In a car, we can sometimes drive for miles and miles on automatic pilot, without really being aware of what is happening around us. In the same way, we may not be really present moment by moment, for much of our lives: We can often be "miles away" without even knowing it.
On automatic pilot, we are more likely to have our buttons pressed: Events around us and thoughts, feelings, and sensations in the mind (of which we may be only dimly aware) can trigger old habits of thinking that are often unhelpful and may lead to symptoms of anxiety and depression.
By becoming more aware of our thoughts, feelings, and body sensations, from moment to moment, we give ourselves the possibility of greater freedom and choice; we do not have to go into the same old "mental ruts" that may have caused problems in the past.
The aim of mindfulness is to increase awareness so that we can respond to situations with choice rather than react automatically or impulsively. We do that by practicing to become more aware of where our attention is, and deliberately changing the focus of attention, over and over again.
To those of you who are new to the concept of mindfulness and are interested in learning how to incorporate this practice into your lifestyle, here are five mindfulness exercises for beginners:
1. Take a breath.
That's right! You read that correctly. One simple breath done with conscious awareness is an example of mindfulness practice. This is my favorite one to teach people who say that they don't have time in their busy schedule to practice mindfulness. So many people have told me that they "don't have time" to slow down or to practice being in the moment. We all have time in our day to take a breath. This might sound silly because you may be thinking, "I breathe all day!" Breathing is one of those things we just do, and it is easy to forget to breathe for various reasons. Anxiety and stress are common reasons for this. So, when stress or anxiety come knocking, remember that you are never too busy to stop and take a nice, cleansing breath. Trust me, both your body and mind will thank you for this.
2. "I see, I hear, I feel." (Adapted from work by Milton Erickson and Yvonne Dolan)
Bring yourself to the present moment by saying out loud or in your mind "I see... (anything you see)..." Do this 5 times, with the intention of noticing 5 different things. Then move on to "I hear... (anything you hear)..." Do this 5 times, again with the intention of noticing 5 different sounds. Then bring your attention to your body, and say out loud or in your mind, "I feel.. (anything you feel)..." This can be anything from the sun's warmth on your skin to your heart beating to you back against a chair. Do this 5 times.
Then begin again with sights, repeating only 4 times, then 4 sounds, then 4 body sensations. then notice 3 of each, then 2, then 1. Repeat the whole sequence starting with 5 if you wish.
This exercise helps with reducing anxiety and appreciating the true magnificence of life.
3. Mindful eating
When eating, take a moment to reflect on where your food came from and all the people who contributed in some way to the food you are eating. Try eating without the distraction of the television to avoid overeating.
4. Just notice, without judging
In other words, try taking a non-judgmental stance. The next time you experience symptoms of anxiety (ex. racing heart, shakiness, worry thoughts) try to label the emotion as "just anxiety" rather than judging it as a bad thing or something that you must fight off. True acceptance occurs when we simply admit that something is what it is. Remember that acceptance is NOT approval!
5. Mindful walking
The next time you go for a walk, try inhaling with one step and exhaling with another. Or try counting the steps you take while you walk. While you're at it, stop and smell the roses! It is amazing how much beauty we are able to notice when walking mindfully.
Ways to increase mindfulness in your everyday life:
When you are in a conversation, focus your attention on the very moment you are in with that person
Use exercises like "I see, I hear, I feel" at various times during the day, like waiting in line
When you can, do just one thing at a time
Focus on breathing when doing daily activities
Observe your emotions and label them to yourself, simply. "Sad now," "Feeling scared," "Exhilarated."
Use routine events, such as driving, doing the dishes, or drinking water as reminders to return to your self-awareness, perhaps by noticing your body, your emotions, or your thoughts.
Calm - some free
YouTube has a variety of free guided meditations. I love Kelly Howell and John Kabat Zin.
http://www.bangor.ac.uk/mindfulness/audio/index.php.en (free guided meditations from The Center for Mindfulness Research at Bangor University of Wales)
http://marc.ucla.edu/mindful-meditations (free guided meditations and transcripts from UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center)
And finally, remember that just like anything else, mindfulness takes practice. So, please, be patient and compassionate with yourself as you begin to incorporate mindfulness into your lifestyle.