Am I mindful all of the time? Not even close! There are times I am sucked into my work, or zoned out in a boring meeting, or lost in the intensity of an emotional exchange with someone else. Yet my mindfulness practice helps me reset myself, reducing my overall level of distress, so that I’m not overwhelmed by the situation. I am continually amazed at how a few minutes of intentional practice throughout the day can transform a highly stressful day into a day that had some interesting experiences in it.
We can start learning the practice of mindfulness by intentionally setting aside time to be mindful. It can be useful to be mindful of pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral experiences.
Mindfulness of pleasant experiences increases our sense of wonder and joy. It’s a practice in savoring. Research indicates that those who practice mindfulness report higher levels of happiness. And this doesn’t have to be a big thing. For myself, that first sip of coffee in the morning is sacred. I take one minute to be mindful. Just one minute. As I hold the cup in both hands, I notice the warmth in my palms, my fingers. I notice the bright red cup, with the brown coffee within. I notice the aroma of the coffee, laced with cream. I notice the steam on my face as I slowly inhale. I notice the half smile on my face, the feeling of anticipation as I begin that first sip. I feel the warmth in my mouth, the taste on my tongue, noting the layers of bitter and sweet. I notice my breath, the rise and fall of my belly, the expanding and contracting of my ribcage. I notice the muscles in my throat as I swallow that first sip of coffee. I notice a sigh of satisfaction, the emotional experience of contentment. And then I allow myself to get on with my morning routine.
Mindfulness of unpleasant experiences increase our capacity to effectively manage distress. Many times in life, we can’t make the distress or pain go away. Sometimes life hurts and we can’t change it. We feel helpless, trapped. We can’t change the situation, but we can change our response to the situation.
When I first started practicing mindfulness I had the assignment of mindful awareness of an unpleasant event. My son was only a couple months old and had the traditional colic symptoms of inconsolable wailing for hours every evening. No matter what I did, how I tried to soothe him, nothing worked. I felt so tired, overwhelmed, frustrated, helpless, thoughts of being a failure as a parent. Every evening I was beyond exhausted, dropping into bed in a daze once he calmed down for the night. And so one evening I decided to mindfully notice this experience. I noticed him screaming and squirming in my arms, watching his face, listening to his voice, feeling his muscles contract and release. I noticed the increase of sadness I felt, watching it build and then ebb back down, not trying to make it go away or change it, just letting myself feel sad.
As I walked back and forth through the hallway, gently bouncing him along the way, I noticed this overwhelming compassion rising up. Compassion for my son and his pain and frustration. Compassion for myself and my pain and frustration. That night as he settled down at his usual time, I noticed I didn’t feel the usual exhaustion. Instead I felt peaceful. My son had still cried for 3 hours straight. Practicing mindfulness hadn’t changed that at all. But I was different. My experience was so drastically different than previous evenings. I felt connected to my son, not helpless and alone.
What a difference it makes, when we stop trying to force life to be a certain way, but rather sink into it, letting things unfold around us, bringing that mindful awareness into our experiences.
Daily Mindfulness Suggestions
When practicing mindfulness of an experience, see if you can incorporate all five senses. You can focus on mindfulness of an external activity, or your internal response to the activity, or both.
Here are a few suggestions to start a mindful practice. But find an experience that resonates for you, one that you will actually do on a regular basis.
Take a moment to sip a beverage. Notice the color, smell, taste, feel, scent. What physical reactions do you notice as you drink?
Spend a few minutes noticing your physical sensations, emotions, thoughts, without labeling them as “good” or “bad,” trying to change them, or make them go away. Simply notice your experience as it is.
When you first wake up in the morning, or as you are laying down at night, bring your attention to your breathing. Observe a few mindful breaths.
Pay attention while washing your hands or putting on hand lotion. Notice the sound, color, temperature, feel of the water or lotion, of one hand on the other.
Whenever you hear a phone ring, a bird sing, a train pass, laughter, a car horn, the wind, a dog barking, the sound of a door closing—use any sound as the bell of mindfulness. Really listen and be present and awake.
Pay attention as you eat, consciously consuming this food for your physical health. Bring awareness to seeing your food, smelling, tasting, chewing, swallowing your food. Pay attention to being hungry and being satisfied.
Notice your body while you walk or stand. Take a moment to notice your posture. Pay attention to the contact of the ground under your feet. Feel the air on your face, arms, and legs as you walk. Notice your surroundings, the colors, sounds, smells, textures.
Bring awareness to your conversations. Listen without agreeing or disagreeing, liking or disliking, or planning what you will say when it is your turn. Notice the other person’s face, body, expressions. Notice your own body, your own facial expressions, your mood, as you listen.
Whenever you wait in a line, notice standing and breathing. Feel the contact of your feet on the floor and how your body feels. Bring attention to the rise and fall of your abdomen. Notice your mood without trying to change it or feel differently.
Focus attention on your daily activities such as brushing your teeth, bathing, grooming, putting on your shoes, and doing your job. Bring mindfulness to each activity.
Adapted from “Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness” by Jon Kabat-Zinn.