3 life changing exercises in mindfulness
This article 3 life changing exercises in mindfulness covers:
- Whats is mindfulness?
- What is the point with mindfulness?
- Exercise 1: The body scan meditation
- Exercise 2: The breathing anchor
- Exercise 3: Mindfulness in daily activities
- Important dimensions in mindfulness
- Mindfulness and happiness – how can both be helpful?
Let’s start with what mindfulness is and how being more mindful can improve your life.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is often described as the ability to be attentive to the present moment as it unfolds in a curious, non-judgmental and accepting manner.
Use one minute to explore what you see around you: which colours, nuances, surfaces etc. Then alternate to describe the content of your thoughts: “Right now I am thinking about…” “Right now my mind is occupied with…” without putting any negative emotions or values on it – just explore it as if you were an observing researcher. Doing exercises like this can help you improve your ability to, when needed, distance yourself from disturbing thoughts and emotions as well as give you longer response time which is beneficial to form calmer and more elaborated responses to occurrences.
What is the point with mindfulness?
One of the most important exercises within mindfulness is to learn to observe your breathing without necessarily altering it. This is one step in developing the ability to stay in the observant, non-judging position and postpone reactions, an ability that can be used in more stressful or distressing situations.
Mindfulness can be used to strenghten the ability to remain calm. Here is the first part of the body scan, a continuation of the mindfulness exercise from last week that you can record and use:
Mindfulness meditation can be used for strengthening the ability to remain calm and postpone reactions during stressful situations.
Exercise 1: The Body Scan mediation
Below is a body-scan-exercise that you can record and use, in total about 10 minutes long. This is the essence/instructional parts of one version of the 3 major meditations within mindfulness but it usually lasts over 45 minutes with long parts of silence.
In my research I have found that even this shorter version, together with 2 other exercises to be posted next, done daily for one month can improve the ability to be more mindful which in turn can reduce symptoms of stress, anxiety, worry and rumination but also increase psychological well-being and life satisfaction at large.
You can record this exercise in a slow pace with pauses marked with the dots and then play it back to yourself:
Lay down in a comfortable and tranquil place with dim lighting and close your eyes. Make sure that you will not get cold.
This is an exercise in being awake for you to use in your daily life. So, if you easily fall asleep, try either doing the exercise with your eyes open or sitting on a comfortable chair. Should you fall asleep, it’s ok – then that’s what you need right now.
Lay your arms along the sides without touching your body or let them rest on your knees. Turn your palms upwards. Let your feet fall to the sides. If you sit – sit a bit from the chair back with the soles to the floor.
Follow some breaths – all the way in and all the way out – at your own pace. Feel how the stomach moves outwards when you breathe in and moves inwards while breathing out … moves outwards when you breathe in … moves inwards when breathing out … breathe at your own pace.
This exercise gives you the opportunity to practice aiming your attention to a specific area, here your breathing, and then keep it focused on it as long as possible. Note when your attention walks away and then carefully return it to what you want to pay attention to, which right now is your breathing. Also, try to notice what you feel at every moment. Be open to be present here and now: to solitude, to face life as it is, whether it is pleasant, unpleasant or neither.
Move your attention away from your breathing and instead pay attention to the inside of your left leg and follow it to the left big toe and see if you can feel something: how does the foot feel: tingling, vibration, heat, cold or humidity – or nothing at all – just note what is.
Try not to change anything – note if it’s scratching or something bothering, but see if you can just leave it without responding to the impulses.
Proceed along all the toes and out to the left little-toe – how does it feel? What do you feel in-between the toes? Do the toes touch each other? Then go to you right side: big toe … little toe … and the space between them. How does that feel?
Now notice both feet: the forefoot, midfoot, hindfoot, the brides, soles, ankles and the heels resting on the ground – How does it feel? Feel all of both feet and what’s going on in them … also see if you can experience your feet from within…
Then release your attention from your feet and move on to the lower legs: the skin and muscles of the front and the back, both the shallow and the deep muscles. Long bones. Note how it feels without changing anything.
Your breathing is present all the time – sometimes in the foreground sometimes in the background. Let go of the lower leg and pay attention to the knees: the knee bones, the sides of the knees and knee folds. Notice how fast your attention may change. Go up to the thighs, hips and entire pelvis. Can you feel all that? What kind of impressions do you notice? Weight, ease, heat?
See if you can imagine your breath: how it enters the lungs – into the body – down the left leg – into the toes and then how the respiration comes through the foot, the leg, the body and through the nose.
Or see if you can imagine how to breathe through the lungs and then breathe out through your legs and feet (!). You can also imagine how to breathe in and out through the skin on both legs and feet…
… Now pay attention to the lower back – an area where we easily feel pain, stiffness, tension or fatigue. Just breathe.
Allow your breathing to be present in the whole area. Let every stimulus be just as it is. Now focus your attention on the whole stomach.
Can you feel how the stomach expands outwards when you breathe in and falls inwards a little while you exhale … expands when you breathe in… contracts when you exhale … notice how it feels throughout the body – all the way in … and all the way out.
Proceed to the spine and back muscles, how does it feel there? The neck – is it tense or relaxed? … the ribs, lungs… Can you feel how the chest gets tense when you inhale – even on the sides and the backside – and sinks as you exhale. Can you feel your heart beat?
Focus your attention to both hands at the same time – what do you feel in your fingers, thumbs, palms, wrists, forearms, elbows, upper arms and shoulders – your entire hands from fingertips to shoulders. Notice all stiffness or tension that may exist here and thoughts that arise or disappear.
Now imagine breathing in through the lungs and out through your arms and back into your body through your arms and out through your nose. (!) Now focus on the neck. Can you feel how it pulses … the neck muscles up in the head – are they tense or relaxed, the muscles under the scalp.
Your forehead and the area between your eyebrows … the ears, the temples – are they relaxed or tense … the nose, jaws, chin, lips. Where is the tip of your tongue? Can you feel your teeth? Can you feel something inside your head? The whole face? Feel the body as a whole right now – all the sensations that are going on in your body: if it’s itching, squeezing or tensions … let it be as it is and just register how it is.
… Now pay attention to the pressure from the floor or chair – where do you feel it the most … Rest in your body. Feel how the air surrounds your body and how the air moves in the room. Just notice how it feels throughout your body. Try to resist impulses to move – see how long you can stay put – maybe as long as these instructions… Be completely present in every moment and let each thought disappear or pass without entering into it, only notice it…
See if you can imagine breathing in with the whole body and out through the whole body … in with the whole body and out through the whole body… Perhaps you do not notice your body anymore – that it has become one with you, disappears into the neutral, into silence and natural tranquillity…
Just be present in yourself right now, without changing anything … accept what it feels like when the body is here … just breathe, moment after moment … moment after moment … notice how the body softens and sinks into the ground when the body relaxes…
… Now let the body disappear in the background. Move your consciousness from your breathing and instead become aware of your thoughts, plans, pictures, dreams, feelings that come and go … Sometimes a little while, sometimes a longer moment …
See if it’s possible to just let whatever that is in your mind just come and go, like clouds that pass over the sky, without doing anything about them …
When your thoughts wander away, pay careful attention to your breathing. In this way you practice your ability to be aware of here and now, over and over again …
Sometimes your thoughts have an emotional charge or perhaps make you feel unwell, like sadness, irritation or anger. See if it is possible to stop and just observe the thoughts and feelings as they are. Do not react, do not enter into the feelings or thoughts. Instead try to accept them as they are, for the distance and finally just let them go …
Stop – Observe – Accept – Let go
S – O – A – L
… Your breathing is always with you and leads you back to the present. It helps you accept everything as it is …
You can finish this exercise by opening your eyes and becoming aware of all the stimuli that surround you, changing lights and sounds … Become aware of your entire body where you are and see if you can take this consciousness into everyday life – it is as close to you as your breathing.
Exercise 2: The Breathing Anchor
The second of the three main exercises within mindfulness is the breathing anchor. The name comes from using the breath as an anchoring point since our breathing is always with us and hence we can use it to anchor us in the present moment. This is a seated exercise, in this version in about 5-10 minutes depending on pauses/pace. I will post it in 3 parts. Again, the dots stand for pauses if you record your own versions:
Sit on a chair with your back straight and shoulders lowered in a position that is awake and alert. The position shall help you to be here and now. Take a moment and just sit so that the body gets calm…
Close your eyes or keep them open with a softened gaze… Try to have a feeling of being open and present at every moment…
Now focus your attention on how your breathing feels… Allow your breath to find its own natural rhythm. Follow a few breaths at your own pace and notice where in the body you feel it the most when you breathe in and out: Is it in the nostrils, nose, mouth, throat… the chest expanding when inhaling and collapsing when exhaling … upper abdomen or in your stomach… Invite your full attention to flow with your breath.
Do not change your breathing pattern, just let it come and go, and just feel where you feel it the most. Then aim your attention to where you feel your breathing the best and try to keep your attention there. Just focus on being in the moment and lose the daily chores you have to do later… …and when you notice that your attention has moved away, no matter where it has gone: to images, sounds, thoughts or bodily sensations – let them be as they are in the background, and draw your attention gently back to your breathing…
Follow a breath from start to finish. All the way in… and all the way out…. … breath in your own pace over and over again…
This is the essence of this exercise – just being in the moment. Each inhalation is a new beginning, and every exhalation is an opportunity to let go completely. You do not have to do anything about your breathing, it takes care of itself… Observe and accept your experience in this moment without judgment, paying attention to each inhalation and each exhalation.
As you turn more deeply inward, begin to let go of any noises around you. If you are distracted by sounds in the room, simply notice them and then bring your attention back to your breathing.
Notice how it feels in your body when you are breathing, the small, small changes in the body that follows from an inhalation and an exhalation. Every breath is unique. Be open to what it feels like when you breathe, all the way… …and what you experience at this particular exhalation. Follow the full breath … in and out … as closely as you can. Follow some breaths that way, in your own pace.
Perhaps you will find that your attention is wandering away almost all the time. That is ok, it’s normal. The mind has its own life and wanders by nature – the aim is not to make the mind empty, not getting rid of all impressions, but rather becoming familiar with its way of behaving. Just gently refocus your awareness to your breathing. If you would like to sharpen your concentration, you can quietly note ‘IN’ when you follow the inhalation and ‘OUT’ when you exhale… Take a few breaths at your own pace in that way…
… Breathe in and breathe out. Follow the air all the way in and all the way out, being mindfully present in moment by moment through your breath. If your mind wanders away from your breath, just notice without judging it – be it a thought, emotion, or sensation that catches your attention. Instead gently guide your awareness back to your breathing.
By observing when your attention has started to wander and bringing it back to your breath, you exercise your ability to concentrate and to be here and now in the present moment.
Focus your attention on your breathing again – how it feels all over in your body from the start – how it feels – all the way in – a little break, can you feel it – and all the way out…
Intensive sensations may appear that makes it difficult to control awareness. You might become distracted by pain or discomfort in the body or itching sensations that draw your attention away from the breath.
Then you can instead draw your attention to that, explore how it looks in detail: how it may change or move in your body – do not think about how it feels, do not change it, but allow yourself to feel what’s already there to feel … maybe breathe in through that area and out of it, and notice what happens, breath after breath.
…You may also notice feelings arising, like sadness, happiness, frustration or contentment. Acknowledge whatever comes up. Simply notice where your mind went without judging it, pushing it away, clinging to it or wishing it was different. Only refocus your mind and guide your attention back to your breath…
…See now if you can feel the body as a whole – be completely present in your body – like a proud, majestic mountain: stable, grounded, resilient and strong. A feeling of your whole body sitting here – breathing…
…If your mind wanders to thoughts, plans or problems, simply notice that your mind has wandered. Watch the thought as it enters into your awareness as neutrally as possible. Then practice letting go of the thought as if it was a leaf floating down a stream or a could in the sky.
In your mind, place each thought that arises on a leaf or a cloud and watch as it sails out of sight down the stream or over the sky. Then bring your attention back to your breath. Your breath is an anchor you can return to over and over again when you become distracted by thoughts…
…Notice when your mind has wandered. Observing the types of thoughts that distract you is an important part of the learning. Try to notice the content quietly for yourself with a label such as thinking, dreaming, planning, worrying or whatever it may be without being judgmental or critical of yourself…
Through practicing this you can strengthen your ability to detach from thoughts and mindfully refocus your awareness back onto your breath.
As this practice comes to an end, notice your entire body and then the room you are in. Become aware of your entire body where you sit – and see if you can bring this attention into the next activity you will do. Your breath is always with you as a refocusing tool to bring you back to the present moment.
Set your intention to use this practice throughout your day, repeatedly refocusing your attention to your breathing pattern as it is as well as labeling the content of your thoughts. This will help you cultivate and strengthen your attention, being mindfully present in the moment, as well as the ability to detach from and instead observe what you are experiencing.
When you’re ready, open your eyes and be aware of the noises around you, how the light falls and shifts.
Next week is about more suggestions of how to be mindful during daily activities.
Exercise 3: Mindfulness in daily activities
Mindfulness is the ability to be fully present in the current moment and activity. It is about being aware of where we are and what we are doing, not overly responsive or overwhelmed by what is going on around us, even if we participate and notice what is happening.
There are many health benefits from developing this this, among other things: better mental health and better handling of emotions, stress, chronic pains etc.
See if you can notice what is happening in your mind during your daily life – a kind of curious discovery.
Notice these reflections both from -the outside: what you take in with all your senses: touch and fabrics, vision and shades, sounds both man-made and natural, taste and consistencies of food -the inside: bodily sensations as well as what you think and feel.
Start your attention by notice your body while following a few breaths.
Notice where you feel it the most when you breathe. Then choose a sense to draw your attention to: sight, sound, touch, smell, taste, other
Perhaps what you see: how the brightness changes – colors, shapes, depths and contrasts…
Or maybe what you hear – how we exist in a landscape of sound – sounds and space between the sounds, the silence itself, close and far away…
Perhaps notice if you have any comments or views on what you see or hear… And when your thoughts wanders off, gently bring your consciousness back to the sense you are exploring… over and over again… longer than you usually consider paying attention to something…
Next section is about more mindful thinking and mindful feelings during daily activities.
Thoughts and Feelings
Mindfulness is the ability to be fully present in the current moment and activity, being aware of where we are and what we are doing, but not overly responsive or overwhelmed by what is going on around us.
This section is about how to be more mindful in daily life, to notice what is happening in your mind during your daily life, a kind of curious discovery.
Last section was about noticing sensory stimuli. This is about being mindful with regard to thoughts and feelings.
Start your attention by notice your body while following a few breaths, your breathing anchor. Notice where you feel it the most when you breathe.
Then focus on the stream of your thoughts, not thinking as many thoughts as possible, not producing new ones, not even searching for thoughts, but only noting those who happen to come by with the same curious attention that you showed your breathing, body and senses in earlier exercises.
If you notice that you are planning, say to yourself: planning, planning, planning
or if you notice that you are worrying, say worrying, worrying, worrying
or if you notice strong experiences or feelings such as anxiety, irritation or anger, say to yourself: feeling, feeling, feeling – or maybe even judging, judging, judging – if that is what you are doing
Since mindfulness is a rather academic and abstract concept, I will repeat the definition once more: Mindfulness is the ability to be fully present in the current moment and activity, being aware of where we are and what we are doing, but not overly responsive or overwhelmed by what is going on around us.
It is especially important being mindful with regard to thoughts, which we often erroneously think are true just because they appear next to stimuli or feelings that we usually do not have a reason to question.
But thoughts are not true.
They only share one possible perspective. There are alternative perspectives. That is why it is so important to be able to hear your thoughts, to observe them, but not to be carried away by them.
Again, start your attention by notice your body and breathing while following a few breaths.
Then try to see your thoughts when they appear: how they come, stay and then disappear… …see if you can see the thoughts that are just about to break into your mind and consciousness as events – like bubbles and ripples – whirls in the water…
…And you’re sitting on the beachfront and just watching them float by, like events that do not need to be taken so personally or seriously – that you do not have to be so absorbed or consumed in…
…Notice when you get caught by a thought – because when you notice it, you are already back, beside the stream of thoughts, not immersed in it.
One of the reasons mindfulness is beneficial with regard to thoughts when having psychological problems is that we often erroneously think thoughts are true just because they appear next to stimuli or feelings that we usually do not have a reason to question.
You can try to treat your thoughts as individual events that disappear, just like waves in the ocean – notice their content, their emotional charge: nice / unpleasant / neutral – rather than be pulled into their content, into the actual stream of thought where a thought leads on to another thought and to a third.
Imagine instead sitting at the beach next to the stream of thoughts, listening to their bubbles and gurgling as the thoughts just float by.
Sometimes you will notice how you are dragged into the stream of thoughts, which inevitably will happen. Then just notice that it happened and get back next to them again. There you can sit and just observe every thought as just a thought – not as truth or facts, but just another powerful element of life.
Three steps to become more mindful in daily life
Finally, here are 3 steps that can help you in being more mindful, i.e. fully present in the current moment, being aware of where you are and what you are doing but not overly responsive or overwhelmed by what is going on.
The 3 steps entail :
1. first the senses and thoughts
2. then the breathing
3. then finally the body.
Step 1 – your experience
Create awareness of being in the present in all dimensions by your posture every hour, every time you change activity etc. – i.e. how you sit, stand and walk, by adopting an upright, stable and worthy position – just like a mountain. It can be helpful to close your eyes if appropriate.
Then you can ask yourself: what do I feel and experience in my body at the moment, what thoughts pass through my mind – and see these thoughts as events and examine their content, what feelings are there – comfortable, unpleasant – while you are there, stable and robust, and view the thoughts as sensations passing by, like ripples in the water or as clouds and weather in the sky.
Perhaps quickly go through your body to feel the sensations, contact points and tensions that exist in the moment
Step 2 – your breath
In step two, refocus your attention on the physical experiences of breathing. Start your attention by notice your body while following a few breaths, your breathing anchor.
Notice where you feel it the most when you breathe as you are breathing in and out. Follow a few breaths, all the way in and all the way out. Be close to the breath in your stomach and how the respiration feels in your body when it anchors you in the present moment.
Breathe naturally, just become aware of the experience of breathing and allow your attention to go to the place that the sensation of breathing is the strongest.
Is it in the nostrils, the coolness of the in-breath or the warmth of the out-breath…
Is it the rise and fall of the belly or the chest…
Is it the way their rib cage expands and contracts…
Step 3 – your body
See if you can expand your attention to your body as a whole: your posture, your face and how your body feels on the inside.
If you have a particular strong sensation you can experiment by breathing in and out of that place…
…and maybe feel how I dissolves – how it disappears …Maybe say to yourself that whatever you are feeling or experiencing, it is already here, just feel it…
See if you can carry this experience with you in the rest of your day, regardless of your circumstances and regardless of how your day develops.
In your day you can also do mini-mindful exercises such as noticing your breathing anchor a couple of breaths while you are experiencing S O A L, the abbreviation for:
Stop and ground yourself in the present moment – breathe
Observe stimuli, what you are experiencing, feeling and thinking
Accept whatever you are experiencing, feeling and thinking
Let go – do not try to change anything – just let it be as it is
Important dimensions in mindfulness
There are many important dimensions in mindfulness. I will run through some of them to make it easier to understand the essence of mindfulness.
One of the greatest challenges in mindfulness as in any meditation is staying present, not getting caught up in thoughts or feelings.
It is especially important to focus on observing – simply noticing what is going on in your body and mind – being a researcher rather than a judge evaluating – weighing what is happening, not labeling it as good or bad.
However, remember that this is only an ideal state, an aspiration to strive for, because the mind will always wander, that is what the mind does in its nature. Hence, it is important to just gentle refocus when you notice that your thoughts have wandered and not being disappointed or critical of yourself.
This is one of the reasons why the breathing anchor is helpful. The breath can assist you, being a natural point to refocus on, a place you can return to when your mind wanders off. Being aware of your mind and your breathing will also help you in improving your ability to hear your bodily signals such as stress and tiredness levels as well as noticing your thought processes and your emotions without being caught up in them or overly involved, but maintaining an observing distance.
Mindfulness is to be fully present in the current moment, being aware of where you are and what you are doing, but not overly responsive or overwhelmed by what is going on.
The refocusing dynamic in mindfulness helps you realise on a deeper level that even unpleasant thoughts and feelings will eventually pass, being replaced by another focus. This helps the ability to handle difficult situations by being able to stay in the moment for a longer time. This is among other things helpful when treating anxiety and healing trauma.
The most commonly used anchor is the breath. This is the case since you are always breathing and the sensation of your breath is easy to access. To use the breath as your anchor, breathe naturally, just become aware of the experience of breathing and allow your attention to go to the place that the sensation of breathing is the strongest.
Some people find this to be in their nostrils, as coolness on the in-breath and warmth on the out-breath. Others focus on the rise and fall of their belly or their chest. And some focus on the way that their rib cage expands and contracts. There is no right or wrong place, focus on what feels right to you.
Some people find that they feel more grounded by using their body as their anchor, particularly at the points of contacts between their body and the floor, a chair etc. Others find that the sensation of their heart beating works the best for them.
Other possible anchor points are stimuli around you, for example, sounds like a clock ticking or the sounds of electronic equipment. Choose a stable sound so that you can find it again when you have been distracted by thoughts, emotions or stimuli. When being outdoors, you can use the wind in the trees, waves or a stable traffic sound.
Also, nature can provide anchors such as the wind on your skin or the warmth of the sun shining.
You can alternate your anchor or use just one. The only thing that matters is that it should be a reminder for you to return to the present moment when you have been distracted, over and over again. When your mind wanders off, it doesn’t matter for how long, once you notice it, just return to your anchor and to your meditation without judging yourself. The mind is just doing what is has been designed to do.
With inspiration from: http://so-mindful.co.uk/benefits-of-mindfulness/choosing-and-using-your-anchor-in-meditation
Mindfulness and Happiness – How can both be helpful?
As you might know by now, mindfulness is distinguished among other things by the focus on observing life and internal stimuli such as thoughts, feelings and sensations in a non-judgmental manner. Hence, not attaching any value, not positive or negative, to the experiences, but experience life as it is evolving, moment to moment.
Mindfulness has been shown to be beneficial for among other things increasing well-being, reducing anxiety and depressive symptoms as well as handling pain and dealing with stress.
This is in opposition to happiness research, see www.jennyrapp.com, that has shown the importance of tying positive tones to events for increasing the amount of experienced of happiness and joy:
- Life rewards activity. Activities should be of many kinds: mutually supportive and kind social encounters, exercise and hobbies
- The belief in oneself as in self-efficacy cultivating our individual strengths leading to rewarding achievements
- Big scale: Having a life cause, contributing to community, society and the the planet
- Small scale: Having daily small pleasures such as food, music, hobbies
- The importance of cultivating a mindset mirroring gratitude, hope and optimism for enhancing mood and well-being
How can both be helpful?
Mindfulness is likely a better way of dealing with events that might be (unavoidably) negative, hence a way to neutralize or at least reduce experienced negativity. After all, no one of us can go through life without facing set-backs, pains and suffering. Here mindfulness gives comfort to unavoidable experiences.
Mindfulness can also help us in reducing the complexity of life to dealing with our experience only moment-to-moment when the mountain to climb in front of us feels insurmountable.
Mindfulness conveys the hope of an ever-changing presence, that neither misery nor joy are permanent states.
Hence – wisely using both techniques can increase quality of life.