’s talk time formulating our comeback.)
Let go of the need to get the last word.
Let go of the need to “win” an argument.
If you want to go the extra mile try this experiment (you can warn your conversation partner first): mirror what you heard back to them. “So when I hear you say is…” You may be surprised what a gap there is between what a person is trying to convey, what they actually say and what you hear. This is an important lesson for all human communication!
If you are looking for simple mindfulness exercises that return you immediately to the present moment, the pause is one of the best you can try. Mindfulness training, as I’ve said, is really about how we live our entire lives, not just individual activities. And the pause helps start us down that road.
And this exercise is dead simple. Whenever you remember to do so, pause for a moment to be aware of what is happening. This includes noticing what is happening around you (coworkers rushing about, the tapping of keyboards, a cloud passing across the sun) and within you (anxiety, worry, distraction, contentment). Simple as that. Notice, and continue on with your day. In the beginning the remembering will be an issue. You can give yourself some help by tacking up a note in a place where you will see it from time to time (inside the cupboard where you keep your cups, on the bathroom mirror, or on your phone at work). The note can simply say “PAUSE.” When you see it, do it.
You could also set alarms on your phone to go off throughout the day. If you do, choose an alarm tone that you won’t dread hearing. The more you practice the more you will find yourself pausing automatically and being more aware in general.
Brother Lawrence (a monk and mystic) was famous for talking about how any work we do can be done mindfully. He use the language of God, washing dishes for God (for example). But you do not have to believe in the Divine to realize that our whole human life can be valuable. While work is often a necessary evil in our modern capitalist society (without work we don’t have money and without money we cannot survive) work can be done for a higher purpose.
Rather than being a distraction from your spiritual life your work can be part of it. Work mindfully. And by that I mean be present to your work. This could look like many things: finishing weeding one row of corn before moving on to the next; putting your phone on DND for 30 minutes every morning and afternoon to deal with all your email at once and carefully; or cooking with your attention fully engaged with your task.
Anything, truly, can be meditation if we use it to focus our attention and train our mind. Mindful work does not have to look spiritual at all to help us focus and grow more aware of the present moment. That doesn’t mean we will enjoy our work anymore. It probably won’t transform your boss from an ass into a great person but it can help us change how we respond and internalize these things.
Practicing mindfulness is a life long task, and training your thoughts to stillness and focus is one of its benefits. Your work can be part of that training ground, and you may find your work also improves as well. When I am mindfully present in what I am doing (whether writing, cooking, or cleaning a horse stall) I do a better job.
Mindful Dog Walking: Walk the dog, like a dog
I cannot tell you how many people I see out walking the dog while staring at their phone. Often the poor dog trails behind, tugged at every time she tries to stop and sniff something, utterly ignored by their human. Dogs live entirely in the present moment. A dog is mindfulness on four legs because they can’t help it. Every tree they smell is new and exciting (even if they’ve sniffed it every day for three years), every turn in the road is an exciting new possibility.
What if you walked your dog and really paid attention like your dog does? What if you were looking for what had fallen out fo the trees (Yay! Pinecones! Hey a limb, must have been windy! Acorns!) Take your dog for a walk, but either turn your phone off, or silence it and stick it into a pocket that isn’t easily accessible. Now walk. Stop when your dog wants to sniff and see what interesting things you can see, hear, or smell around you. Pay attention to the color of the leaves, the feel of the air, the scent of BBQ coming from someone’s backyard.
Even if you don’t have a dog you can go for a walk like one. Try this exercise, put your phone in camera mode and set out walking. Make it your goal to find something cool to take a picture of in every block or between every set of light poles (you choose a unit of measure). The key is: pay attention to what is around you, and get excited about it.
Mindful relaxation: Spend an hour with a cat
My cat has zero fucks to give. She does not feel embarrassed about the time she ran smack into the dog while pretending to be a tiger. She does not worry about where she’ll find to nap next. She has complete confidence that her humans will not get up off the couch until she is ready to, that her food bowl will refill itself like magic, and that there will always be somewhere warm to sleep and fingers to scratch her ears.
She rests contentedly in the moment (even if that moment involves her chasing the dog through the house.) There is very little as good for reminding you to slow down and be still as a cat. Let the list of things you should be doing go. Cats do not care about to-do lists. Let go the things you didn’t get done today: a cat sleeps most of the day and never feels guilty.
Spend an hour resting, eating, enjoying a sunbeam or whatever else it is you can relax into (a bath is a great idea think of how long cats spend bathing themselves). Be present, it’s just an hour. All the lists and the “should”s will be there when you are done. (Though maybe if you are lucky they’ll seem a little less urgent.)
This is another great mindfulness activity for any time and any where. For a period of time, notice your breath. The breath is the ground for nearly all meditation techniques. There’s a reason for that, it is regular as metronome (it better be, or you die). No matter what else is going on with your body your lungs fill and empty thousands of times a day. Your heartbeat may be hard to feel at times but your breath is right there waiting for you to sink into it.
Close your eyes. Focus your consciousness on your breathing. Feel how your ribs expand and contract, pay attention to your diaphragm (the large muscle below your breastbone that make breathing possible!). Notice where you feel tension, stretching or pull. Listen to the sound your breath makes through your nose or your mouth.
Deepen your breath and notice what changes. Or try a breathing exercise like this one: perform a slow steady count for a full inhalation. Let’s say you counted to 4. Now close your eyes and inhale while you count slowly to 5 or 6 (so slightly deeper than your normal breathing). Pause, hold your breath without straining for a count of three (the goal is not to strain or feel deprived but to create an intentional pause). Now breath out slowly and fully for the same count you breathed in. Again pause before your next breath. Continue for a few full breath cycles.
These sorts of mindful breathing techniques can be useful when anxious or nervous. Taking deep intentional breathes can get more oxygen into your system, clear out the waste gases and automatically prevents you from holding your breath (something many of us do when nervous.)
Mindful Exercise (Slow Yoga)
Yoga is a great spiritual practice for me but mindful exercise of anytime is your assignment for this activity. (Tai Chi is another great choice.) You may be able to guess the drill by now if you’ve read all the previous activities. The key here is to pay attention to your body in the midst of exercise. I suggest slow yoga because the sort of fast paced classes many studios provide might work up quite a sweat but they don’t lend themselves to mindful movement.
Yin yoga classes (a slow restorative form of yoga that involves using props to keep the body in a pose without strain for long periods of time) is a great option. However you choose to practice move intentionally. Turn off music and other distractions (no TV watching) and pay attention to your body.
Feel the pull and stretch of muscles as they move your bones into a new position. Pay attention to places where heat begins to build as your muscles strain to maintain a posture or movement. Feel how your joints move, how your tendons stretch. Feel sweat on your skin, or you hair tickling your shoulder. Play with different movements and positions, trying them on and feeling how your body handles each. You may find that such focused attention make your exercise feel more difficult, or less.
Remember not to judge, or to compare yourself to anyone else. Mindfulness is about being present as things are.
You knew this one was coming, right? No list of mindfulness activities would be complete without mentioning meditation. In many ways all the activities listed here are mindfulness meditation. As I’ve said before (in a post on meditation for Christians) mindfulness meditation is incredibly simple and there are a number of ways to do it.
I suggest that you include some form of following your breath (see the activity above) as this helps greatly in helping to still your thoughts and draw your attention to the present moment. (Nearly all meditation involves the breath somehow). The key to meditating mindfully is to continue returning to the present moment without judgement. This will mean sitting there while your brain rattles on about the groceries, or your big test next week. Don’t get frustrated with yourself, or if you do, notice your frustrating and let it go too.
Come back (as many times as necessary) to sitting quietly fully present with yourself. Over time meditation will help to quiet your inner monologue, and sitting with yourself will become easier (usually, there are always exceptions.) But don’t rush things, “over time” can mean years. There is no shortcut to mindfulness.
This is perhaps one of my favorite mindfulness activities because doing it is so rewarding.
Eating mindfully means to be fully present with the act of eating and that is radical. Too often we shovel food in our mouths while we do a thousand other things, as if eating weren’t as essential as breathing. And if we are paying attention to what we eat, we’re judging it. Mindfulness doesn’t do judgement. You cannot be judgement what you eat and still be mindful.
So just eat. Put down your phone, pull over into a parking lot. Take a breath. This is one of the most important things you do in the entire day. Take at least ten uninterrupted minutes for it! Now, take a bite. Chew it. Taste the food. Swallow. Take another bite. Savor the flavors. I adore french fries, so just eat the fries! Enjoy the crunchy outside, and the soft hot center. Revel in the salt, lick it right off your fingers.
Your body needs to eat. It doesn’t have to be a chore, you are allowed to enjoy your food. Savor it. Tell the voice in your head to shut the fuck up and enjoy your meal.
This one might seem odd at first, but it can be quite helpful when you are stuck on something. Get out your journal (nothing fancy, anything you can write on, or use your note app on your computer if that’s better for you) and write. You might have encountered an activity like this in the past called “stream of consciousness journaling” or similar and they are very much the same.
The whole idea is to write whatever comes into your head as it comes into your head. When you are meditating you let such thoughts come and go as they please, but if you find that the same thoughts come up over and over again journaling them can be helpful. Write them out as they appear and you may find that this leads you down an unexpected road. Just keep writing, let the words string themselves together even if they don’t really seem to be going anywhere or if the whole thing seems to make very little sense.
Mindful journaling works well for me when I have something I need to get out of my head before it will leave me alone. Either an idea, or a list of things I need to do, or something that’s been bothering me subconsciously for a while. Remember to let go of judgement about what you write. What matters is being aware of what your mind is working on.
If what you write doesn’t seem important you can simply move on, but if you find yourself dredging up more complicated issues you’ll have something concrete to take to a therapist, spiritual director, or other trusted advisor to work through.