10 Mindfulness Exercises to Help You Live a Mindful Life
When our minds are mindful and aware it can dramatically change the nature of our day and transform our relationship with ourselves, others and the world. Practicing mindfulness helps us reconnect and remove barriers that prevent us from enjoying each moment. Mindfulness brings us back to the present moment, to discover the joy that is already here; we were just too busy to notice it. Below are 10 mindfulness exercises that you can try to bring a touch of mindfulness to your day. These are sure-fire ways of developing mindfulness so you can quickly experience its great benefits.
Learning to meditate on our breath is the most effective way to jumpstart our mindfulness. Most of us don’t live in the present moment. We are consumed with thoughts about the past and the future. But when we meditate on our breath it forces our awareness to the present, as the breath can only exist in the present moment. With repeated practice this simple technique will strengthen our ‘muscle of mindfulness’, so we can bring mindfulness into our day, even when we’re off the cushion.
“Breathing in, there is only the present moment. Breathing out, it is a wonderful moment.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh
Watch a guided mindfulness meditation I filmed on how to meditate on our breath.
2. Check your posture
Throughout the day bring your awareness to your posture. Whether you are sitting, lying down or standing, just bring all your attention to your body. This technique has an immediate grounding effect and restores our mindfulness. The aim is to simply be aware of the sensations that the body is feeling right at that moment. Whether it feels the pressure of the couch, the ground underneath our feet, or a slight breeze on our arms; we simply scan our body up and down and notice whatever sensations are present. You only have to do this for a minute or two, then return your attention to whatever task you were doing. The aim is to try and remember to observe your posture and its sensations as often as you can throughout the day.
3. Enjoy queuing up!
When standing in line (for instance, if you are queuing up to buy lunch, waiting to use the ATM, or even waiting at the traffic lights), bring your attention to the present moment instead of being fixated on getting to the front and being served, or getting to your destination. Bring all your attention to your body, its posture and how it’s feeling. Take note of the environment and the people around you. Use the opportunity to take some deep mindful breaths and release any tension that might be in your body or your mind.
4. Turn off the music
Many of us enjoy listening to music while we work, drive, exercise or do house chores. But without noticing it, it may actually become another distraction for our mind and become an obstacle to developing any present moment awareness. I used to have a continuous soundtrack in my mind, whether I was listening to music or not. No matter where I was, or what I was doing, I always had a song ‘playing’ in my head. It wasn’t until I discovered meditation that I became aware of the mental noise in my mind. Not only did I have the usual mental commentary and proliferation filling my mind, but there was also a corresponding soundtrack backing it up as well! My first taste of mindfulness allowed me to see this mental noise and one of the things I found myself doing naturally was to stop listening to the radio when I drove to work, the shops, or anywhere.
Music might be our way of creating excitement and happiness in what is otherwise considered to be a boring and mundane activity. But when we practice mindfulness properly, the inner peace and stillness that springs from our attention to the activity creates a lasting joy that will continue long after the music has stopped. In fact, there is no activity that is not worthy of our attention or appreciation, it’s just we have become habituated towards looking for some greater happiness, and we identify the ‘buzz’ or ‘high’ we get from music as happiness.
Next time, instead of filling our minds with more noise, try bringing all your attention to the activity itself. Do it as if you were doing it for the first time; be curious. Doing chores or driving, for instance, is only boring when you don’t pay complete attention. When you’re driving, don’t be in a rush to get to your destination. If you’re running late for work, even then there is no need to rush – you know you’re late, so you might as well enjoy the drive! So when you drive with mindfulness, be aware of the motions of your hands as it changes gears, your feet as they touch the pedals, notice the sky and scenery around you. You can also bring your attention to your breath and meditate on it as you drive. (You can use the same technique taught in the above video for all your everyday activities).
If we really bring our concentration to the task we are engaged in, then the power developed by our mindfulness will bring about a happiness and tranquility that naturally exists within our minds. This way an inner happiness will be stimulated; one that isn’t reliant on an external stimuli, such as music.
5. Turn your phone to silent
Ok, before you label me a killjoy (because first no music, and now no phones), let me explain why turning your phone to silent is a mindfulness practice and will change your relationships with others. Generally when we’re with our family or friends, we are there physically with them, but many times we tend to switch off, because we think we’ve heard the same old story from them before. Or when we’re at home going about our everyday activities, we’re often listening to our partner or child with only half an ear. Instead our minds are thinking about what we’re doing or what we have to do in the future; rarely do we give others our undivided attention. But to live a mindful life means to be fully present with everything and everyone, especially the people we hold most dear. I’m sure you would agree that they deserve the best of our attention, and yet we often give them the least.
Turning our phone to silent, might also mean turning off the TV, and really looking and listening to our family members. We wouldn’t like people to give us their divided attention, so why do we give it to others? Being mindful with others means to really pay attention, to really listen to what is being said. Often when we really listen we will hear what their heart has been trying to tell us for a long time. This might be the first time we’ve really heard them and because they know they’ve finally been heard, they won’t need to repeat the ‘same old story’. When we are fully present with someone and hold them with awareness, the situation becomes sacred, loving and powerful. Our hearts will leap with happiness from the generosity we’ve given them, and your relationship will be strengthened with unconditional love. So next time you are with someone, whether it’s a co-worker, friend or family member, really be present and attentive and give them your complete attention.
6. Notice 5 in 3 – See, Hear, Feel
Every now and then, challenge yourself to find five things that are part of your present experience. First notice five things that you can see with your eyes. They don’t necessarily have to be interesting; it might just be just a table, the carpet, the TV, a cup, and a plate in front of you. The aim is simply to bring your full awareness to your experience now in the present moment.
Then notice five things you can hear. Keep listening until you’ve distinguished five different sounds.
Then notice five things you can feel with your body. These might be the pressure of the couch, the material of your clothes, a slight breeze, tension in your neck, or air breathing into your nostrils.
Then just rest your mind in this present moment awareness which you’ve just cultivated, and remain in that awareness for as long as you want. Then mindfully go back to your tasks.
“If we are not fully ourselves, truly in the present moment, we miss everything.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh
7. Meditate while you walk
“When we walk like we are rushing, we print anxiety and sorrow on the earth. We have to walk in a way that we only print peace and serenity on the earth… Be aware of the contact between your feet and the earth. Walk as if you are kissing the earth with your feet.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh
Meditation doesn’t need to be something we only do when we are sitting on the cushion. Walking meditation is a popular meditation technique that is often taught to help us continue our meditation (and mindfulness) when we’re not able to sit for long periods of time. Walking meditation is a simple technique that requires us to pay attention to the movement of the feet and legs as we lift them up and place one in front of the other. Traditionally, walking meditation is done very slowly so we can bring all our awareness to every movement and sensation.
A common walking meditation technique is to label all our movements. So as you begin lifting one foot slowly, you mentally recite ‘lifting, lifting’, then as you move it forward mentally recite, ‘moving, moving’ and then as you bring it down, mentally recite ‘dropping, dropping’. Then you repeat the same technique for the other foot. Speed doesn’t equate with skill or mastery here. In fact, the slower you go, the better your concentration will probably be.
In everyday life you won’t be able to walk as slowly as you do in walking meditation, and you shouldn’t try mentally labeling the movements anymore (so no need to recite, ‘lifting, moving, dropping’), but practicing this technique can help foster a greater awareness of your body and its movements, which will ultimately help with present moment awareness as you go about your day-to-day activities.
You can watch a demonstration of this technique in the video below.
8. Be here now
This great piece of advice comes from the well-known spiritual teacher, Ram Dass.
We should ask ourselves: Where am I?
Then ask ourselves: What time is it?
We should keep repeating the questions and answers to ourselves until we really feel it. Keep repeating until you really feel grounded in present moment reality. Let all the thoughts about the future or the past to just slip away.
It’s handy to write the questions on a sticky-note and stick it to your computer so you can continuously see it throughout the day and reflect on it.
“Life can be found only in the present moment. The past is gone, the future is not yet here, and if we do not go back to ourselves in the present moment, we cannot be in touch with life.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh
9. Make the mundane sacred
Just because we have to do chores around the house, doesn’t mean that they have to be boring and uninteresting. We can transform these activities into mindfulness practices by slowing them down and really paying attention. For instance, when we do the washing up at night, instead of rushing through it and treating it with revulsion (because we want to get back to our favorite TV show), we can slow down the movements and try to be mindful of every part of the activity. We can notice the suds and the smell of the detergent, the feeling of moving our hand over the dishes, our intention to move them, the feeling of the water on one’s fingers, the warmth and fluidity of the water, etc.
Thich Nhat Hanh, a much loved Buddhist teacher, monk and Nobel Peace Prize nominee, has this to say about washing the dishes:
To my mind, the idea that doing the dishes is unpleasant can occur only when you are not doing them. Once you are standing in front of the sink with your sleeves rolled up and your hands in warm water, it really is not so bad. I enjoy taking my time with each dish, being fully aware of the dish, the water, and each movement of my hands. I know that if I hurry in order to go and have a cup of tea, the time will be unpleasant and not worth living. That would be a pity, for each minute, each second of life is a miracle. The dishes themselves and the fact that I am here washing them are miracles! Each bowl I wash, each poem I compose, each time I invite a bell to sound is a miracle, each has exactly the same value. One day, while washing a bowl, I felt that my movements were as sacred and respectful as bathing a newborn Buddha. If he were to read this, that newborn Buddha would certainly be happy for me, and not at all insulted at being compared with a bowl.
Each thought, each action in the sunlight of awareness becomes sacred. In this light, no boundary exists between the sacred and the profane. I must confess it takes me a bit longer to do the dishes, but I live fully in every moment, and I am happy. Washing the dishes is at the same time a means and an end that is, not only do we do the dishes in order to have clean dishes, we also do the dishes just to do the dishes, to live fully in each moment while washing them.
If I am incapable of washing dishes joyfully, if I want to finish them quickly so I can go and have a cup of tea, I will be equally incapable of drinking the tea joyfully. With the cup in my hands I will be thinking about what to do next, and the fragrance and the flavor of the tea, together with the pleasure of drinking it, will be lost. I will always be dragged into the future, never able to live in the present moment.
10. Mindful eating
Many of us are probably guilty of eating unmindfully. We shovel in our food without even tasting it. Slowing down our eating will not only help us to enjoy our food more, but it will increase our overall mindfulness. I wrote an article on mindful eating that includes a brief eating meditation, which you can read here.
“If we are peaceful, if we are happy, we can smile and blossom like a flower, and everyone in our family, our entire society, will benefit from our peace.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh
Thich Nhat Hanh has written extensively on how to incorporate mindfulness into our daily life. Some of his bestselling books include:
Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life
You Are Here: Discovering the Magic of the Present Moment
My Other Posts On Mindfulness
My talk on Letting Go & Developing Unconditional Love with Mindfulness
Mindfulness – Finding Joy In the Present Moment
Mindfulness Training – Live Without Fleeing the Now
Mindful Eating – A Taste of Mindfulness
You can find a complete collection of my videos on Buddhism and meditation at The Enthusiastic Buddhist Society.
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