“An operational working definition of mindfulness is: the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.” – Jon Kabat-Zinn
Mindfulness is a powerful skill that has been taught for thousands of years by many world religions: Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Christianity, to name a few. In the 1980s, Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn introduced nonreligious mindfulness skills to patients dealing with chronic pain. Since this time, mindfulness meditation and exercises have been integrated into many forms of psychotherapy, including Dialectical Behavior Therapy. A recent study has even shown that daily meditation and being mindful of daily events may be just as effective as taking medication to prevent relapses of depression. Yet another study indicated that meditation exercises are shown to boost mood and mental toughness.
While this all sounds wonderful, it can be quite difficult to be fully present to the reality unfolding around us. To be mindful of the present moment involves being aware of emotions, thoughts, physical sensations, and actions in the present moment, without judging, criticizing, or assigning meaning to these events (McKay, Wood, & Brantley, 2007). Simple enough, right? Maybe not. We live in an incredibly fast-paced society, full of distractions and diversions. At any given moment, there may be so much sensory input coming in from the external world and from our internal chatter that it can be quite challenging to bring ourselves back to the present moment.
Basic Mindfulness Exercises
Below are some basic mindfulness exercises to begin the process of awakening to the constantly unfolding present moment, adapted from The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook (McKay, Wood, & Brantley, 2007):
(1) A “Mindless” Exercise
People often get distracted from the present moment and “zone out.” When this happens, you are no longer present to your life. It is going on around you, but you are not participating. Common consequences of not being present are feeling lost, anxious, or frustrated. Other people in your life may be frustrated with you for not being present. What follows are some common situations in which many of us experience being unmindful. Notice which situations resonate with you. Identifying common themes is a great place to start reengaging with the present moment.
- In the middle of a conversation, you suddenly realize that you haven’t heard what the other person just said and you feel lost or confused.
- While walking into a room, you suddenly forget why you entered the room in the first place.
- While talking with another person, you are so distracted by what you want to say next that you aren’t really listening to what is being said.
- After putting something down, you find that you cannot remember where you just placed it.
- While taking a shower, you are so busy thinking about something that just happened or is going to happen later that you forget what you’ve already washed or not washed.
- While driving, you are so distracted about your day’s events or tomorrow’s events that you forget which roads you took or where you are going.
(2) Focus on a Single Minute
This is a simple concept that can have a powerful impact. The purpose of this exercise is to help you become more aware of your internal sense of time. Many of us have the sensation that time passes very quickly, resulting in the desire to rush to “get things done.” When you are always focused on the next thing to do, you lose sight of the present moment. Others have the sense of time passing very slowly, which may result in the sense that you have more time than you actually do. Find a comfortable place to sit where you will be undisturbed. Begin timing yourself with a watch or timer. Now, without looking at the timer, simply sit. When you believe one minute has passed, stop the timer. Notice how much time has actually passed. What insight did you gain from this simple exercise?
(3) Focus on a Single Object
One of the biggest hurdles to mindfulness is the experience of your attention wandering from one thought to the next. The result is feeling lost, anxious, or overwhelmed. You are unfocused in these moments. The purpose of this exercise is to train yourself to focus your attention on a single object that you are observing. Begin by sitting comfortably in a place where you will be undisturbed. Choose an object to focus on and, without touching it, begin looking at the object with mindful awareness. Take your time to notice all aspects of this object: shape, texture, color, etc. Now, hold it in your hand and notice the different ways that it feels. If your attention wanders during this exercise, gently bring your focus back to the object. Was this surprisingly difficult for you, or not?
(4) Band of Light
Many of us may feel a sense of disconnection between our thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations. We may even feel that our physical body is foreign or detached. This exercise is intended to help you become more mindful of the physical sensations in your body. Find a comfortable place to sit where you won’t be distracted for about ten minutes. Use your imagination to envision a narrow band of white light encircling the top of your head like a halo. Now imagine this band of light slowly moving down your body, becoming mindfully aware of the physical sensations of each part of your body as the band of light progresses down. If your attention wanders, just gently direct it back to the physical sensations you experience as the light moves from the top of your head all the way down to your toes. What did you notice while engaging in this exercise?
(5) Inner-Outer Experience
The previous exercises helped you focus on being mindful of both internal and external events. This exercise is designed to combine these two experiences. Try shifting your attention back and forth between your internal experience (i.e., bodily sensations, thoughts, and feelings) and your external experience (i.e., what you notice with your eyes, ears, nose, and sense of touch). What was it like for you to practice mindfully guiding your attention between these two realms of experiencing?
Consider how you can integrate one or more of these basic mindfulness exercises into your daily routine. Something as simple as taking a few minutes each morning to practice mindfulness can result in wonderful changes in your everyday experiencing of the present moment.
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McKay, M., Wood, J.C., & Brantley, J. (2007). The dialectical behavior therapy skills workbook. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
Featured image: CYP0015745 by miyukiutada / CC BY 2.0