According to Greater Good Science Center at Berkeley University, the act of mindfulness can be defined as “maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations and surrounding environment.” Consistently practicing mindfulness techniques can reduce the impact of stress on the brain, improve sleep quality, attention and even increase a sense of emotional and physical well-being. And you don’t have to be a Zen master to cultivate this awareness. “Mindfulness practice does not mean that you try to act like a perfect person,” says Taso Papadakis, Dharma teacher at Golden Wind Zen Center. “There are many paths to access our inherent human wisdom and wake up into the essence of our own life.” If you’re looking for emotional and physical well-being, give one of these eight simple mindfulness techniques a try.
1. Hold Then Release Tension
Tightly squeeze your hands into a fist, count to 20 and let go. Take all your awareness to the sensations occurring in your hands. Continue to bring your attention to these sensations for as long as you can. Repeat several times and notice how focused your mind becomes and how calm you begin to feel. This can be done anywhere and anytime -- all you need is your mind and your hands.
2. Focus on a Single Object
Pick any object in your line of sight on which to focus your attention. Without judgment, sit and watch the object with curiosity. The easiest things to watch are animals, children, waves, trees and clouds. If you are not in nature, watching the flame of a candle can be a quick, hypnotic way to get lost in the present moment. Instead of using your mind to label, judge and categorize the object, simply bring your attention to it. Observe the object with a heightened curiosity of what it might do next.
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3. Truly Listen to Music
Play a song, listening closely to the sounds that arise. Journal about where it takes you emotionally, how it makes you feel, the colors that come to mind and the memories that surface. Listening to music without words (i.e., instrumental) is helpful because it shuts off that part of the brain that is trying to decipher, identify and translate meaning. This in turn helps focus your mind only on the music instead of your grocery list, bills or to-do list.
4. Engage Your Sense of Smell
Smell something strong like coffee beans, lavender or garlic and pay attention to what it does to your nose. Where do you feel it? Does it bring up a memory? An emotion? This will help your mind focus intently on the scent. Taiwanese researchers found that using aromatherapy decreased feelings of stress in the body. Choose a scent that is pleasant: You don’t want the scent of rotten eggs to throw you into a bad mood!
5. Explore Old Tastes in a New Way
Use a cube of ice, piece of chocolate or a mint. Place the food in your mouth and focus entirely on how it feels and tastes on your tongue. How does it feel when you bite into it? What about when you chew it? Or swallow it? What sensations do you notice when it’s melting inside your mouth? You can also do this with your meals. Instead of sitting in front of the TV or talking at a dinner table, sit quietly and eat slowly with detailed attention paid to each bite. This will not only focus your mind, it will also affect how much you eat and how the food tastes. Implementing this kind of mindful eating can lower stress, increase satisfaction and even help you lose weight.
6. Focus on the Sound of Your Breath
Place cotton balls or earplugs in your ear (be careful not to stick them too far in) to heighten the volume of the sound of your breath. As you shut off your connections to the outer world, you will find that your mind starts to focus on the sound of your breath. It’s as if you’re alone in an internal temple that only you can create. Research from Weber State University suggests that when you set aside time to focus on your breath, there is a decrease in the secretion of stress hormones.
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7. Take a Meditative Walk
Find a place where you can be alone and walk in nature. If you choose, you can listen to soft, meditative music through your headphones. Begin walking slowly, looking down at your feet to watch each step that is taken. Bring all of your attention to your footsteps. How do they feel with each step? Can you feel the difference in surfaces that you’re stepping on? Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Walk as if you are kissing the earth with your feet.” You will be absolutely amazed what the simple act of walking can do for your present-moment awareness. A sense of calm contentment will come over you as you begin to become even more aware of what the present moment has to offer you.
8. Take a Bath
Taking a bath is one of the most relaxing activities you can do. Fill your tub with warm water and, if you want, some type of scented bubble bath or essential oils. Turn the lights down, light some candles and turn on soft background music. Soak in the warm bath and allow your olfactory system to be stimulated. Focus on the smell for a few moments. Then focus on the feeling of your muscles relaxing as the warm water surrounds your body. Close your eyes and listen to the music in the background. After a few moments, turn your attention to the candles that are lit. To finish off this mindfulness activity, stay in the bath while the water is draining and become aware of how strongly gravity holds us to the earth.
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Find Your Own Zen
Now that you’ve done a few of these prescribed techniques, branch out and seek unique ways to bring yourself into this mindful state. Dharma teacher Taso Papadakis says, “We are all different in some ways. We have different dispositions, conditioning and chemistry. We don’t all need the same ‘medicine.’ There are many paths available; it takes experimentation and courage.” Take an active roll in controlling the incessant chatter that runs through the stream of your consciousness. By doing so, you will bring peace to your life and the lives of those who surround you.
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What Do YOU Think?
Have you tried any of these techniques? Did they help you focus or reduce your stress levels? What are some of your other favorite mindfulness techniques? Share your stories, thoughts and suggestions in the comments section below.
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Sarah Stevenson, a.k.a., The Tini Yogini, is a certified yoga instructor in Southern California. She has a degree in behavioral psychology and teaches not only yoga classes but also life affirming workshops. She also writes for Beachbody, which provides effective and popular workout videos.