A Simpler Guide to Mindfulness for Beginners
“The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green earth, dwelling deeply in the present moment and feeling truly alive.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh
Does your mind ever feel like it just won’t switch off? Thoughts are spinning around and around inside your head like a carousel out of control. And the more you try to stop them, the faster they seem to go. All you want is some peace within.
Our hearts have a tendency to lead us toward things we need. So you may have already read about mindfulness and its ability to reduce stress and create more peace. Or perhaps a friend has been singing its praises. You may even have seen a poster in the doctor’s office. It sounds like something you might want. No, it feels like something you need. But, the usual suggestion to “just sit, observing your breath for 30 minutes” is confusing at best. And so you toy with the idea for a while, not sure where to begin. Or maybe you’ve even tried it once or twice, only to give up in frustration, as your monkey mind chatters louder than ever.
If you think you aren’t the “mindfulness type,” you are giving up too soon. There is a much simpler, easier way to be mindful. And I promise you, it will work just as well.
I know because I’ve been there.
A few years ago, I was going through a particularly difficult and sad time. I was spending a lot of time inside my own head, and even when I wanted to switch off, I couldn’t. At the end of the day, my body would be exhausted but my brain kept whirring. Sometimes I felt like I was going crazy. I was desperate to find a way, and I started reading a lot about meditation. I even took a few classes. But for some reason, I couldn’t make it work. It was too hard. It took too much time. So I gave up.
Then in 2009, I took a course called “Mindfulness: A Simpler Form of Meditation” as part of my psychiatry training, where I was introduced to a new way of living mindfully — an easier way, a way that actually worked for me. And will work for you, too. To be able to use this new method well, we need to first understand what mindfulness actually is.
So what is mindfulness?
Jon Kabt-Zinn, a world renowned expert in this subject, defines it as, “Paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non judgmentally.”
I love this definition, because it helps us understand that your attention, or awareness, is the crucial ingredient in Mindfulness. It has to be intentional, meaning you don’t leave it up to chance; you consciously bring your awareness to rest on something. Whatever you choose to be aware of is okay, as long as it is happening in the present moment. When the mind wanders (as it invariably will, because that’s what minds do), you just bring it gently back to your current focus of awareness.
Jon Kabt Zinn also reminds us to be non-judgmental with our awareness, meaning there is no perfect way to do this, no “standard” to judge yourself against. So, don’t get upset or disappointed when your mind wanders. All you need to do is bring it back gently and repeatedly. In traditional mindfulness, we are taught to do all this while sitting with eyes closed, observing the breath. This is hard to do, especially as beginners, because as you sit observing your breath, the thoughts often seem to get louder. Plus, you still have to go back to real life once it’s done.
So here’s the easier, simpler way: instead of sitting quietly observing your breath with your eyes closed, simply learn how to do your daily routine activities mindfully.
Let me explain. Despite our misleading Facebook updates, most of us have normal, somewhat boring daily lives filled with mundane activities such as driving, doing the dishes, cooking a meal, or taking a shower, right? Well, how about learning to do these daily activities in a mindful way?
Some benefits of this method:
Let’s think about why this might be better than the usual way, especially for beginners.
• Since these activities are already an essential part of your day, you don’t need to find a separate time for practicing mindfulness.
• You can start with small three- to five-minute activities, such as brushing your teeth.
• You can do this even if the environment around you is loud or busy.
• You can change your awareness for any urgent interruptions, and return to mindfulness mode easily.
• You can do this at work.
• It can be used a quick stress management strategy, because you will see your anxiety reduce almost immediately.
• And so many more.
So, how can you train your monkey mind in this new way of relating to every day tasks?
Practicing in real life:
Imagine you are washing the dishes. You might begin with trying to do it mindfully for just 5 minutes. Here’s how:
• Start by bringing awareness to your senses: how does the soap feel against your skin, what does it smell like (rather than describe or think about it, just enjoy actually smelling it), what shape is the dish you are holding, how does the wash cloth feel as it moves over the dish, what sound is the water making in this moment, and so on.
• You can also use your own body in this way: bringing your awareness to rest on the sensation of your hands moving as you wash, the feel of the floor against your feet, the sensation of your joints moving, etc.
• Whenever your mind wanders, just notice it and gently, with no judgment, bring it back to your senses.
• Do it for just a few minutes at a time but in those few minutes, try to get completely absorbed in your awareness of that moment.
Whatever the activity may be, and however “boring” it may seem, when you fill your awareness in this way, your mind will have no room for rumination. Rather, you will feel fully alive and present. I’m certainly not a yogi, but with constant practice, I have found it easier to include this kind of mindfulness in more and more daily activities.
Some other possible activities to combine this method with:
Use it to help you feel calm, even in the midst of a traffic jam. Use it at work, when you need a break or feel stressed out. Use it when you are eating, when you are showering, or to connect better with the person you are with in each moment. Your daily life is filled with possibilities.
Finding peace, joy, and connection doesn’t have to be just a lofty goal. And you don’t have to be Buddha. Just simply do whatever you are already doing in this very moment — in full awareness, mindfully.
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