How to Develop Mindfulness

“Our life is shaped by our mind; we become what we think. Suffering follows an evil thought as the wheels of a cart follow the oxen that draws it.” – Buddha

The choice to live a mindfulness-based life does not happen overnight, nor does it come “easily.”  Like all skills, mindfulness requires practice.  The rationale behind practicing any skill is that you will gain valuable knowledge and insight.  The same is true for practicing mindfulness.  While there is no “one way” of practicing mindfulness, there are some general guidelines for beginning to meet your experience with yourself and others from a centered place of mindful intention.

How to Develop Mindfulness

Marra (2004) discusses five basic strategies for developing mindfulness:

(1) Be mindful of one thing at a time

Mindfulness requires consciously focused attention towards one idea, feeling, or sensation held in consciousness.  You cannot be mindful of multiple things at once, since mindfulness means to pay deliberate attention to each thought, feeling, or sensation that arises in your experience.  Practice developing mindful awareness of just one thing at any given moment.

Perhaps that means being mindful of an ache in your back, noticing with full awareness its presence… not trying to judge the pain as “good” or “bad,” but rather noticing it for what it is and allowing this to be enough.  Perhaps being mindful of one thing in the moment will mean devoting your full mindful awareness to a feeling of sleepiness.  Notice all of the physical sensations that accompany that sleepy sensation.  Welcome all aspects of the reality of the present moment into your full awareness.

(2) Be nonjudgmental

When you are practicing mindfulness, you are not actively problem-solving and looking for solutions. Mindfulness means to observe your present-moment experience with curiosity, openness, acceptance, and love (Siegel, 2007). When you are choosing to cultivate your observing self through practicing mindfulness, you are also making the choice to temporarily let go of the need to change, fight, or deny any aspects of your experience.  In a state of true mindfulness, you refrain from making any judgments about your experience, no matter how painful (or wonderful) it may be… you simply let it be.

(3) Be mindful of the moment

Choose to fully observe what is happening in your internal and external experience right now. Let go of the need to focus on the past or the future and bring your full awareness to this moment in time.  Recognize that time spent dwelling on or fretting over the past is futile.  The past is gone.  There is nothing you can do to change any of it.  The future has yet to come.  There is nothing you can do to magically alter it.  The truth is that it is always now.  The way that you can “change” the future is by choosing thoughts and behaviors in the present moment that will bring about the future that you desire.  When the “future” comes, it will once again be “now.”  Let go of past and future… they are illusions.  Wake up to this present moment.

(4) Focus on your senses

Practice applying mindful awareness to all aspects of your bodily experience.  Mindfully notice what you see, hear, taste, feel, and smell.  Begin to notice small aspects of your sensory experience that you usually overlook.  Choose to direct your attention to subtle smells in the air, tastes of new and familiar foods, and sounds around you.  The idea behind directing your mindful awareness towards the experiences of your senses is to help you get in touch with aspects of your everyday experience that you usually tune out.

Notice all aspects of your felt experience without judging any of it.  Become open to comfort and discomfort.  When you stop trying to avoid things that feel uncomfortable, they lose their power over you.  Cultivate a open, curious, and gentle attitude of mindfulness towards what you sense and feel.  How does your experience change through mindful acceptance of your experience just the way that it is?

(5) Describe your experience

Begin to practice describing your internal and external experience with language.  Once you become more comfortable with mindfully noticing all aspects of the present moment, put words to that which you observe.  Describe the qualities of your present moment awareness… of your thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations.  Avoid using judgmental language or describing what you “should” think or feel.  Simply describe what you do think and feel.  If you are feeling bored, cranky, or unhappy, mindfully describe the qualities of this experience.  Allow yourself to think and feel just as you do.

Once you begin to realistically notice, describe, and accept your present-moment experience just the way that it is, you will have the power to make new choices and develop new behavioral patterns.  If your habitual pattern is to fight against your experience or deny things that are uncomfortable, choose to break this pattern by fully accepting what you are thinking and feeling.  Simply accepting that which you normally do not accept is doing something different.  The choice to act in new ways is the beginning of breaking free from your old patterns and moving towards the life you wish to lead.

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Marra, T. (2004). Depressed & anxious: The dialectical behavior therapy workbook for overcoming depression and anxiety. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

Siegel, D. (2007). The mindful brain. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Featured image: Lake St. Peter [2] by Rick Harris / CC BY-SA 2.0

About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.


  1. Mary Ross on August 24, 2011 at 1:23 pm

    I particularly like today’s thoughts. Thank you! I hope to learn more about my “observing self” as you continue!

    It is difficult for me to stop trying to problem-solve and what you write about being non-judgmental is very helpful…especially being “curious”.

    • Laura on August 28, 2011 at 8:26 pm

      Mary – I’m glad you enjoyed this article about developing mindfulness. Cultivating awareness and making use of the “observing self” is an important building block of mindfulness. The observing self is that part of you that notices your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, rather than the part of you that is actively engaged in them. Developing the observing self is very helpful in developing general self-awareness. Thanks for your comment!

  2. Mary Ross on August 28, 2011 at 9:38 pm

    Thank you! I like the image of “building blocks of mindfulness”. Eager to read more!!!

  3. Elise on August 31, 2011 at 9:39 pm

    Thanks Laura! Another great article! I really want to work on being more mindful. For me, I find I worry too much about the future. Like Mary, I tend to want to problem solve everything even when there may be no real solution. Great insight on how to work on this. Thanks! 🙂

    • Laura on September 2, 2011 at 9:34 pm

      Elise – I’m glad you found this article on developing mindfulness helpful! I also struggle with worries about the future. I try to remember that all of the time that I spend worrying about the future could be better used by engaging in actions in the present that will serve to bring about the future that I would like. It can be very difficult to disentangle oneself from those types of worrisome thoughts.

      I find mindfulness to be a generally helpful tool for being able to step back and view my thoughts, emotions, and behaviors from a different perspective. Practicing mindfulness allows me to let go out of my attachment to thoughts and feelings that ends up causing unnecessary suffering. It is easy to get into the trap of trying to problem-solve in situations where there is “no real solution.” It can be tricky to tell the difference between the things within our control and beyond it. Thanks for your comment!

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