Do you ever get tired of being in your head? I know I do. Most of us go through our lives lost in our thoughts, which are rarely about what’s actually happening in that moment. Our minds are focused on another place and time as we worry about the future and ruminate about the past.
We could be walking outside thinking about what we should make for dinner, or whether that person who hasn’t answered our email is mad at us, or what if our plans tomorrow get rained out. Meanwhile we’re barely noticing the stunning afternoon light, the feeling of our feet on the earth, the warmth of the sun on our backs.
It can be such a relief to find moments of mental stillness, when the thoughts fade into the background and we’re left with a closer connection to what’s actually happening. That’s the whole idea of mindfulness—contrary to what the name suggests, it’s about getting out of our heads.
Mindfulness often conjures images of a person sitting cross-legged and meditating, since meditation is one of the most common mindfulness practices. But the point of mindful awareness isn’t to get really good at meditating; it’s to truly experience this life.
It’s actually the simplest thing in the world. All we have to do is open our awareness to our present experience. What do we see? What do we hear? What physical sensations do we notice? We don’t have to create a story around these experiences—we can just take them in, wordlessly, without the limiting filter of language.
If you’d like to practice mindfulness, it helps to have cues throughout the day that remind you of your intention. Choose any that work for you; here are five to get you started.
- Waiting in line. Your first reaction when you have to wait, like at the grocery store, is to do something: take out your phone, make a mental to-do list, flip through a magazine. But forced waits are a good opportunity to take in what’s around you.
- Sitting at a red light. In a similar way, being stopped at a red light offers you a few moments to simply be (as I discussed recently with author and meditation teacher Ora Nadrich). Feel the seat beneath you, your hands on the wheel. Notice the sky. Feel the breath as your ribcage expands and contracts.
- Washing your hands. There’s a lot to pay attention to as you wash—the feeling of the water as it runs over your hands, the warmth or coolness of the water, the sound of the faucet, the feeling of your feet on the floor, the sensations in your hands as they move over one another.
- Before you eat. As you sit down to a meal, settle into the moment as you take three slow breaths. With the first, let go of any tension you’re holding in your body. With the second, look at each person sharing the meal with you. With the third, take in the colors, shapes, and textures of the food in front of you. Try to remain present as you enjoy your meal.
- Going to bed. When you lie down, feel your body sink into the mattress, the weight of your head on the pillow. Take in any house sounds. Notice the rise and fall of your blanket with each breath.
You’ll notice that none of these exercises involves trying to “stop your thoughts.” They’re going to be there, whether or not you want them to be! Rather than making thoughts the enemy, let them come and go as you direct your attention elsewhere.
There are limitless ways to practice mindful awareness, and none of them requires sitting on a meditation cushion or taking time out of your day. You can simply step into your experience, whatever it is. You can start right now, in this very moment. Welcome to your life.