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6 mins

How to Practice Mindfulness

In an ever-buzzing world, practicing mindfulness can calm the mind and body. We’ve gathered some mindfulness techniques and exercises to help beginners and seasoned pros alike.
by Joshua H. Phelps | Mar 27 2020

Try this. Take a deep breath slowly, hold it for a moment, then gently breathe out. Often we associate these directions with a visit to a doctor, but they can be a remarkably effective way to practice mindfulness too.

how to practice mindfulness

We are awash in an overwhelming amount of startling information these days. Hunkering down and numbing ourselves to the world might feel sensible but in doing so we often pile problems on top of each other pretending they’re solutions to everything beneath them. Mindfulness exercises offer an alternative with tangible results. After all, what is mindfulness but increasing the conscientiousness with which we think and act?

It is tempting to think this means piling more onto our emotional heap. However, the aim of practicing mindfulness is to develop the strength to see our feelings for what they are. From there we can either let go of them or work through them to achieve greater self-awareness and mental resilience.

But, like any skill (and mindfulness is very much a skill), it should be practiced regularly. Whichever mindfulness meditation works will be different from person to person. With that in mind, let’s look at some of the techniques, exercises, and activities you can engage in to improve your own mindfulness.

Mindfulness Techniques

Breathe Easy

Many mindfulness books guide their readers towards breathing as a place to start practicing being mindful. Most of the time we breathe we never think about it. By taking greater control over such an automatic process, by enhancing our awareness of it, we can apply the skills we develop to other actions and senses.

Like most exercises related to mindfulness, breathing requires you to sit or lay down. However, it is important that you not be so relaxed you fall asleep! Be comfortable though.

Once you feel ready, take a deep breath slowly. Pay attention to what you feel. The coolness of the air inside your nose, the swell of your stomach and diaphragm against the enveloping skin, the slight uptick in your heart beat. Work to keep your chest still while you do this. What else do you notice?

Hold your breath for a few seconds, then exhale, keeping control of it the same way you did while inhaling. What sensations do you feel?

Mind Your Mind

Meditation and mindfulness often show up in the same sentence (like this one) or at least the same paragraph. Much like how the breathing exercise allows us to monitor and take greater control over a seemingly unconscious activity, so meditation does for our thinking. It’s a bit like the comparison with traffic earlier, except after a while you’re taken inside the room where they set the timers for the stop lights.

For this, same as the breathing exercise, take a comfortable position and open your mind up to whatever thought or emotion crosses your path. Do you have a bodily reaction to it? What does it feel like? You might lose track of your train of thought during meditation. And, this is natural. As ABC News anchor Dan Harris said on an episode of Simplify, these breaks are in fact small victories.

It is also important that you are able to call your feelings out for what they are. Meditation requires a great deal of honesty with yourself, which can make it scary at times. Anger, jealousy, and envy are a few of the negative emotions you will likely encounter. Feeling them at all may seem like a failure, but in recognizing them, you also embrace a greater portion of your own humanity.

Your emotions can lead you into some shadowy alleyways when you start tracing them back to their sources. It is tempting to swerve away or give what we’re feeling a friendlier name. If we can summon the courage to accept our feelings, we can also find the strength to let them go.

Savor the Experience

With its rigorous attention, mindfulness might be thought to be a bit stiff. If you’re not chasing every emotion down its rabbit hole, you’re not doing it right, you might think. Luckily, there are ways to incorporate mindfulness techniques into a range of activities you already enjoy. Since the bedrock of the practice lies in concentrating on the world around you, any sense can be enlivened through applying mindfulness to it.

For the musically-inclined, appreciation of a song can grow through picking out a particular part and following along. And, this can be done on multiple listenings. Maybe you listen to the bass one time and the melody another, then the rhythm or one instrument the next go-through. Each new pass helps build appreciation for the artistry of the individual musicians and the ways in which they work together to create the whole work.

Or take dining for example. In his book, Savor, Thích Nhất Hạnh suggests we eat slowly and take the time to taste the food. By focusing on the various stimulations of different flavors, we can take greater pleasure from our meals. This also helps us develop a better relationship with what we eat, according to the book.

Dr. Lori Brotto even uses the idea of slowly eating a raisin, taking in its smell, taste, and texture, to illuminate the benefits of mindfulness for sexual pleasure. Dr. Brotto’s research on female sexuality found in many instances that the lack of satisfaction her patients felt was the result of a mind-body disconnect. Through practicing mindfulness, Dr. Brotto’s patients were able to increase the pleasure they derived from sex.

With these techniques in mind, let’s look at a few exercises you can try to further develop your mindfulness.

Mindfulness Exercises

Notice

Awareness serves as the foundation for the practice of mindfulness. This can mean awareness of the space around you, the tide of thoughts flowing through your mind, the sensations of your body, all of the above, or perhaps more. What is most important is that you concentrate on these things as they are in the present moment, not as they were, or as they might be.

And, if you start to sense your vigilance slipping, take note of that and start in again.

Focus

On top of taking stock of your surroundings and sensations, a deeper level of mindfulness practices focusing on a specific object or thought. You can contemplate on an object’s color, its shape, or how it relates to the phenomena around it.

Similarly, practicing mindfulness in relation to one’s thoughts asks that we consider their tone and how we react to them. Something to keep in mind while employing this technique is that you should keep a healthy mental distance. The goal is to observe the flows of thoughts and emotions as though viewing traffic from a skyscraper.

Connect

In contrast to the previous technique, this method of mindfulness challenges us to broaden our perspective. Buddhist monk Thích Nhất Hạnh takes the example of a wooden table in his book, The Miracle of Mindfulness. The table relates to the tree that provided the wood, the carpenter who made it, the carpenter’s parents, as well as many other people and aspects of life.

This technique can also apply to your own mind. What emotions do certain thoughts trigger? How do they relate to other ideas and feelings you have? As you build out the web of connections, you can better trace positive and negative sensations to their source.

While these suggestions may feel a little abstract, there are ways you can incorporate them into your life. Let’s take a look at some of the activities that will allow you to do that.

Mindfulness Activities

Walking Meditation

We often picture meditation as sitting in a quiet space. If you find that it doesn’t work for you, or if you enjoy immobile meditation and want to find ways to practice it more, walking offers an excellent way to incorporate it into your daily life.

As Jon Kabat-Zinn recommends in his book, Wherever You Go, There You Are, while you walk, focus on the sensations of your bodily movement. Which muscles do you activate to lift your foot and extend it forward? How much effort does it require? What is the sensation of your heel striking the ground?

The great thing about walking meditation, too, is that you can do them inside our outside, depending on your preference.

Writing It Down

Writing comes at the end of Mark Willams’s and Danny Penman’s 8-week mindfulness program, which they describe in their book Mindfulness. In particular, they suggest listing out activities from your life that leave you feeling energized and those that leave you deflated. However, this can be a helpful meditation wherever you are in your mindfulness journey.

By charting your interior landscape, you gain a better sense of how you can best navigate the hills and valleys of your thinking. If you are encountering difficulties in your mindfulness practices, writing can help you explore where some of the roadblocks might be standing.

Ten-Breath Meditation

Many of the books on mindfulness and meditation suggest spending 30-45 minutes per session. And perhaps this is why many people feel like they can’t practice mindfulness. Sustaining focus for such a long time challenges us. And many declare defeat soon after starting. Luckily, there are mindfulness practices that ease you into it. This activity, for example, only requires a minute.

Also called the one-minute meditation, to complete this mindfulness exercise, focus on taking ten deep, slow breaths. Count them out in your head as you go through them (whether when you are breathing in or out is up to you).

Because the time it takes is so short, you can easily add it to your life, and it provides the opportunity for you to expand your mindfulness practices. You can build your way into that 30- or 45-minute range.

Where you take your mindfulness practice from here is yours to decide. If you are interested in further tips or suggestions, the Blinkist library holds a whole section on mindfulness and meditation you can look to for inspiration.

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