By Craig Wenaweser, MFT –
In the last few years, interest in mindfulness and mindfulness meditation has grown significantly. With mindfulness entering mainstream culture in the form of books, classes, workshops and popular mobile apps, more and more people are interested in learning about this powerful, practical and applicable spiritual practice. Although its popularity has grown exponentially, there is still confusion about what mindfulness is and how to practice it in one’s everyday life. The purpose of this post is to define mindfulness in simple terms and offer practical application for its everyday use.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness, simply explained, is the process of intentionally bringing one’s awareness into the present moment in a nonjudgmental and accepting way. Mindfulness and mindfulness meditation have roots in Theravada Buddhism (where it is known as insight meditation), in Mahayana Buddhism, in the form of Zen meditation practices, and in various yogic traditions. In the Buddhist tradition, mindfulness meditation is a lifelong practice in which mindfulness is cultivated over many years, resulting in beneficial mental, emotional and spiritual effects such as increased awareness, insight, focus, compassion, equanimity and wisdom. Mindfulness also has many physiological benefits, including lowering stress and anxiety, calming the nervous system and lowering blood pressure, among others. Although the roots of mindfulness are in Eastern religion and spirituality, mindfulness can be practiced by anyone, regardless of philosophical or religious orientation.
In our culture, almost everyone spends the majority of their time and energy immersed in mental activity. This relentless and restless thinking makes it difficult to experience the richness and fullness of the present moment. Mindfulness is the process of shifting one’s attention away from mental activity and back into the senses – sight, sound, smell, taste, breath awareness and body sensations. By returning to a deep awareness of our senses, our breath and our bodies, we reconnect with our natural state of peace, happiness and well-being.
Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk and spiritual teacher, stated, “The term mindfulness refers to keeping one’s consciousness alive to the present reality.” According to Jon Kabat-Zinn,who is the creator of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, mindfulness means “paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” Gregory Johanson, a founding trainer of the Hakomi Institute, states, “In general, a mindful state of consciousness is characterized by awareness turned inward, toward present felt experience. It is passive, though alert, open, curious, and exploratory. It seeks to simply be aware of what is, as opposed to attempting to do or confirm anything.”
What is the difference between mindfulness and mindfulness meditation?
Mindfulness and mindfulness meditation are two different practices, with many shared characteristics. The major difference between the two is that mindfulness meditation is a meditative practice that is generally done in a seated position with one’s eyes closed. In mindfulness meditation, the meditator sits silently and observes his or her breath, thoughts, emotions and body sensations, with the objective of increasing moment-to-moment awareness of these inner senses and states, without any resistance or judgement of what arises. However, mindfulness does not require one to be sitting in meditation with closed eyes. Mindfulness can be practiced anywhere, at anytime throughout your day. Mindfulness involves shifting your attention away from your thoughts and into the present moment, developing an increased capacity to observe and directly experience your senses, body and mind. It is possible to be mindful in any circumstance or situation in your life. This can be as simple as paying attention to your breathing throughout the day, feeling the sun on your skin, noticing how your body feels in various circumstances, or observing your conditioned thinking patterns.
In this post, I will be sharing various open-eyed mindfulness exercises that you can practice at home or anytime you may have a few minutes to spare. To learn more about mindfulness meditation and how to begin your own practice, you can read my post entitled “The 5 Foundations of Meditation: A Beginner’s Guide.”
The following exercises can be done with your eyes open or closed. If you are new to mindfulness or are hesitant to close your eyes, you can keep them open during the entire exercise. Before each of these exercises, take a few deep breaths, find a comfortable position and relax your body.
Mindfulness of breathing is the most simple and one of the most powerful mindfulness practices. To begin mindful breathing, get in a comfortable position and relax your body. Take a few deep breaths, both inhaling and exhaling either through the nose or the mouth, whichever feels most comfortable. After a few deep breaths, let your breathing return to its normal and natural flow, and breathe in and out through your nose. Observe the breath, wherever it is it felt most prominently, whether in the belly, chest or the nostrils. Allow yourself to simply observe the incoming and outgoing breath. Feel the sensation of your breathing, noticing the rhythm and flow of your breath, any warm or cool sensations, any feelings of relaxation or peace, and anything else you observe. Just simply be present with the breath and notice the sensation of breathing. As you are observing the breath, gently allow anything that arises to simply be as it is, without trying to change it or control it. When thoughts arise, allow thoughts to be there. As sounds arise in your environment, allow sounds to be there. If you notice body sensations or emotions present, allow those to be there as well. Be with the breath for 5-10 minutes and observe your inner experience.
Bringing your awareness to your body and body sensations is another powerful and practical application of mindfulness. By bringing our awareness to our bodies, we shift the focus of our attention from our thoughts to our felt experience in the body. This is a practice that grounds us in the present moment. Start by bringing your attention to your body. It is helpful to first feel your feet on the ground and the chair, couch or cushion beneath you. You can wiggle your toes or move your hips around to settle into your body, notice the point of contact with your feet on the ground, and the point of contact with the chair or couch underneath you. After this, simply notice and observe any sensations you feel in your body- these sensations could include tingling, itching, warm or cool temperature, the air on your skin, aches, pains, soreness, fatigue, feelings of peace, relaxation or well-being, or a variety of other sensations. Again, as we bring our attention to our body and body sensations, we aren’t attempting to change or modify what we experience. Nor are we judging our experience. Just simply observe the body sensations that are present in a non-judgmental, open and allowing way. Be very present in your body, noticing any sensations that arise. Also be aware of any emotions you may feel in the body – sadness, happiness, fear, joy, peace, etc. Again, simply observe these emotions and where they exist in the body without trying to change or alter them in any way. Do this for 5-10 minutes and observe all the sensations that arise.
Mindfulness of sound
Select an object that makes a resonant sound, such as a Tibetan singing bowl, tuning forks or any other bell or chime. If you do not have an object that makes a resonant sound, feel free to play a piece of music, preferably an instrumental song without words. As you hit the singing bowl, bell or chime or play the instrumental music, close your eyes and be very present with your sense of hearing. Listen very mindfully to the sounds that the object or music are making. Notice the tone, quality and vibration of the sound or music. Be aware of how your body reacts to the sound or music you are listening to. Spend several minutes listening intently and mindfully to the sounds being created. Observe the multi-layered experience of sound.
Another powerful hearing mindfulness exercise is to close your eyes and become very mindful of any sounds in your environment. You might notice the humming of the heater or air conditioning, noises coming from other sources inside your living space or from the street outside – buses, cars, people, birds, wind, rain, etc. If you are outside, listen intently to all the sounds in the environment. Any natural setting is ideal for this exercise; the ocean, a river, lake, a park or the forest would all be excellent places to observe the richness and diversity of sound. Sit comfortably, take a few deep breaths, close your eyes and listen mindfully to any sounds that are arising in the moment. Observe and experience all sounds that arise in your consciousness. Let the sounds come and go without trying to hold on to them or block them out of your awareness in any way. Allow all the sounds in the environment to be exactly as they are, and pay careful attention to the quality, tone, variety and depth of sound that arises.
Mindfulness in nature
Spending time in nature is one of the most powerful and rewarding mindfulness practices. Go for a walk in a park, forest, by the ocean or any other natural setting. Become very present, take a few deep breaths and bring your awareness to your senses. Breathe the fresh air, feel the warmth of the sun on your skin, notice the colors, listen to the sounds of the forest, the crashing of ocean waves or the sound of a river or stream. You can sit in mindfulness with your eyes closed and take in all the senses or you can keep your eyes open and observe your surroundings. Allow nature to teach you presence, stillnesss and aliveness.
Candle flame meditation
Another simple but powerful mindfulness exercise is to sit on a cushion, couch or chair and place a lit candle in front of you. Take a few deep breaths, relax your body and allow your gaze to rest on the candle flame. Keep your eyes open, let your breathing be in its natural flow and continue to sit and gaze at the candle flame for 5-10 minutes, being very present with the flame. Notice the quality of the flame, how it moves and looks, its color and texture, and anything else you notice about it. Allow your eyes to rest gently but alertly on the flame and be mindful of your inner experience as you watch. Notice how your breathing feels and observe any inner changes that occur in your body.
Mindfulness of thought
Another effective mindfulness exercise is to sit in a comfortable position with your eyes closed and observe your thoughts. Take a few deep breaths, relax your body and simply be aware of your thoughts, not trying to change them, control them, deny them or judge them, just simply watching your thoughts as you would watch clouds floating by in the sky on a sunny day. With this observing consciousness, notice the quality of your thoughts – how often thoughts arise, the quality and nature of your thoughts and any patterns of thinking that are repetitive. Also notice any feelings, sensations or emotions that are created in the body in response to your thoughts. Do this for 5 to 10 minutes.
Mindfulness with objects
Select an object such as a rock, crystal or any small object that you have in your living space. Pick an object that has an interesting texture or shape. Once you have selected an object, simply hold it and observe it with your senses of touch, sight and smell. Feel the weight of the object, the texture, the density… and anything else that piques your interest. Be very present with this object and notice it as if you are seeing and experiencing it for the first time. Allow yourself to notice its intricate details.
Mindfulness of color
Select a color that is predominant in your environment and look around the room or natural setting. Mindfully take note of all the objects that you see that contain the color you selected. As you do this, be very present with the colors you are noticing and the objects that contain these colors. This simple exercise invites you to be very present in your environment and notice depths of color and objects you may not have previously noticed.
All of these mindfulness exercises are designed to bring your attention to your present moment experience. As you become more aware of the present moment and all that it contains, both within and outside of you, the depth and richness of your experience and your being begins to grow.