The Power of Mindfulness: What Nature Can Teach Us
Several years ago, I had the good fortune of visiting Africa and going on a safari. As a lifelong animal lover, this was truly a dream come true for me. Being able to see lions, giraffes, and elephants in their natural habitat was incredibly thrilling and something I will never forget. What I didn’t anticipate, however, was that I was also about to learn an important lesson about the power of the mind.
It was mid-morning, and our group was in the Serengeti Preserve in Tanzania. The weather was perfect, sunny but not too hot, and the morning had already been action-packed in terms of spotting animals. I was glancing down at my camera, hastily editing a few of the pictures I had taken and changing the setting, when out of the corner of my eye I saw something dart across the plain. When I looked up, I saw a lioness in hot pursuit of an impala. The lion sprinted after its prey, closing in with fierce tenacity. The impala, sensing imminent danger, looked up from grazing on the grass and bolted as fast as it could. The lion closed in, and the impala was almost within its reach. At the last instant, the impala turned and was able to gain some separation from its pursuer. The lion slowed down slightly and then stopped, unable to continue its chase. Its meal would have to come later.
Our jeep rolled towards where the impala was now standing, a hundred yards or so away. My heart was racing, and I could feel the adrenaline coursing through my veins. Sweat began to drip off my forehead, and I had to make a conscious effort to steady my hands. As we pulled up alongside the animal, it would have been hard to imagine that such a frightening scenario had unfolded just moments before. The impala didn’t appear alarmed; rather, she had resumed grazing on the tall grass. She appeared completely at ease again, with no indication that her life had nearly come to an unfortunate end just earlier.
“We’re so busy watching out for what’s just ahead of us that we don’t take time to enjoy where we are”
– Bill Watterson
As I looked on, continuing to breathe heavily while gripping the handle on the inside of our jeep, I felt someone pat me softly on the shoulder. Our guide, Winston, must have sensed my unease and was now looking at me with a slight grin. “You’re moreshaken up than she is,” he exclaimed, gently poking fun at my fright. He motioned over to the impala, which continued to eat the grass with seemingly not a care in the world. “Once the chase is over,” he said, “the hunter goes back to sleep, and the hunted goes back to eating. They don’t think about it, they just do what they do.” He continued, “If that happened to us, we’d be thinking about it for hours, days, even years. But the impala is different. The impala just lives in the moment. That’s why she’s so peaceful.”
From Mindlessness to Mindfulness
Do you find it hard to slow down and merely be present? Does your mind tend to wander back towards the past, or constantly glance forward towards the future? For many of us, it’s all too easy to fall into this pattern of feeling stuck on “autopilot,” mindlessly rushing through things without much conscious awareness, and focusing incessantly on the finish line with little connection to the process.
This state of mindlessness is incredibly common, particularly in our frenzied and often chaotic modern world. Unlike the impala from earlier in the chapter, we have a difficult time simply “grazing” in our everyday lives. Rather, many of us find ourselves constantly flooded with worry, regret, and fear. In his fascinating and fun book, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, Stanford biologist Robert Sapolsky describes this very phenomenon and contrasts it with what occurs in the animal kingdom. As he explains, stress for animals tends to be episodic, while for humans it is often chronic. As a result, stress-related problems such as ulcers and hypertension are far less common among animals in the wild as compared to humans.Like the impala on the Serengeti, animals quickly return to their natural baseline once a threat passes. They don’t ruminate or stew over the danger they averted, they simply return to grazing. As Sapolsky humorously asks, “how many hippos worry about whether social security is going to last as long as they will, or what they are going to say on a first date?” We humans, however, are not so fortunate. We are constantly anticipating dangers that lie ahead, or lamenting losses from the past. This perpetual state of arousal raises our stress levels, which in turn can lead to a host of other problems including depression, anxiety, and physical health risks.
Our tendency toward mindlessness may feel deeply ingrained, yet in fact it’s quite changeable. But how can we break this harmful habit of the mind? As it turns out, the answer may lie in an ancient practice, one that modern science and psychology is only recently starting to catch up to. The practice is called mindfulness, and it has been shown to have powerful, even life-changing effects on our mental health, physical health, and happiness.
“Through the practice of mindfulness, we are able to become more fully immersed in the present moment, and break the chain of stress and worry”
Through the practice of mindfulness exercises, we are able to become more fully immersed in the present moment, and break the chain of stress and worry. The goal isn’t to necessarily become the impala from earlier, blissfully in the moment at all times. That would be neither practical nor realistic in our modern world. But we can certainly learn to take a page from her, in order to slow down our frenzied and often chaotic lives. We can all benefit from becoming more at one with the present moment, for reasons that will be explored more fully in this chapter. Mindfulness shows us how.
What is Mindfulness?
Reflect for a moment on the last time you found yourself stuck on “autopilot,” or preoccupied in thought. It’s all too common in our everyday lives to find ourselves aimlessly shifting from task to task, with little conscious awareness of where we are, or what we’re doing. Conversely, think about the last time you found your mind wandering, perhaps thinking about the past or the future, with little connection to your surroundings. Common examples of these types of experiences in our everyday lives include:
+ Driving to or from work, with little memory of the actual experience
+ Eating a meal or snack despite not being hungry
+ Ruminating many hours later about something your boss said to you at work
These sorts of experiences are quite common, and may seem harmless enough on the surface. But over time they can actually wreak havoc on our mental health and emotional well-being. We can fall into self-destructive patterns without realizing it, and have little conscious awareness of what we’re doing and why. We become disconnected from life, missing out on what’s happening right in front of our eyes. Researchers have even found that there is a direct cost to a wandering mind. Indeed, one well-known study even showed that our mind is wandering nearly as often as it is actually focused on what’s in front of us. Worse yet, we tend to be least happy in those moments when our mind is wandering (Killingsworth & Gilbert, 2010).
The antidote to this state of mindlessness is in fact mindfulness. Mindfulness is an ancient practice, one that’s been around for thousands of years but has only recently become understood and appreciated from a scientific perspective. Though definitions vary, mindfulness generally refers to maintaining moment-to-moment awareness of our thoughts, bodily sensations, feelings, and surrounding environment. Moreover, mindfulness involves acceptance and non-judgment, meaning that we observe and experience what’s happening around and within us, without wishing for things to be any different than they are.
“When we are mindful… we become immersed in what’s happening in the moment, without criticism or judgment”
One of the world’s foremost experts on mindfulness, Jon Kabat-Zinn, has summarized the experience of mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally” (Kabat-Zinn, 2013). Mindfulness meditation instructor Guy Armstrong has likewise referred to mindfulness as “knowing what you are experiencing, while you are experiencing it.” When we are mindful, we tune in to our experience in the present moment, rather than anxiously anticipating the future or regretfully pouring over the past. We become immersed in what’s happening in the moment, without criticism or judgment
Though mindfulness is often equated with meditation, it’s actually a much broader concept. Rather than be viewed as a narrow technique, it is perhaps more fruitful to think of mindfulness as a different way of viewing the world. At its core, mindfulness helps us spend more time in the present moment, and can be seen as a form of mental training (Williams & Penman, 2011). Though it can be described in words, mindfulness is an experience that cannot be conveyed only in words. Rather, it requires practice and participation to fully experience it and reap its benefits. So after we describe some of the exciting and key findings when it comes to mindfulness, we’ll be practicing some techniques to help you get started. But first, let’s first dispel some myths about mindfulness, and talk about how to overcome some common obstacles in our path.
Barriers to Mindfulness
In some respects, the practice of mindfulness exercises is all the rage these days. In magazines and on bookshelves, on television and on the web, it seems like mindfulness is everywhere we look. Yet despite its growing popularity, there are nonetheless many misconceptions about the nature of mindfulness, some of which act as barriers to people adopting this valuable practice. In my clinical practice, I’ve often found that in addition to helping to teach what mindfulness is, it’s just as important to explain what mindfulness is not. So with that in mind, here are some common examples of what mindfulness is not:
Mindfulness is not just meditation
Mindfulness is actually a much broader concept than merely meditation, which can in turn take many different forms as well, beyond mindfulness. Instead, mindfulness can best be viewed as increasing our attention and awareness in the present moment.
Mindfulness is not wiping your mind clear of thoughts
On the contrary, mindfulness is about becoming aware of your thoughts, but without judgment or attempting to push them away. Our brains will always produce thoughts – that’s a fact of life. Rather than trying to suppress our thoughts, mindfulness shows us a path towards developing a more symphonic relationship with our thoughts and feelings.
Mindfulness is not relaxation
You may at times feel relaxed as a byproduct of your mindfulness practice, and over time it can certainly help us become more relaxed and calm. But the overarching practice of mindfulness is not aimed at becoming more relaxed.
Mindfulness is not religion
Though it owes some of its heritage to Buddhist philosophy, mindfulness can also be practiced in a wholly secular manner and requires no religious affiliation whatsoever.
Mindfulness is not sitting in a lotus posture and burning incense
Needless to say, you certainly can do this if you’d like to, but it’s far from a requirement of mindfulness!
Beyond these barriers and misconceptions outlined above, it should also be noted that much of our modern world makes the practice of mindfulness inherently moredifficult. We are constantly inundated by distractions, and encouraged to multitask incessantly. Learning to slow down, or to become immersed the present moment, isn’t exactly encouraged most of the time.
Given these roadblocks, many people find themselves frustrated and discouraged when they begin practicing mindfulness. “I can’t slow down my thoughts,” and “my mind is going every which way” are common experiences many of my patients encounter when they are just starting out. Fortunately, with patience and practice mindfulness becomes much easier and more natural over time. Furthermore, the very act of noticing one’s wandering mind and consciously redirecting it to the present moment has been shown to be one of the most beneficial components of mindfulness. So even if you’re a naturally distractible person, or find that your mind wanders a great deal, worry not. Simply noticing these tendencies and gradually retraining your mind to become more present-focused can in fact be hugely beneficial.
Mindfulness: Good for our Minds
The findings related to mindfulness are particularly impressive. There have now been literally hundreds of studies done on the various benefits of practicing mindfulness exercises, with seemingly more hitting the press each day. And the bottom line is that mindfulness has the potential to improve our mental and emotional health in ways that are nothing short of incredible.
On the whole, individuals who regularly practice mindfulness perform better on a host of mental health outcomes, including an increased presence of positive emotions, coupled with lower rates of stress and anxiety (Keng, 2011). They furthermore appear to be happier and more content on average than their less mindful counterparts, a finding that has been replicated across a number of studies over the years (Ivanowski, 2007; Shapiro et al., 2008).
“Mindfulness has the potential to improve our mental and emotional health in ways that are nothing short of incredible”
Those who practice mindfulness tend to be more optimistic as well, and report higher levels of overall life satisfaction (Lyubomirsky, 2008). Practicing mindfulness has even been shown to improve our attention and focus (Moore, 2012), and may even enhance memory. When stressors hit (as they do for all of us), individuals who regularly utilize mindfulness exercises have been shown to engage in healthier and more effective coping strategies than their less mindful peers, suggesting that mindfulness enhances problem-solving enables us to make better choices (Weinstein, 2009).
Though the above findings are indeed remarkable, the connection between mindfulness and depression is particularly exciting. As it turns out, practicing mindfulness has been shown to dramatically decrease the likelihood of developing depression, and has even been demonstrated as a potent form of treatment among those who suffer from illnesses such as major depression. Mindfulness-based approaches have now been shown to be remarkably effective in the treatment of depression, on par with many traditional methods of psychotherapy and medication treatment (Williams and Penman, 2011).
Mindfulness: Good for Our Bodies
As exciting as the above findings certainly are, the impact of mindfulness on our physical health and well-being is perhaps equally impressive. Individuals who practice mindfulness have been shown to have better overall physical health, require fewer doctors’ visits, and spend fewer days in the hospital than their less mindful peers (Williams and Penman, 2011). You may of course be wondering whether it’s simply a matter that healthier people may tend to be more mindful, rather than the other way around. Amazingly, it appears that mindfulness exercises can in fact cause us to become healthier!
In one distinguished study, researchers compared newly trained mindfulness meditators to individuals who had received no training at all in mindfulness. After just eight weeks, they found that mindfulness meditation training resulted in better immune system functioning, and that the meditators had generated more antibodies in response to the flu vaccine as compared to the non-meditators (Davidson & Kabat-Zinn, 2003). A later study found that among HIV-positive patients, mindfulness training was strongly connected to having a higher number of CD4+ T cells in the body. These cells play a crucial role in our immune system functioning, and help protect us against attack. Amazingly, it appeared that the more people practiced mindfulness meditation, the higher their CD4+ T cell count was at the end of the study (Creswell, 2009).
Mindfulness: Good for Our Lives
The above findings are striking, but perhaps the most important benefit of mindfulness may come in its ability to transform our relationships with those around us. Indeed, one of the most powerful benefits of mindfulness is its impact on both our interpersonal and romantic relationships. In a well-known study on the effect of mindfulness on romantic relationships, researchers found that mindfulness training resulted in higher overall relationship satisfaction, greater closeness, and lower stress level among couples (Carson, 2004). Even more impressively, the results were maintained three months later, suggesting that it’s a skill we can continue to benefit from over time.
The Mindful Brain
Study after study has shown that the practice of mindfulness can change our lives. But can it also change our brain? Recent evidence suggests that mindfulness can, and does.
When we experience stress or feel upset, our brains respond in a particular and predictable manner. Specifically, fMRI scans show that when we experience distress, the right prefrontal cortex of our brain becomes far more active than the left side (Williams & Penman, 2011; Davidson, 2003). This part of the brain is associated more with negative emotions, whereas the left prefrontal cortex is generally more connected to positive emotions and well-being. In addition to this right-side activation, we also see increased activity in the amygdala, a small almond-sized part of our brain that plays a role in fear activation, arousal, and our fight-or-flight response. So if this is the picture of a stressed brain, what does a mindful brain look like?
When we utilize mindfulness, our brains respond in a very different manner. Rather than seeing this aforementioned right-sided activation, we see increased activity in the left prefrontal cortex (Davidson et al., 2003). This again is the area of our brain more connected with pleasant emotions and positivity. In addition to this, we see decreased activity in the amygdala, suggesting that mindfulness can help to reduce our response to threats and enable us to manage stress more effectively (Neff, 2009 & 2011). Furthermore, brain scans reveal increased activity in areas associated with memory, emotion regulation, and learning (Holzel, 2011).
“Mindfulness can lead to permanent changes in the structure of our brains over time”
To experience the sorts of changes outlined above, you don’t have to practice mindfulness meditation for years, let alone be a Tibetan monk. Rather, many of the findings above were discovered in people who had been trained in mindfulness practice for only a handful of weeks. It’s one thing to see temporary changes in brain activation stemming from mindfulness practice. But what about permanent, lasting changes on a structural level in our brain? Can mindfulness actually achieve that?
Amazingly, recent research suggests that mindfulness exercises can lead to permanent changes in the structure of our brains over time. When compared to non-meditators, individuals who regularly practice mindfulness meditation have been shown to have increased thickening in parts of the brain associated with attention, concentration and memory, empathy, and decision-making. Beyond that, it even seems that mindfulness can help with the aging process in our brains. We all slowly lose brain cells as we age, a process known as “cortical thinning.” Remarkably, studies looking at long-term users of mindfulness meditation show that it seems to slow down and even offset this process. So while we may never find a fountain of youth that keeps us young forever, it seems like mindfulness may be the next best thing!
How and Why Mindfulness Works
Mindfulness is an ancient practice, one that has been around for thousands of years. Although originally grounded in Buddhist philosophy, mindfulness has since become widespread, and is now practiced by individuals in all walks of life.
But what exactly makes mindfulness so incredibly potent? And how can a seemingly simple practice like mindfulness create such remarkable changes across all these areas of our lives? The answers lie in a few areas.
Mindfulness changes our brain
As discussed earlier in this chapter, mindfulness has the power to literally change the structure of our brains. When we practice mindfulness, areas of our brain associated with positive emotion, concentration, and empathy become more activated, while regions associated with stress and fear become inhibited.
Mindfulness takes us off autopilot
All of us are prone to fall into patterns of being on “autopilot” from time to time, whether during our morning commute or as we wash the dishes at night. In small doses this isn’t much of a problem, but in larger degrees this habit comes at a cost to our mental and physical health. Mindfulness enables us to become more present in our day-to-day lives, and helps us go from a state of mindless autopilot to becoming more fully alive and awakened.
Mindfulness changes our relationship to our thoughts
Our thoughts have a tremendous impact on our mood and mental state. Mindfulness helps in terms of managing negative thoughts in two major ways. First, it enables us to become more aware of negative thought patterns as they emerge, thereby stopping us from spiraling deeper down into depression or anxiety. Second, it enables us to treat our thoughts as mere thoughts, rather than becoming paralyzed and overwhelmed by them. When we come to view a thought as simply a thought, we disarm it rather than buy into it. Over time, mindfulness helps us to become far less troubled and distressed by the thoughts running through our head. The thoughts will still be there, but we come to see them as just that: thoughts, nothing more and nothing less. Or as Jon Kabat-Zinn puts it, “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.”
Mindfulness helps put the brakes on rumination
When we engage in rumination, we obsess over things from the past which cannot be changed, or overthink things in the future which have yet to come. Rumination is a bit like a broken record, where our mind becomes stuck playing the same song over and over again. Although rumination is an unpleasant state, mindfulness holds the power to help break this pattern by bringing us back to the present moment. So rather than incessantly thinking about the presentation we have to deliver at work, or the fight we had last night with our spouse, mindfulness allows us to find peace in the present moment. As Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist monk and author teaches us, “The present moment is filled with joy and happiness; if you are attentive, you will see it.”
Mindfulness helps us accept reality
The ancient Chinese philosopher and poet Lao Tzu once wrote, “Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow.” Modern research confirms this notion, and supports the idea that it is often our resistance to pain, rather than the pain itself, that causes the bulk of our suffering. Like quicksand, the harder we struggle against reality, the more misery we find ourselves immersed in. Mindfulness offers us a different path, and enables us to see and accept reality as it is rather than wish it away. Paradoxically, this sort of acceptance actually enables us to make healthy choices and change our lives.
Tips for Practicing Mindfulness
In just a few pages, we’ll begin reviewing a number of exercises and skills that will enable you to begin incorporating mindfulness into your everyday life. But before doing that, let’s first review a few tips and strategies that can help your practice get off the ground:
It’s OK to keep it short
Especially when you are starting out, feel free to keep your practice short and sweet. Remember, the most important thing is to begin developing a lifestyle of mindfulness, and there’s no wrong place to start. If you can carve out an hour of your day to engage in mindfulness practice, great. But if time is short (which it is in our busy lives), try starting out with ten or fifteen minutes per day and building up from there.
Consider both formal and informal practice
As psychologist Christopher Germer points out, mindfulness can be practiced both formally and informally (Germer, 2009). Formal mindfulness meditation refers to when we allot a certain period of time, say thirty minutes, to formally engage in mindfulness practice. Conversely, informal mindfulness meditation refers to taking small moments, as short as a few seconds throughout the day, to fully notice what’s happening around us and within us. Both forms of mindfulness practice can be invaluable, so feel free to experiment with what works best for you and try to incorporate both into your day-to-day life.
Be mindful during your “autopilot” activities
We’ve discussed how mindfulness exercises can be a powerful antidote against our tendency to drift aimlessly on autopilot. Therefore in some ways, there is no better place to start when it comes to practicing mindfulness. Consider the activities in which you often find yourself daydreaming or mindlessly engaged. These provide us with opportunities to turn mindlessness into mindfulness, and to approach them in a different manner. As Marcel Proust once said, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking out new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”
Don’t worry about being “good” at mindfulness
When we are first learning to practice mindfulness, many of us become stuck worrying about whether we are doing it “right,” and can even become frustrated when we feel we aren’t doing a “good job” at being mindful. These sorts of judgments can impede us and sabotage our efforts at cultivating mindfulness. When these sorts of thoughts arise, simply notice them and redirect your attention back to the moment.
Consider taking a meditation class
This is certainly only an optional suggestion, and many people choose not to do this. Though not a requirement, I can personally attest to the powerful experience of immersing yourself into mindful living through either a formal meditation class or retreat. By enrolling in this sort of experience, you’ll find that your skill will accelerate faster and will enable you to harness the many benefits of mindfulness.
Find what works for you
The tips outlined above, and the interventions that we’ll turn to next, are merely suggestions based on both the latest research on mindfulness as well as my own clinical experience. You, the individual, are the expert on you. Therefore, I invite you to experiment and test out different practices and approaches in order to find the ones that work best for you.
Mindfulness Exercise #1: Mindfulness of the Breath
As we all know from personal experience, our mind has a tendency to wander. As we learned earlier in this chapter, this takes a toll on our mind in the form of increased suffering and unhappiness (Killingsworth & Gilbert, 2010). It’s therefore very important to find an anchor, something to center us in the moment in order to come fully into the here-and-now.
Our breath serves as a perfect instrument to accomplish this goal. Our breath is always with us, operating automatically. For 24 hours a day, for every day of our lives, our breath is there like a trusted companion. Wherever we are, and whomever we are with, we can always turn to the breath as a means of grounding ourselves in the present moment. Because of this, our breath will be the focus of our first mindfulness meditation.
Instructions: Begin by finding a comfortable, peaceful place to sit. Set aside around ten minutes to start with, though you can extend this as you wish in the days to come. Sit down in a manner that’s comfortable, either in a chair or on the ground. Keep your back straight, allowing your shoulders to relax. Close your eyes, or choose a spot on the floor in front of you to focus your gaze.
1. Begin by taking three easy and gentle breaths in through your nose, followed by slow and steady exhales. With each breath, feel yourself slowing down and becoming more immersed in the
2. If you notice your mind wandering or your thoughts drifting, simply notice this and return your attention and awareness to your breath. You may notice your mind wandering at many points during this meditation; it’s simply what our mind does. Merely observe this tendency, and without judgment, return your awareness to your breathing.
3. Bring full attention now to your breathing. As you inhale and exhale, observe where in your body you notice your breath the most. Perhaps it’s in your chest, as you feel it rise and fall with each breath. Others notice their breath most strongly in their nostrils, as the air passes coolly on the way in, and slightly warmer on the way out. Still others notice the breath most clearly in their stomach and abdomen, as it rises and falls with each passing breath. Wherever it is, take a moment to simply notice where the breath is most clearly felt in your body.
4. Notice how it feels to fully focus on your inhale. As you inhale, notice any particular feelings of tension or strain, and notice the sensation of your lungs and abdomen filling up as you inhale.
5. Now gently shift your awareness to focus more on your exhale. With each exhale, notice what it’s like to feel your breath passing out through your nostrils. And observe, without judgment, anything that you feel in your body.
6. For the next few minutes, continue to breathe gently and evenly. Feel the breath as it comes in through your nose, followed by a steady exhale.
7. Notice what’s happening in your mind. If you notice your mind wandering or your thoughts drifting, don’t judge yourself or react self-critically. Simply notice this, and gently redirect your attention and awareness back to your breathing.
8. After ten minutes, gently open your eyes and bring your awareness back to your surroundings. Allow yourself to bask in the comfort and tranquility of the present moment.
For beginners in mindfulness, this exercise can either be eye-opening or frustrating. You may have noticed your mind becoming flooded with thoughts or judgments, and that’s okay. It’s our mind’s natural tendency to drift and seek out stimulation, and maintaining focused awareness on the breath may feel unnatural initially. But through practice and patience, it becomes easier over time. With practice, you’ll even grow to find immense comfort and safety in your breath, which you can turn to whenever you want.
Mindfulness Exercise #2: Raisin Meditation
One of the remarkable powers of mindfulness exercises are their ability to transform the mundane into something incredible. We’ve discussed throughout this chapter our tendency to operate on “autopilot” much of the time, with little conscious awareness of what’s happening in the moment. We drive to work, but have little memory afterwards of how we got from “Point A” to “Point B.” We read a page in a book, but then have to re-read it because our mind was elsewhere the whole time. And we polish off our favorite meal, only to realize that we barely took time to savor the experience.
In this exercise, we’ll harness the power of mindfulness to begin shutting off our autopilot and more fully connecting to the present moment. To do so, we’ll start with an activity that all of us do every day: eating. But rather than eating an entire meal in a mindful manner, we’re going to start with a much humbler goal – eating a single raisin!
To begin with, set aside around ten minutes of time when you can be undisturbed and alone. You’ll need a few raisins for this activity (or if you prefer, any other dried fruit can substitute). In addition, I recommend taking a few moments afterward to write down any reactions you have to the exercise, and what you learned from it.
Instructions: To begin with, take five to ten minutes in a quiet place. Ensure that you’ll have no distractions; be sure to turn off your phone, shut off the television, and put aside anything else that might take away your attention. For the next few minutes, you’ll be doing something that you do every day (eating), but in a different way than usual. Your intention will be to eat a raisin in a mindful manner, fully immersed in the experience.
1. Begin by taking a raisin and placing it in the palm of your hand. Glance down at it, pretending for a moment that you’ve never seen anything like it before. Alternate between holding the raisin in your hand, and placing it between your forefinger and thumb to more fully feel its texture. Notice the weight of the raisin as it rests in your hand.
2. Now take a moment to really see the raisin, paying particular attention to its subtle details. With full attention and awareness, notice the texture of the raisin, and the shadow it casts on your palm. Notice its ridges, and the particular colors it contains.
3. Placing the raisin between your fingers now, observe all of its texture with even more awareness. How does it feel to brush your fingers over the raisin? Feel the ridges on its surface.
4. Now bring the raisin up towards your nose. As you inhale, simply notice any smells or scents that you detect. Or if you cannot detect a scent, simply notice that as well, without judgment.
5. Slowly take the raisin and place it gently in your mouth. Observe what happens within your mouth when you do; perhaps you’ll find yourself salivating, or notice your tongue “reaching out” towards the raisin as you place it in your mouth. Before chewing, simply notice whatever sensations come up in your mouth now that you’ve placed the raisin on your tongue.
6. Take a single bite into the raisin, and notice how doing so affects your mouth and tongue. Notice the different textures that you can now pick up on. When you’re ready, continue to slowly chew the raisin. But before swallowing, again simply notice all that’s occurring right now in your mouth, mind, and body.
7. When you’re ready, swallow the raisin, and continue to observe any feelings, reactions, thoughts, and emotions that come up for you as you do. Without judgment, bring full awareness to whatever is happening inside of you, and take a minute to merely sit with those reactions with your eyes closed.
People have all sorts of reactions to the raisin meditation. For some, it’s an eye-opening experience, in that it demonstrates how a simple activity (eating a raisin) can be transformed into something far more meaningful. For others, it feels foreign to eat a raisin in this manner, and can even feel uncomfortable. Whatever your reactions may be, take a moment to simply notice them, and write down some quick thoughts about the exercise.
Mindfulness Exercise #3: Everyday Mindfulness
In our last mindfulness exercise, we discovered how a simple activity (eating a raisin) could be turned into something far more wondrous and meaningful. In this next exercise, we’ll take the lessons of the “Raisin Meditation” and apply them to other areas of our lives. Contrast that all-too-common tendency to be mindless as we go about the day with how we cultivated attention and awareness in the “Raisin Meditation.” Through simply focusing on what we were doing, our experience was transformed. And if we can accomplish that through the simple act of eating a tiny raisin, imagine what can happen if we foster that same level of awareness and mindfulness in other areas of our lives.
Instructions: Begin by reflecting on a handful of activities that you engage in each week, but which you often do in a mindless manner. Common examples include:
+ Walking the dog
+ Taking a shower
+ Brushing your teeth
+ Cleaning the sink
+ Eating breakfast
+ Loading/unloading the dishwasher
+ Driving to work
+ Walking to the mailbox
For the next week, choose one of these activities to focus on each day. You don’t have to change the way you do them (such as by slowing down), but rather you’ll be changing your level of focus and awareness. Using the lessons learned from the “Raisin Meditation,” engage in one activity each day in a more mindful and present manner. Use all of your senses to fully engage in the activity, rather than rushing through it or drifting elsewhere in your thoughts. For example, while brushing your teeth you might pay particular attention to the sensation of the toothbrush against your teeth and gums, the flavor of the toothpaste, and how your tongue reacts. You might notice any scents, and observe how your mouth salivates while you brush.
At the end of the week, write down some reactions to the experience. What was it like to engage in these everyday activities in a more mindful manner? How was it different than usual?
Mindfulness Exercise #4: Mindfulness of the Senses
This next mindfulness exercise builds on the “mindfulness of the breath” you practiced earlier, but broadens the practice to increase awareness through our senses. Much like the breath, we can use our various senses (sight, touch, taste, smell, and hearing) tomore fully immerse ourselves in the present moment.
Instructions: Begin by finding a comfortable, peaceful place to sit. Set aside around ten minutes to start with, though you can extend this as you wish in the days to come. Sit down in a manner that’s comfortable, either in a chair or on the ground. Keep your back straight, allowing your shoulders to relax. Close your eyes, or choose a spot on the floor in front of you to focus your gaze.
1. Begin by taking three easy and gentle breaths in through your nose, followed by slow and steady exhales. With each breath, feel yourself slowing down and becomemore immersed in the moment.
2. If you notice your mind wandering or your thoughts drifting simply notice this and return your attention and awareness to your breath. You may notice your mind wandering at many points during this meditation, it’s simply what our mind does. Merely observe this tendency, and without judgment, return your awareness to your breathing.
3. Bring full attention now to your breathing. Notice the sensation of the breath entering and leaving your body. With each breath, observe yourself becomingmore present in the moment.
4. Now shift your attention to the sounds around you. Notice the sound of your breath, slowly in and slowly out. Notice the sounds around you, even the faintest of sounds. And notice the silence. Imagine your ears as satellites, able to pick up on any sounds around you. Simply notice these things, without judgment, and without any desire for things to be different than they are.
5. Bring your awareness now to any smells you detect. As you inhale, observe any scents, strong or faint, that your nose picks up on. Again, simply notice this, without judgment.
6. Shift your focus now to feeling your body, sitting on the floor or on your chair. Notice the weight of your body being supported. Become aware of the fabric of your clothing against your skin, and the temperature of the air against your skin. Notice your hands, and where they are resting.
7. Now bring your awareness to any tastes you detect in your mouth. Whether faint or strong, simply observe any tastes that you can pick up on. Or if you cannot, simply notice that as well.
8. With your eyes closed, imagine what the room looks like around you. Paint a picture in your mind’s eye of what surrounds you in this moment. Imagine what’s on the walls, and what’s at your feet. Visualize the colors of the room where you sit.
9. Now notice what’s happening in your mind. Are your thoughts glancing back towards the past, forward towards the future, or are they here in the present? If you notice your mind wandering or your thoughts drifting, don’t judge yourself or react self-critically. Simply notice this, and gently redirect your attention and awareness back to your breathing, and to your senses.
10. After ten minutes, gently open your eyes and bring your awareness back to your surroundings. Allow yourself to bask in the comfort and tranquility of the present moment.
Mindfulness Exercise #5: A Mindful Minute
While I encourage you to try formal meditation practices like the ones presented in this chapter, I also recognize that there are times when life gets in the way. There are some days when even finding ten minutes to set aside for mindfulness is difficult, let alone a half hour. For those occasions, it’s useful to take just a few moments to cultivate mindfulness and become fully present in the moment. This next mindfulness exercise invites you to do just that.
Instructions: In our busy world, it’s important to take the time to slow down and become one with the present moment. When you’re feeling stressed, try taking a minute to slow down and cultivate mindful awareness. Whether you are at the office or in your car, and whether you’re standing up or sitting down, this exercise can be done virtually anywhere. All you need is a minute of silence. You can close your eyes if you’d like, though you don’t have to. For the next minute, put aside whatever you are doing, and focus on the following:
1. Feel your breath coming in and out of your nose. Feel your breath as it fills up your chest and lungs, and notice it as it releases on your exhale.
2. Use your senses to notice what’s happening around you. Hear the sounds around you, and feel the temperature of the air against your skin.
3. Observe whatever emotions and thoughts are within you right now. Just notice them, without judgment, and without any desire to change them.
4. Notice when your mind drifts, but bring it back each time to your breath.
5. When you are ready, open your eyes and come back to the room.
BY JONAH PAQUETTE, PSY.D.
Originally appeared on Conscious Lifesyle Mag