It is easy to think that any kind of meditative practice is for other people. Those who have more time, and perhaps more of a generally ‘zen’ attitude to life. The good news is that the benefits of being more present are more accessible than you might imagine. Being mindful really just means bringing your mind back to where your body is. You can choose to be more in touch with what you are experiencing, rather than days passing by on autopilot. Even if your body is doing the dishes, research shows that a present mind is happier than a wandering one[i].
The benefits of mindfulness are many, and encompass both mental and physical health. They have been shown to include improved focus, sleep, relationship satisfaction, and reduced stress. These practices support the proper functioning of many aspects of physical health from immune function to ageing. They can help us to sustain a healthier relationship with food, and support children affected by bullying[ii]. Sounds pretty good doesn’t it?
I am not a mindfulness or meditation teacher. I am someone who has gone from definite sceptic to ‘advanced beginner’ over the course of the last few years. My practice has evolved over time. It has changed my life in many welcome ways, and continues to do so as my mindfulness muscles strengthen.
All of the following can be slotted in anytime, anywhere, no props required. They also work as well for children as they do for adults. Depending on the ages and personalities of the children in question, it may be preferable to start them off with child friendly guided options with a vibe that appeals.
The more consistent you can make your practice, even just a few minutes a day, the greater the benefits over time[iii]. This is not a reason to beat yourself up if you miss a day though – whatever you can do will be of benefit. It is also useful to know that everyone’s mind will wander. It is part of the process, and will often vary from day to day. It is a true moment of mindfulness when you realise your attention has wandered, and gently guide it back to your chosen focus.
1 – Breathing Practice
There are so many options it can be dizzying. Fortunately, the truth is that anything you do involving focus on your breath can positively affect how you feel. Even a minute of conscious focus on your breath a few times a day can have a surprising impact. Below are some simple suggestions, or if you would like to experiment with a guided practice the internet is your oyster.
For all of the below practices rest your attention on the flow of air slowly moving in and out. Try to use each exhale to let go a little more, especially around any areas where you tend to hold tension (shoulders, jaw, tongue, neck, around the eyes, belly etc.). Start with a few breaths whenever it occurs to you, or if you feel tension rising.
Deep belly breathing
Take the breath all the way to your lower abdomen, with a hand on your belly to feel the movement if that feels soothing.
E.g. in for a count of 4, out for 4. Other numbers will obviously work too.
E.g. in for 4, out for 6, or in for 4, out for 8. Find what works for your breathing pattern.
This can be great for a general boost of mindful awareness, particularly if you are interested in tuning in to how your body feels in more detail. It simply involves scanning your attention through your body, at whatever speed works for the situation you are in. It is helpful to start with a couple of slow deep breaths. Mentally scan through the body, traditionally starting with the feet. Work your way up through legs, hips, torso, arms, hands, neck, head and face. You can add in as much detail as you like if you do have more time, or just guide your focus through those general areas if you want a quick check-in. For a selection of short guided options for adults and children see below[iv].
3 – Five Details
Take a pause, whenever and wherever it occurs to you, to notice. It doesn’t need to be anywhere special. Take mental note of five details that would otherwise have passed you by. You can tune in to any or all of your senses here. Colours and shapes around you, how things move, the sensation of clothing or air against your skin, any sounds or smells that you notice. You can even choose to focus on a person, if you can manage it without freaking them out! It can be wonderful to really take in the details, especially of the people we love.
4 – Mindful Walking
All you need here is your body, and somewhere to walk – inside or out. You can check in with your body anytime you are walking anywhere. Bring focus to the sensory experience of walking. The rise and fall of your feet. The feel of the ground underneath you. How are your limbs moving? What can you hear? What can you see?
If you like you can time your breath with your stride, e.g. breathe in for 4 steps and out for 4, or any pattern that works for you. It can be soothing to make the exhale longer than the inhale, e.g. in for 4, out for 6. As always, guided options are available[v].
5 – Mindful Eating
We all know that feeling at the end of a meal when it feels like we missed the whole experience, because we ate on autopilot. In this mode it is easy to see how we lose connection with the signals our bodies are sending us about how hungry or thirsty we are, and what it is we really need. There are many foods common in the modern western diet that are addictive in various ways, which throws another bag of spanners in the works. The foods our bodies are asking for are also easy to confuse with what we crave for emotional reasons, such as comfort, sadness, or sometimes simply habit.
Mindful eating is really about engaging with the sensory experience of the food you are consuming. A super simple version might go something like this:
- Take a couple of slow, deep breaths.
- Check in with your body for any sensations or cues relating to hunger or thirst. What do you feel?
- Look at your food. Notice the detail of colours, shapes, sizes, textures, and breathe in the smells.
- Consider the journey the food has taken to reach your plate. Time, sunlight, water, harvesting, processing, shipping etc. Perhaps acknowledge the people involved.
- As you begin to eat, notice texture, flavour and aroma. Take time to chew. Pay attention to your emotional response to the food. What do you feel?
Even a very brief version of this can allow your brain to prepare your body to digest your food, and help to make more conscious decisions about what you want to consume[vi].
There are of course many other options for short ad-hoc mindfulness practices. If you have any favourites, or would be interested in more ideas in this vein, please feel free to comment below.
[i] Mindfulness and happiness https://berkeleysciencereview.com/2012/11/can-mindfulness-make-you-happier/
Mind wandering and negative thoughts https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/look-around-and-look-within/201201/mind-wandering-and-mindfulness#:~:text=1.,they%20reported%20less%20mind%20wandering.&text=Given%20other%20evidence%20that%20mindfulness,the%20reason%20mindfulness%20increases%20happiness.
[ii] More detail on the benefits of mindfulness, and further ideas on ways of becoming more mindful https://chriskresser.com/how-to-practice-mindfulness/
Further information on meditation more generally, for those not naturally inclined to it https://lifehacker.com/a-guide-to-meditation-for-the-rest-of-us-5591576
[iii] More on consistent practice https://positivepsychology.com/benefits-of-mindfulness/#practice-mindfulness
[iv] 3 minute guided body scan https://www.mindful.org/a-3-minute-body-scan-meditation-to-cultivate-mindfulness/
Short scripted body scan designed for children https://mindfulnessexercises.com/short-body-scan/
A range of guided options of various lengths available free on Insight Timer https://insighttimer.com/
[vi] Further information on mindful eating practices https://www.mindful.org/6-ways-practice-mindful-eating/