I love that part in ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ when Elizabeth Gilbert (or Julia Roberts, if you’re watching the film), is struggling with meditation. Perhaps unkindly revelling in the fact that, even for those fortunate enough to be able to afford an expensive lengthy stay at a Buddhist retreat, enlightenment does not come easy.
Having a regular meditation practice helps us to be more mindful, but if you’re not ready to make it a regimented daily practice, there are other simple mindfulness practises you can incorporate. In the busy high-pressure world we live in, the concept of simple mindfulness practises is perhaps more achievable than weeks of deep meditation.
Practising mindfulness doesn’t always require mountain tops and perfect peaceful surroundings. It is available to us all the time; commuting, bedtime routines with little ones and even having that first cup of coffee.
Mindfulness is about bringing awareness and paying attention to things as they are in the present moment, with compassion, kindness and non-judgement. That includes your outer as well as your inner world!
The truth is that most of us function on auto-pilot, day to day, year to year, not paying much attention to how we speak to ourselves or the feedback from the body. It’s in this state of ‘trance’ that we are easily triggered and lose our cool, reacting in ways that can be hurtful and regretful. Our reaction is often to catch and scold ourselves, but mindfulness can help us cultivate a different relationship with ourselves, our thoughts, our pain or suffering. Doing this purposefully can be especially beneficial. Incorporating simple mindfulness practises into our lives can have a huge impact on mental well-being. It teaches us to notice our thoughts, emotions and behaviours, to be in the present and reconnect with the world we live in.
Here are 5 simple mindfulness practises any beginner can easily incorporate into their daily lives. Try to do at least one per day and please do let me know about your experience.
You don’t need to wait until you have the best view. This practice is about observation. For a few minutes every day, take a comfortable position by a window and simply take in what is outside – the colours, the movement, the shape. When your mind wanders, starts making plans, or gets lost in a story, gently bring your attention to what you’re seeing.
For example, if you are looking at a bay tree in the garden, notice the hue, the shape, what makes it unique. If your mind drifts to thoughts such as cutting the tree back, making plans to plant more, trying to remember when you planted it though, notice what the mind is doing. You can even bring a sense of humour to the practice. Saying out loud ‘ah, there it goes, the mind is planning again.’
This practise is about bringing awareness to what is present right at that moment, without judgement, just seeing it as it is.
Tasting Your Food
Here’s a really enjoyable one for you. It may sound simple but how much do you really taste your food? Often we are distracted when eating and we forget to take time to focus on the act itself.
Try to take some time each week, or every day even, to really experience your food. It’s best to start simple. Fruit is a good start as it’s less complex in flavour components than say, a Vindaloo. Allowing thoughts, judgements and preconceived ideas to play gently in the background of your mind, bite into an apple and really focus on the experience. The texture, the taste, the sensations of the juice entering your throat and the experience of the fruit’s flesh as it reaches your taste buds. Enjoy the nourishment, the refreshment. Because we are so fortunate that eating is not just something we have to do to stay alive, it comes with the huge benefit of being a gift that also stimulates the senses. What you may begin to find also, as you practise mindful eating, is that you become better tuned to your body’s needs. You are likely to notice sooner when you begin to get full up. You can read more about this in my article, ‘What Is Intuitive Eating’
Still, mindful eating isn’t reserved for foods necessarily considered ‘healthy’. I, like most people, love chocolate. What I advise though, is if you’re going to eat it then really enjoy it. Let it sit for a moment in your mouth and allow yourself to experience that delicious rich flavour. You will likely find that if you do this you’ll enjoy the chocolate all the more and, because you are emerging yourself fully in its spellbinding qualities, you may find you actually eat less but feel more indulged than if you mindlessly chomp on a Galaxy bar whilst watching television.
Although we mostly practise mindfulness and meditation on our own and it helps us reconnect with who we truly are, the benefits spill over to all those we come in contact with. Active, mindful listening may be one of the greatest skills you could ever develop. In this high-paced very noisy world, we converse a lot but it may be that we listen very little. I have to admit, I barely note a pause between participants in most conversations which surely must make it near impossible for us to really digest and reflect on what one another is saying.
There’s a girl I’ll always remember from college. She wasn’t a close friend but we had a class together and spoke maybe once per week. Yet, every time I saw her she remembered what we’d spoken about last time. For example, she might recall me saying I was feeling unwell, or that I was running late for work. Then, the next time I saw her she’d ask if I was feeling better or if I’d made it to work on time. I was always surprised that she’d cared enough to remember. It made me feel valued and, in turn, it made me really enjoy being in her company. It’s peculiar though, to be taken aback by somebody remembering what was going on in your life the last time you spoke. Did it denote a lack of self-worth or did I just assume we had all become passive listeners, too busy with our own lives to make room for others? I decided then to make it a personal goal of mine to become a better listener, which is probably what led me to become a coach. As I progressed along my holistic wellbeing journey, active listening became mindful listening. So, now I’ve hopefully convinced you of why we should practise this, here’s how –
Mindfulness helps us to be fully present, notice any preconceived ideas, biases or assumptions that we may have and really pay attention to what someone else might be about to say. Many of us don’t listen all that well because we are preoccupied with planning our response. Forget this. Your response when you’re mindfully listening isn’t as important as taking in what is being said to you. When it is your turn to speak, instead of responding with your own point of view, use the opportunity to check you have understood what has been expressed. For example:
Speaker One: I got a parking ticket yesterday and it’s really annoyed me.
Speaker Two: Yes, that happened to me last year. It’s so unfair the parking attendants are far too harsh.
Speaker One: I got a parking ticket yesterday and it’s really annoyed me.
Mindful Listener: It annoyed you because you got a parking ticket?
Speaker One: Yes but only because I should have read the parking meter properly. I’m annoyed at myself.
In this example, the mindful listener can continue with the conversation understanding where the speaker is coming from. Therefore, they are far more likely to be able to help the speaker, if only because they’ve made space for them to properly express themselves, be heard and be listened to.
To practice mindful listening I advise entering every discussion with the intention of actively listening. You may not necessarily find you are still managing it five minutes into the conversation, and that’s understandable, but if you begin each conversation this way then I’d be amazed if you don’t feel you know more about your friends/family/colleagues than you did before and they will be so grateful that you listen, really listen!
Of course, breathing is something we all do all of the time. We don’t need to pay attention to it, it’s automatic. And yet, those who have practised conscious breathing and mindful breathing will tell you that breathing does so much more than keep our bodies alive. This is perhaps the simplest of our simple mindfulness practises.
There are many free apps that can help you get started with mindful breathing techniques and these are wonderful so do investigate if you are drawn to a guided introduction. However, it is possible to begin even more simply.
When practising, you would be standing or seated comfortably in a space that feels natural for you, preferably without distractions. Although, I find that mindful breathing is often most useful for me in situations that are opposite. On a bus when I’m getting increasingly irritated with the excessive volume of another passenger’s music. In bed when I’m struggling to find sleep. Or even in a queue when I’m panicking about getting to my next appointment. Due to the stress-relieving benefits of mindful breathing, these are often the types of scenarios when noticing your breath has real-time benefits. And, because you don’t necessarily need to close your eyes, or sit, or press your palms together, you can practise without anyone around you knowing. However, paying mindful attention to your breath, three times a day for a minute or so at regular times, makes it easier to draw on this for help when you need it in challenging times.
So what do you do?
You simply bring awareness to your breath. When thoughts or curiosities enter your mind, do not scold yourself, this is completely natural. Instead, acknowledge them and bid them farewell, as if letting go of a balloon. You don’t need to change your breath, just notice it as it already is.
With care and kindness, because the aim here is not to investigate your respiration, just to notice the gentle soothing rhythm of it. You may want to take a few deep breaths and breathe out slowly, this helps to calm down the central nervous system and can be relaxing. Feel how the oxygen you breathe in travels through the body. Notice how your muscles relax as you breathe out.
There are many theories as to why breathwork calms us. Perhaps it reminds us unconsciously of our life prior to birth, experiencing the rhythms of the womb. Maybe it is because fresh oxygen wakes our brains and fuels our concentration. Whatever the reason, it is one of the easiest, no-tools-required, most effective ways we can bring ourselves back to the present and take control of our focus. There’s something very empowering about that.
Ok, so this isn’t a mindfulness exercise as such. Still, I include this because mastering simple mindfulness practises does call for reduced time spent allowing ourselves to be prompted and potentially overwhelmed with information. Smartphones, particularly, can’t help but be distracting since they hold access to the thoughts and feelings of billions of people, as well as the instant answers to almost any question you can think of (not necessarily the correct answers but even so). They are also an essential part of life for most of us and that’s ok. We can embrace the positive aspects of modern life. The ability to be connected with a loved one at the touch of a button. The access to an abundance of information and news. Yet, if an unwelcome byproduct of this may be that we become less connected with ourselves. With so many other voices in our heads, it becomes harder to hear our own. It can be challenging to live in the moment when we carry devices ever reaching into the future. What’s next? What is scheduled? What is going to happen, not just to us, in the next few days/weeks/years, but what is going to happen across the globe? It’s intense, and we need to break away from it in a deliberate and intentional way, at least for a couple of hours a day.
I strongly advise leaving your phone elsewhere for at least three everyday experiences where you might usually be tempted to scroll. This might be your morning coffee, the time you spend helping your child with their homework, your bus journey to work or even watching your favourite television programme because multi-screening is truly giving in to the overwhelm.
During the time you spend alone without your phone, try to focus on what you’re doing. Perhaps sitting in your favourite armchair. Maybe drinking a cup of tea. It sounds easy, but because we are so overstimulated, it can seem strangely unnatural. Over time though, and with practice, you will learn to make peace with doing nothing. It will even help to slow down your mind, let the quiet wash over you and help you find clarity in times when you are overwhelmed or under pressure.
Remember, mindfulness and meditation is a practise, it’s not easy and it’s not a panacea for everything. There is no goal, no special state to reach or even to relax. What happens is that you wake up to your one wild and precious life! I’m a testament to that.