While many of us are dealing with a personal hell we’d like to escape right now — a breakthrough infection, dodging maskless shoppers at the grocery store, being stuck online once more, or that exhausting feeling of pandemic déjà vu — staying in the present moment can provide enormous benefits when we use mindfulness to find stillness in the midst of chaos.
But how can we feel peaceful when we’re bombarded by digital notifications, a relentless news cycle, an endless workload, and feelings of anxiety or sadness? While all of this can be daunting, mindfulness can help us gently disrupt our feelings and thoughts’ inertia. It makes room for us to notice a racing heart, a troubled mind, or compulsive thoughts about the future, and to treat ourselves with tenderness and compassion. While mindfulness isn’t a cure-all for all ills, and it’s certainly no alternative for changing the faulty economic structures that put so many people in poverty, it may help us feel more at rest no matter what’s going on around us.
“It keeps us from getting caught up in these thought spirals that can lead to increased worry,” says Diana Winston, director of mindfulness education at the Mindful Awareness Research Center at the University of California, Los Angeles. “We’re attempting to retrain our thinking to be a little more stable.”
Many people are lured to the promise of mindfulness but are unsure where to start. While mindfulness apps might be beneficial, you don’t have to purchase or subscribe to one to learn about the practice. Winston supplied the following list when I asked her to share her best mindfulness exercises for beginners:
Meditation for mindfulness
According to Winston, who is also the author of The Little Book of Being: Practices and Guidance for Uncovering Your Natural Awareness, a meditation practice is typically the starting point for acquiring mindfulness. Meditation provides a beneficial habit and framework for developing awareness, which is a skill that takes time to master.
The simplest way to begin, according to Winston, is to set aside five minutes in a quiet location with few or no distractions. You can sit on a couch or chair, close your eyes if you choose, and connect with yourself by focusing on your breathing. Is pain primarily felt in your abdomen, nose, or chest? Keep your focus on that sensation and keep it there.
When a thought or observation draws your attention away from the sensation of the breath, observe it with interest and openness. If tracing your breath is too physically challenging, try listening to the sounds that surround you as they arrive and go. For example, listen to the sound of a fan or an airplane. The same rule applies: if your attention wanders, return it to the sound immediately.
“Our ideas can be fascinating,” Winston adds, “but it’s also vital to develop an awareness of when thinking produces additional psychological or emotional distress because it’s obsessive or anti-relaxing.”
Meditation while walking
If sitting meditation isn’t for you — don’t worry, you’re not alone — Winston recommends walking meditation. Begin by deciding on a location within your home or outside. Then take a 10-foot walk and turn around. Pay great attention to the altering feelings in your feet and legs during this period. Slow down, take each stride slowly, and try to notice even the tiniest muscle movements. Return your focus to those sensations when your attention is taken away by something else. Though a longer walk will expose you to additional distractions, you can use the same strategy of returning to physical sensations whenever your mind has wandered.
Mindfulness meditation does not work for everyone, according to Winston. Some folks have intolerable anxiety or don’t get the benefits that come with it. If that’s the case, she suggests additional habits or hobbies to assist build increased appreciation for and connection with the present moment while reducing distraction. It could be taking a walk in the woods, going for a run, or listening to music.
“Where are your areas that invite you to be mindful…and take you away from your cares and concerns?” she asks.
Exercising STOP — Come to a halt, take a deep breath, observe, and then proceed
Winston utilizes the abbreviation STOP to represent a “mini-mindfulness” exercise in which you stop what you’re doing, take a deep breath, notice how you’re feeling, and then resume your activity. After a work meeting, after a toddler’s meltdown, while online shopping, or while negotiating packed aisles at the grocery store, this may be done in as little as 10 seconds. The goal is to pay attention to what’s going on in your body and mind at the time. Physical indications of tension or happiness, such as a raised heart rate or a calm posture, can aid in the development of consciousness.
Feel the ground beneath your feet
It’s as simple as noticing how your feet feel on the ground for this workout. “We become lost in our heads and forget we have a body when we’re lost in these ideas and distractions, concerns and worries,” Winston explains. She suggests that you feel the ground’s support to develop the connection between your mind and body, which will boost your sense of awareness in the present moment.
Combine mindfulness with a time-consuming task
It’s easy to go an entire day without practicing mindfulness when it’s a new habit or when you’re under a lot of stress. Winston suggests building a brief mindfulness practice out of an everyday task that you do on a regular basis. It could be anything as simple as changing a baby’s diaper, unlocking the front door, or turning the ignition key. Feel your hand’s relationship to the key as it rotates it, and pay attention to the sensation. Whatever you do, keep a tight eye on the activities. Instead of mentally checking off a to-do list or anticipating what will happen later in the day, that brief break can help you return to the present moment.
Winston responds, “It does pile up, the little moments add up.”
What if remaining in present situation is extremely difficult?
The present moment can be a nightmare at times. Perhaps you or someone you care about is sick. Perhaps you’ve heard some devastating news. You may be rightfully angry and need to express yourself. It’s not about pretending we’re not in pain when we practice mindfulness.
Mindfulness, on the other hand, can assist us in recognizing when we are in significant distress. Rather than allowing instinct to dictate our behavior, mindfulness allows us to perceive problems for what they are. We might turn to radical acceptance at those moments, which Tara Brach, a psychotherapist and meditation instructor, defines as “the bravery to face and accept our reality as it is now.” We don’t condone or ignore that fact, but we do show compassion to ourselves.
Winston believes that simple physical movements, like as placing your palm over your heart, as well as statements like “It’s OK, I’ll get through this,” can assist. If it’s too mushy for you, imagine that a loved one is sending you affection or that your dog or cat (if they aren’t already) is snuggling up next to you.
Winston advises, “Having some kindness for yourself in the thick of it is incredibly important.”
When you need mindfulness the most, you may — and will — fight it. There’s no need to chastise yourself for missing out on mindfulness opportunities. It isn’t about being perfect in your practice.
Winston says, “The more conscious we are, the more we will start to show up for our life. Instead of confusion and panic, we’ll feel more thanks and appreciation, and we’ll have these moments of tranquility.”
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