While the concept of mindfulness may be a very simple concept in theory, it is far more difficult in practice. It may be especially difficult if you find that you have been living a large portion of your life essentially on “autopilot.” This results in going through the motions of the days, the weeks, and even the years, without being fully present to your ongoing moment-by-moment experience. For some, the realization of living on autopilot is like suddenly recognizing that life is not really being lived – it is being wasted. There is no time like the present moment to wake up to this realization and begin to actively reengage with your life’s purpose.
Basic Mindfulness Exercises
I hope that you will enjoy the second part of these basic mindfulness exercises, adapted from The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook (McKay, Wood, & Brantley, 2007).
(6) Record Three Minutes of Thoughts
Similar to the “Inner-Outer Experience” exercise, this mindfulness practice is intended to encourage you to recognize and focus on your thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations. Try setting a timer for three minutes and simply begin to write down every thought that goes through your mind on a piece of paper. Don’t try to edit your thoughts or write them out word for word, just record each idea or concept that occurs to you. An example of a thought might be about an important upcoming presentation.
Rather than writing out specific details about the presentation, simply write “presentation.” See how many thoughts you can record in three minutes, no matter how small or seemingly unimportant. When you are finished, count the number of thoughts that you had in those three minutes and multiply that number by twenty to get a sense of how many thoughts you tend to have in a whole hour. Are you surprised by the results? What meaning can you take away from this exercise?
(7) Thought Defusion
This technique is borrowed from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, and is shown to be quite effective in the treatment of emotional distress. When we have distressing thoughts, there is a tendency to get “stuck” on them. Thought defusion can help you mindfully observe these distressing thoughts without getting bogged down by them. Ultimately, it can allow you the freedom to consciously select which thoughts you wish to focus on and which thoughts you would like to let go.
The idea of this exercise is to visualize your thoughts (e.g., as pictures, words, or symbols) harmlessly floating away from you. Try imagining your thoughts as leaves floating past you on a slowly moving river. If any particular thoughts keep coming up, just allow them to pass by again – notice them, observe them, and let them go.
(8) Describe Your Emotion
The previous exercises have focused on becoming mindful of both thoughts and physical sensations. This exercise, aptly named “Describe Your Emotion” is designed to do just that. Simple enough, right? Try picking an emotion – it can be pleasant or unpleasant, but not so overwhelming that you worry about feeling out of control. Ideally, choose an emotion that you are experiencing right now. Once you have an emotion in mind, write it down on a piece of paper. Begin by naming the emotion and then continue with the exercise by drawing a picture that you believe represents this emotion for you.
Next, try writing down a related action and sound for the emotion. Notice what you are experiencing throughout the exercise. If you feel overwhelmed at any point, pause momentarily and bring your focus gently back to the exercise. Continue by describing the intensity and quality of the emotion. What thoughts are related to this emotion? Becoming more mindful of the full experience of a given emotion helps us to be more present to our emotional experiences.
(9) Focus Shifting
This exercise is about learning to identify what you are focusing on in your ongoing moment-to-moment stream of conscious awareness. This is somewhat similar to Part One’s “Focus Shifting” exercise, where you practice shifting your attention between your inner and outer experience. The difference is that this exercise centers around learning to shift your attention between emotions and senses and to understand the difference between the two.
Begin by checking in with yourself to identify how you are feeling. If you think you’re feeling “nothing,” try giving that emotional experience a label … it could even be “bored” or “content.” Close your eyes and bring your attention towards your current emotional experience – what would this emotion look like if it was an object? Imagine this object. Now, open your eyes and redirect your focus towards a physical object in the room. Mindfully observe this object. If your attention begins to wander, just gently bring it back to the exercise.
Return your focus towards your internal emotional experience. Next, shift your mindful awareness towards another sensory experience in the room – perhaps noticing a particular sound or smell. What was it like for you to mindfully shift your attention between your internal emotional experience and your outer senses?
(10) Mindful Breathing
This tenth basic mindfulness exercise will help you learn to separate your thoughts from your emotions and physical sensations. A wonderful strategy to use when feeling overwhelmed or overstimulated by something in your internal or external experience (e.g., intense negative emotions or an unpleasant external situation) is to return to your breath. Your breathing is something that you always carry with you that you can return to in moments of distress or even crisis.
To breathe mindfully, focus on three parts of the experience: count your breaths, focus on the physical act of breathing, and be aware of any thoughts that arise while breathing. Remember what you learned in the thought defusion exercise to let go of distracting thoughts without getting “stuck” on them. Many people report a sense of becoming “one” with their breath. Remember not to be too hard on yourself if you find it difficult to keep your attention focused. The more you are frustrated with yourself and react, the more difficult it will become to be mindful. When your attention wanders, simply gently redirect it back to your breath.
What benefits did you notice from beginning to practice these basic mindfulness exercises? For many people, basic mindfulness is surprisingly difficult. Rather than letting this difficulty frustrate you, recognize that any difficulties that you are having with focusing mindful attention on the present moment are simply telling you what you need to work on. Was it difficult to sit still for even five minutes without external distractions? This is a good indicator that this ability to sit still is something you need to cultivate.
Or perhaps, was it difficult to notice your thoughts in a nonjudgmental manner, watching them pass by as leaves on a stream? If so, then this may be area for you to focus on in the future. Instead of seeing difficulties as insurmountable hurdles or telling yourself that you “can’t” do something, use these difficulties as opportunities and signs of important areas for growth. Start learning how to reframe your personal difficulties as challenges towards becoming the best version of yourself.
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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: Free face of a child with eyes closed meditation by Pink Sherbet Photography / CC BY 2.0