Mindfulness. Awareness. Consciousness. Wakefulness. Living in the moment. Being in the now. Appreciating the present. Stopping and smelling the roses.
These many names describe a deceptively simple concept.
To be mindful means to pay attention to the present moment, to be aware of what we are thinking, feeling, and doing as well as what is happening around us.
We come to understand our own nature more fully and so come to understand the nature of the universe more fully as well.
To be mindful means to give your mind a break from rehashing the past or worrying about the future.
Instead, we appreciate and accept the present.
To be mindful means to realize that our lives consist of moments and that each present moment is what we have.
If we sleepwalk through our lives, going through our days on autopilot, we will inevitably miss an awful lot.
Why be mindful?
Our minds wander constantly.
As you go for a hike, your mind might be replaying memories: a recent argument with your partner, a vacation you took last month, a worrying conversation with a friend.
As you sit at your desk at work, maybe you’re daydreaming about winning the lottery or planning ahead to what you’ll eat for dinner.
As you drive home, your mind might remain in the office, still brainstorming solutions and composing emails.
How often do you truly live in the moment with complete focus on what you are doing? Eight hours per day? Three Hours? One?
For most people, that number is quite small.
Harvard researcher Matt Killingsworth developed an app called Track Your Happiness to get some data on what makes us happy.
How does the app work?
At random intervals over the course of the day, the app prompted its 15,000 users to indicate what they were doing, whether their minds were wandering, and how happy they were.
Killingsworth’s results indicate that mind wandering is ubiquitous: Approximately 47% of the time, people are focused on something other than what they are actually doing.
Additionally, Killingsworth noticed a striking connection between happiness and mindfulness.
People who were mindful, who were concentrating on what they were doing, reported higher levels of happiness.
“A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind,” Killingsworth and Gilbert write.
“The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.”
This study is only one of many confirming what Buddhists already know: that mindfulness is a key component of living your best, happiest, most fulfilled life.
Mindfulness techniques to adopt today
Many different philosophies—including Buddhism and Taoism—have developed concepts of mindfulness as well as strategies for cultivating it.
In general, meditation is the primary practice through which we learn mindfulness.
There are numerous forms of meditation and countless ways to encourage a more mindful attitude in oneself.
I’ll start by outlining some simple mindfulness techniques that you can introduce to your daily life.
1) Waking Up
Do you wake up with a smile, feeling excited about the new day? Or do you roll groaning out of bed, feeling groggy and irritable?
So many of us feel incredibly cranky before our first cup or two of coffee. If you’re not a morning person, you might benefit from transforming your morning routine into a more mindful one.
For example, to enter a positive frame of mind, you might recite the following:
“Waking up this morning, I smile.
Twenty-four brand-new hours are before me.
I vow to live fully in each moment and to look at all beings with eyes of compassion.”
How else can you establish a good morning routine?
• Leave yourself plenty of time. Allow yourself to enjoy a peaceful morning instead of hitting snooze five times and then rushing around.
• As you awaken, breathe deeply in and out, focusing on the sensation of the breath. Feel the weight of your body as you lie in bed, the weight of your head on your pillow. Allow yourself a few moments just to exist.
• Get out of bed and perform a few gentle stretches to warm up your body—shoulder circles, arm circles, hip circles, ankle circles.
• Meditate, even if only for 10 minutes.
• Reflect on your goals for the day and affirm your intention to behave with compassion, patience, and loving-kindness toward all beings.
• Eat a healthy breakfast and make a cup of herbal tea. Ideally, allow yourself enough time to eat and drink mindfully instead of rushing (more on that below).
• If time allows, get some exercise. The morning is a great time to go for a walk or jog or to practice yoga.
Sound like a lot? So many of us are in a hurry every morning, frantically showering and rushing off to school or work.
It may require some conscious effort and lifestyle changes to slow your morning down from its hectic pace and start your day with mindfulness.
You might even be skeptical that these habits will make any difference in your life. In that case, why not try a month-long experiment?
Shift your bedtime and waking times earlier (by as little as 15 minutes per day) and gradually introduce several of the habits listed above.
With some practice, you’ll likely find that mindful mornings pave the way for the rest of the day.
This one’s as simple as breathing in and breathing out with a conscious awareness of your breath.
We breathe all the time but usually hardly notice unless something is wrong—if we’re short of breath after a steep hike, for instance, or if we have bad allergies.
First, take stock of your posture and the quality of your breath as it is now. Sit down on a chair or couch in your usual posture, and ask yourself:
• Is my breath deep or shallow? Smooth and even or ragged? Take several deep breaths.
• How easy is it to breathe deeply? Does this feel natural?
• Does the air fill my upper lungs (making the chest rise) or does it flow fully into my lungs (making the stomach rise)?
Once you’ve made these observations, sit up straight or stand upright, with your head aligned over your shoulders and hips.
You might imagine that you’re a marionette puppet, with a string running down through your head and body, pulling you up toward the ceiling.
Now continue to breathe deeply and observe your breath. With correct posture, your lungs should be free to expand fully, pushing your abdomen out as you inhale and pulling it in as you exhale.
Buddhist practice encourages awareness of our breathing. As we inhale, we are fully aware of the in-breath; as we exhale, we are fully aware of the out-breath.
We feel the air as it fills our lungs, and notice the rising and falling of our torsos. The breath serves as an anchor that grounds us in the moment, in the here and now.
As we focus on our breathing, all concerns about past and future retreat, and are replaced with simple awareness of the present.
For these reasons, conscious breathing is central to Buddhist principles and the practice of meditation.
[Not only does Buddhism provide a spiritual outlet for many people, it can also improve your health and wellbeing. Check out my new no-nonsense guide to using Buddhism for a better life here].
3) Eating Mindfully
As renowned Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us, “eating is a meditative practice.”
Here is how to bring a mindful attitude to the next meal you eat:
• Set aside all distractions: turn off the TV, put your phone out of sight, close any books, newspapers, or magazines, and so on. Take this time to focus on the meal you have prepared (or that has been prepared for you).
• Realize all that has happened to make this meal possible: the farmers who grew the food, the rain that watered it as it grew, all the people and events that came together to make this meal
• Express gratitude and appreciation for your meal. This practice is quite similar to the Christian habit of saying grace before eating—in both cases, you acknowledge your good fortune and extend compassion to those who do not have adequate food.
• Pay attention to your food as you eat. Do not rush and gulp things down without chewing or tasting them.
• Once in a while (say, once a week), enjoy a meal in silence. Doing so will truly allow your mind to focus on your food, to appreciate its flavors, and to meditate on its connection to the universe.
• When the meal is done, savor the moment. Your hunger is satiated. You might say or think verses such as: “The meal is finished, my hunger satisfied, I vow to live for the benefit of all beings.”
4) Getting down and getting up
When was the last time you sat on the floor? We spend so much time on the floor as babies, toddlers, and small children. We crawl and play and move with ease all over the floor and ground. We use our arms to get around just as much as our legs.
As we grow up, however, most of us lose our easy familiarity with ground movement and become accustomed to sitting on chairs and couches.
Try this: For thirty minutes every day, sit on the floor. Want to watch TV? Cool, you can watch it from the floor.
Need to get some work done? No problem, you can bring your laptop or books or whatever you need to the floor. Time to cook dinner? Sit on the floor while you chop vegetables.
With repeated time and practice, you’ll regain your youthful ease of movement and flexibility.
You might also find that sitting on the floor encourages heightened awareness of how you’re sitting.
When you’re in a big comfortable desk chair or a cushioned sofa, it’s all too easy to forget about your posture.
You slouch, or push your head and neck forward, or develop a muscle imbalance, and the cushions all around prevent you from noticing.
In contrast, you will actually notice how you are sitting on the hard floor or ground because you are unused to it.
Which positions are most comfortable?
How long can you maintain any one position?
You’ll probably find yourself naturally shifting positions occasionally—which is much
better for your neck and back than staying cramped and static in your chair.
You can also use your time on the floor to engage in mindful stretching exercises. Gently stretch your hamstrings, hips, and other tight areas.
As you stretch, remain attentive to your body and breathing. Experiment with shifting positions in rhythm with your breath. How does your body feel and move?
[To dive deep into mindfulness and learn mindful techniques to improve your life, check out my new eBook: The Art of Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Living in the Present Moment]
You may also like reading:
- I was deeply unhappy…then I discovered this one Buddhist teaching
- What J.K. Rowling can teach us about mental toughness
- My life was going nowhere, until I had this one revelation