Mindfulness is not an easy concept to grasp.
When I teach mindfulness, I like to break it down into three distinct operations: technique, practice, and experience. If you learn the techniques and practice them daily, you’ll eventually experience the world in an entirely different (less judgmental, less anxiety-producing, more accepting) way.
Even broken down, however, mindfulness can feel confusing to a newcomer.
Wait…am I breathing the right way? How many minutes of meditation is “enough?” Can I lie down, or do I need to sit upright? If I have an itch, am I allowed to scratch it? I don’t feel the benefits yet; could I be doing it wrong?!?
Relax. You don’t need to have it all figured out just yet.
One easy way to start practicing mindfulness is by simply tuning in to our senses of hearing, touch, sight, taste, and smell. When we use these familiar tools as our guide, we can begin to see the ways in which paying attention, without judgment, can absolutely transform our lives.
Listening is free and a great way to focus your attention on the present moment. Try closing your office door and setting a timer for five minutes. Take in the omnipresent hum of the HVAC system, the sound of voices rising and falling in the hallway, the ticking of a clock, or your own stomach growling. Move outdoors and tune in to the sound of the wind through the trees, children laughing on the playground, or cars in the distance.
Listen in your home to the creaking of the walls, the dishwasher as it swishes through its cycle, or that one stubborn branch that insists on scraping against the back door. What sounds can you discern that would otherwise blend into the background? Do any of the sounds spark concern (e.g. a police car siren or a baby’s cry)? What do you notice?
My favorite mindfulness activity around touch right now is to acknowledge, revel in, and feel grateful for the warm, flannel softness of my bedsheets. Tomorrow morning, instead of bounding out of bed at the first “ding!” of the alarm (or getting bunched up about the upcoming stress of the day), take a moment and allow your thoughts to linger on the smooth feel of the sheets against your skin, the firm comfort of the mattress supporting your weight, the warmth of your partner’s body, and gratitude for the blessings of shelter and rest.
Paying close attention to what we can see with our eyes can be a double-edged sword. Every once in awhile, I make the mistake of donning my reading glasses while still in front of the bathroom mirror. Under the cruel glare of fluorescent lighting, I can see details that I was previously, blissfully unaware of—giant pores, sundry blemishes, sloppily applied makeup, and, my personal favorite, mustache hairs. And while this level of focus and attention does tend to drown out other concerns, it’s not what I would call relaxing.
Instead, try noticing peaceful or interesting details in the world around you: the subtle color variations in a single leaf, for example, or the evening sky as light slowly and gloriously transitions into darkness. Whenever I think of mindful seeing, I remember Cheryl Strayed’s recounting of her mother’s advice: “There’s always a sunrise and always a sunset and it’s up to you to choose to be there for it. Put yourself in the way of beauty.” It’s hard to focus on your worries when nature is on full, breathtaking display in front of you.
The concepts of both “mindful eating” and “intuitive eating” have gained a lot of traction in recent years, and for good reason. (We’ve all had the experience of finding ourselves at the bottom of a bag of chips without really knowing how we got there, am I right???). To help ground yourself in the present moment, try paying attention to your first bite or sip of something.
You don’t need to chew a single morsel 50 times, fighting back nausea as the original substance becomes increasingly diluted by saliva. Just notice what happens when you put that first bite in your mouth. Identify any emotions that come up (e.g. delight, disgust, regret, surprise). Consider the temperature of the food and any associations with its unique texture. By focusing on this one bite, you strengthen your mindfulness muscle and give your brain a tiny but important break from the fretful thoughts that many of us entertain on a near-constant loop.
My 12-year-old son has a set of baby blankets with which he still sleeps (and brings back and forth between his two houses, and holds in his lap on the way to and from school, while watching TV, or when reading in bed). Every once in a while I’m able to wrestle the blankets away from him for a turn in the washing machine, and they emerge from the dryer warm and smelling of lavender.
As wonderful as that sensation is, though, nothing compares to the smell of the blankets once they’ve taken on the scent of my child. He knows I love it, and every once in a while he cheekily offers me a “hit” off the blankets. I inhale deeply, and during that moment not a single thing is on my mind other than the sweet, familiar scent, the softness of the worn fabric, and gratitude for my child.
Brené Brown has said, “I don’t have to chase extraordinary moments to find happiness—it’s right in front of me if I’m paying attention and practicing gratitude.” I think this quote translates perfectly to mindfulness.
We don’t have to read a book or take a course or meditate for 30 minutes every day (although all of those activities sound wonderful) to become more mindful. When we engage our senses, mindfulness is right in front of us, all the time.
All we have to do is pay attention.