Mindfulness implies balance, focus and living in the moment. We often associate mindfulness with meditation and dedicated practice. It is even better if it can become a habit and a continuos process.
I have found the most challenging part of mindfulness trying to carry over the benefits of practice to my hectic daily life. It is not difficult to reach a feeling of balance and peace on a beautiful retreat, or during a quiet meditation hour. While such dedicated practice is useful, too often it does not carry over to our daily lives as thoroughly as we’d like.
Luckily, mindfulness is natural. It is not a state or a level you have to unlock. It is very accessible. Small steps get you a long way. Those small steps help you break down the barrier between a time of balance and a time of stress — and this time around for the better.
Here are five methods I have found useful, collected from personal research, experience and practice of different techniques. You can apply them anywhere: sitting on the train, waiting for an appointment, standing in the elevator. You can use them to create small moments of mindfulness in your daily life. Not all of them may work for you. Feel free to make up your own.
1. Scan through the entire body for sensations.
You may have a sore back or a headache, but what do you feel in your left shoulder right now? Your abdominals? Your hips? Go through your body, in whatever order you like, observing what you feel in different parts. Leave nothing out. Every sensation, no matter how small, is equally important. Try not to jump from one strong sensation or ache to the next. Why would some parts deserve more attention just because they are sore? You’ll get there eventually (use common sense though — don’t attempt to ignore severe pain that you should treat). The goal is to just be aware, and then let that awareness pass. Both are equally good.
2. Concentrate on the breath.
A classic meditation technique, observing the breath is an easy way to root yourself, to calm down and to become aware of your state. Your breath is always there. When you concentrate on it, don’t try to moderate it. Observe it the way you found it. You may count your breaths but you don’t have to. You can concentrate on the movement in your abdomen and lungs, or in your nasal passages (and potentially your mustache, a highly useful meditational aide).
3. Isolate your senses.
Concentrate your attention on one sense at a time. You can start anywhere. Attempt to catch discrete details. Look at a tree: see leaves, twigs, branches, trunk, roots. Listen to a train: hear the low rumble, the clanking, the high-pitched screeches. Feel your body: a tingle on your skin, texture of your clothes (if applicable), pressure of a position. Use taste and smell, too. Attempt to catch as much of reality with any one sense as you can. Rest assured that you will never catch everything — it will simply flow through your senses. That’s how it goes, and that’s fine.
4. Practice simultaneous sensory perception.
This works well in connection with the previous method. Attempt to capture as much of reality as you can with multiple senses at the same time. Start with two — the easiest are sight and sound. See and hear at the same time, being equally aware of both senses. It is easiest when most of the sound comes from what ever you are looking at. Then, pay attention also to sounds coming from outside your visual focus. Next, broaden your visual focus and try to see and hear as much as possible at once.
Combine other less dominant senses with the more dominant ones. Try to listen and feel physical sensations at the same time (closing your eyes will help). Try to see and taste at once, even if what you are tasting is not in your visual focus. Later, combine more than two senses into your simultaneous focus. Do not be discouraged if you find this overwhelming. It is not easy. Importantly, be aware of what senses you want to focus on, and sharpen your focus on only them.
5. Observe moments of non-verbal thought.
The last tip is a simple version of clearing your mind. There is interesting recent research and evidence about all human conscious thought happening “after the fact.” To simplify the theory, it seems we have an internal narrative that creates rational justifications for what we do in a moment. This internal narrative gives us the illusion of ourselves as rational, consciously behaving individuals. The narrative necessarily happens after our behavior — not only in the case of nearly automatic behavior like driving a car, but also in the case of such seemingly highly rationalized decisions like which stock to buy. Even the decisions that we would swear are the result of rational thought could in fact be verbally rationalized after the decision. We do plan our behavior, but even in this case we make small decisions (heuristics) as we plan, and this is what our planning consists of. Our private narrative makes up for this, creating a picture of conscious thought. Why this is is up for speculation. I suspect it works to support our concept of a continuous, persistent individual personality.
Now — if you are still with me — you do not have to subscribe to such radical philosophy of mind to benefit. It merely adds weight to relinquishing your internal narrative at least temporarily in order to truly live in the moment. There are moments when you do not think in words. Observing and attempting to lengthen such moments can require tremendous concentration. It can also be a valuable exercise.
All the previous methods provide you with a basis of focus for this method. With your focus on a sensation, on your breathing or on multiple senses at once, observe a lack of verbalization. There is no explanation in your mind, no description of what you are experiencing. You do not need one to experience what you are experiencing. Try to catch and observe that moment. Linger on it if you can.
Mindfulness is a state. Like all human states, it is not a static goal, but a dynamic process. More important than starting in the right place, or with the right technique or the right teacher — is just starting. Start anywhere. Happy travels. Let me know how you get along.