Thoughtful young man

There’s a lot of mystery and seriousness surrounding the concept of mindfulness, but simply put, mindfulness is about training your mind to pay attention to one thing and only one thing at a time.

When I first started practicing mindfulness, my practice was called “drink a cup of coffee.” It involved me sitting in a chair and drinking my coffee without doing anything else. Just drinking a cup of coffee. The training was rough. My mind came up with no less than a hundred things I needed to do, most of them immediately: Check my email, check Slack, feed the dog, fold a load of laundry, make a list for the day. My practice was to weather the storm and stay seated until I’d finished my cup of coffee.

My mind has always been busy. Quieting it down to drink a cup of coffee was a practice.

Mindfulness is about developing some degree of mastery over your thinking and attention. Once you have some choice and ability to focus your mind, you are much more likely to access your “wise self” — your intuition or deeper sensibility, the part of you knows what’s needed, what will work, what next step to take. The part of you that can access compassion and empathy. The part of you that can create belonging for people. The part of you that is clear about what works and what doesn’t.

Think of it like training an adorable new puppy. Priority number one when you are training a puppy is to get them to pee outside. But they have to learn. So, you work with them, with kindness and firmness. You know to go slow and not expect overnight results. Sometimes there are accidents. But you don’t yell at the puppy. You simply return to the training. Remember, your mind, like the puppy, IS trainable!

To help further demystify mindfulness, I thought I’d share three other practices that I use.

Mindfulness Practice #1 Sitting

I call this practice “sitting” rather than meditation. It’s so simple that it’s impossible to do wrong. Avoid the temptation to assess or berate yourself, and don’t worry: You don’t have to believe anything to do this – it does not exclude any religion.

  1. Sit up straight in a chair with your feet flat on the floor.
  2. Set a timer for five minutes.
  3. Either close your eyes or gaze softly at an object in front of you.
  4. Bring your awareness to your breath, either in your abdomen, which rises and falls as you breathe, or at the tip of your nostrils, where the air enters and leaves your nose. Select the area that is most felt by you. Do not change your breathing; begin to observe it.
  5. Say quietly to yourself “in” when you inhale and “out” when you exhale. Between breaths bring your attention to the points where your body touches the chair, where your feet touch the floor.
  6. Focus your attention on your breath. If you find your attention wandering, simply say “thinking” to yourself and bring your attention back to your breathing. If you begin to judge yourself, simply say “thinking” and return your attention to your breathing.
  7. When the timer goes off, get up and go on with your day. Don’t analyze or judge your experience.

Mindfulness Practice #2 Explore a Natural Object

This practice is simple but incredibly powerful because it helps you notice and appreciate seemingly simple elements of your environment in a more profound way. The exercise is designed to connect you with the beauty of the natural environment, something that is easily missed when you are rushing around or on the way to work.

  1. Stand up and go to a window.
  2. Choose a natural object from within your immediate environment and focus on watching it for a minute or two. This could be a flower or an insect, or even the clouds or the moon.
  3. Don’t do anything except notice the thing you are looking at. Simply relax into watching for as long as your concentration allows.
  4. Look at this object as if you are seeing it for the first time.
  5. Visually explore every aspect of its formation and allow yourself to be consumed by its presence.
  6. Allow yourself to connect with its energy and its purpose within the natural world.
  7. End the mindfulness practice and return to your life.

Practice #3 Things You Can See, Hear and Feel

  1. Sit comfortably in your chair with both feet on the ground.
  2. With the in-breath, identify three things you can see.
  3. Breathe out.
  4. With the in-breath, identify three things you can hear.
  5. Breathe out.
  6. With the in-breath, identify three sensations you can feel
  7. Breathe out.

All three of these practices will create a pause in your day, an interruption that will serve you. As Anne Lamott said, “Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.”