Three Ways to Mix Mindfulness into Your Life
At the risk of stating the obvious, in order for Balancer to keep us balanced, it’s helpful to do activities that explicitly promote … balance.
Mindfulness-based activities are at the top of the list. The term mindfulness, the state of being focused on the present moment, without judgement, has become part of the zeitgeist in the past several years, and for good reason.
The benefits of mindfulness-based activities are physical, emotional, and psychological. Mindfulness has been demonstrated to:
- Relax muscles and decrease blood pressure
- Reduce rumination, stress, anxiety, and emotional reactivity
- Promote empathy and self-compassion
- Improve working memory, focus, self-insight, and intuition
Mindfulness works, in part, because of changes that occur in the body and the brain. But over time, mindfulness also reminds us that we don’t have to keep riding every mental train we find ourselves on. When we notice we’ve been kidnapped by a thought, worry, emotion, physical sensation, or distraction, we can get off that train and return to the station.
Three basic ways to develop mindfulness include:
- Mindfulness-based activities. Imported from Eastern cultures, practices specifically developed to increase mindfulness include sitting and walking meditation, yoga, tai chi, and chi-gong.
- Recreational activities with a mindfulness intention. When practiced with a mindful, in-the-moment intention, activities such as running, working out, gardening, bicycling, and even motorcycling can promote mindfulness.
- Approaching mundane tasks with a mindfulness intention. Household chores such as washing the dishes, vacuuming, or folding laundry become a form of meditation when we allow ourselves to pay attention to the process of the task itself and our in-the-moment responses, rather than hurrying through it to get to the next thing.
Meditation is the easiest to describe fully in writing, but much of what I say here applies to other Eastern-based mindfulness practices, too
Many people think meditation is complicated or difficult, but it isn’t. It’s literally as simple as breathing, and a good place to begin meditating is with a three-breath meditation repeated throughout the day.
At a retreat I attended years ago, I was introduced to the concept of the Mindfulness Bell. At random times throughout each day, someone sounded a bell, and we all had to stop what we were doing and take three slow, abdominal breaths. (When you take an abdominal breath, your belly goes out when you inhale and in when you exhale, the opposite of how most of us breathe. The result is slower, deeper, more concentrated breathing.)
When the bell rang, we halted in mid-sentence, mid-stride, mid-chew, as if we were in a big game of freeze tag. At first this interruption annoyed me. I was in the midst of spiritual evolution, damn it! But by the time the retreat ended, I’d embraced these “interruptions.” Each time the bell sounded, I was able to stop what I was doing, saying, or thinking and reset. Did I need to be thinking or feeling what I was thinking and feeling? Did I want to do what I was about to do? Learning to be still in the midst of life, even briefly, helped me reevaluate these choices.
I have often recommended this three-breath meditation to clients, suggesting that they use any interrupting sound, such as a car horn or a phone’s ringing, as a substitute for the Mindfulness Bell.
The effects of this simple change can be revolutionary.
One client whose life was ruled by chaos found this practice to be more valuable than anything else we had done in therapy. At a street corner on the way to work, hearing the Mindfulness Bell of a car horn, she could think, “I don’t really want to waste my time partying tonight.” About to leave for a bar, pausing on the first ring of her cell phone, she could see how the evening would play out and decide, “Not this time.” Hearing a siren blare in the midst of pangs of guilt or shame, she could choose to forgive herself.
An anxious client found a Mindfulness Bell app for his smartphone and programmed it to ring randomly throughout the day. He was often on the road for his job, and while driving his mind inevitably went to worrying. When the bell rang, he took three breaths and allowed himself to return to a more centered place. Over time, not only did his anxiety lessen, but tuned in to his true desires and made major positive changes in his career and relationships.
I also continue this practice. When I step into my office and turn on my computer, I hear its Mindfulness Bell, pause for a moment, and imagine putting on an invisible jacket worn only by my best self. Brief meditations throughout the day help me shift gears between clients, return to center, and reinhabit that best self again and again.
Once you get the hang of the three-breath meditation, consider adding other forms of meditation to your day.
Sitting meditation is usually done with eyes closed, seated on a cushion or chair, in a quiet space. A breath-oriented meditation is one simple, time-honored approach. Focus on the intake and exhalation of each breath, imagining the air entering your body, expanding your lungs, and then leaving it as you exhale. If your attention drifts to something else, just gently bring it back to your breath. Sitting in the morning for 10-20 minutes helps to start the day in a more centered way, but if the mornings won’t work for you, any time of the day is okay.
Walking meditation is another way to reinforce mindfulness. Traditionally, it’s practiced by walking slowly back and forth or in a circle while focusing on the breath, the feeling of your feet touching and lifting from the ground, and the physical sensations you take in from your surroundings. However, if you have a regular walk you take recreationally, or even a short walk from the parking lot to your job, you can do these in the same mindful manner with the same centering effects.
Mindful recreation. Applying mindful attention to an activity like swimming or running can generate the same restorative and balance-enhancing effects as walking meditation. I recommend starting first with mindful walking, and then, when you feel comfortable with the cycle of losing attention and restoring it, experiment with translating this mindful approach to your chosen activity.
Mindful attitude. Another easy way to incorporate mindfulness into you life is to perform daily tasks with a mindful attitude. Taking a shower, brushing your teeth, and eating, if done without distraction and with a focus on your actual actions, can become a regular mindfulness practice. Even chores, done mindfully, can become centering meditations.
The “washing the dishes” meditation is often suggested by meditation teachers and is one I do myself. As a child, my brother Mike and I did most of the household chores, including washing dishes and putting them away, and as a result I’ve never much liked that task. So I’ve turned it into a meditation. I let the dishes pile up during the day and then wash them deliberately at night. I pay attention to the sound of the running water, the feel of the soap and sponge, the transformation of each dish from dirty to clean. The dish washing takes the same few minutes as it would if I were listening to music, thinking about what else I wanted to do that evening, or just pushing through an unpleasant chore. But instead of feeling slightly agitated during or afterward, as I once did, now I feel relaxed and refreshed.
Not long ago, I discovered that this specific meditation had potential side benefits. I was working with an anxious 12-year-old boy, the oldest of several siblings. His parents wanted me to teach him to meditate. So we tried sitting meditation, but he couldn’t sit still. We tried walking meditation, but he found it boring. Then I thought of dish-washing meditation. I gathered up the few cups and dishes in my office and put them in the sink, and I had him toss in a few of the washable toys. “Now,” I said, “squirt some dish soap on the sponge, and I’ll show you how to do dish-washing meditation.” I explained the process and for about five minutes he carefully and attentively washed the dishes and the toys. As he dried the last dish, he turned to me and said he felt much calmer. Then he added, gleefully, “And my mother will love this! I have a big family, and we have a lot of dirty dishes!”
Try turning any chore you regularly have to do, but don’t much care for, into a meditation and you may experience the same mini-transformation – and perhaps also the same glee!
What to do:
- Mindfulness practices. Try an Eastern-based practice designed to enhance mindfulness such as sitting or walking meditation, yoga, tai chi, or chi-gong. These practices have been demonstrated to reduce stress and anxiety, improve focus, relax the body, and increase resilience. Consider starting with a simple three-breath meditation, as described above.
- Mindful recreation. If you are already a runner, swimmer, walker, bicyclist, or participate in another recreational activity, approaching what you already do with a mindfulness attitude will generate many of the same beneficial effects as a mindfulness practice such as walking meditation. Pay attention to each moment and, if you find yourself drifting, bring your attention back to the present. Then rinse, lather, and repeat (as they used to say on shampoo bottles).
- Mindful chores. Instead of just powering through daily tasks and chores, practice mindful dish washing, vacuuming, laundry folding, tooth brushing, and notice the subtle benefits, both in the moment and over time.
COMING NEXT: Keep Your Sanity with the Personal Craziness Index
The Under Toad and the UnBalancer
The Balancer/ReBalancer Tag Team
A Mini-Lesson on Mini Self-Care
Gyroscopes and Personal Flywheels
Hanging in the Balance
Balancing the Books
How to Design an Experiment
Build Your Resilience in 6 Steps
How to Rebalance Your Brain in 3 Easy Steps
How to Boost Connections and Support
How to Handle Change with Ease
Three Ways to Mix Mindfulness into Your Life
From Paths to Wholeness: Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas
DREAMS: “None of us has the nine lives of the proverbial cat, but we can fully exploit this one’s possibilities by remembering the dreams of our youth and using them as a beacon to show us who we really are and what we can look forward to becoming.”
NOTE: Paths to Wholeness is now available at the following Boston-area bookstores and libraries:
Cabot Street Books & Cards, 272 Cabot Street, Beverly, MA 01915
The Bookshop, 40 West Street, Beverly Farms, MA 01915
Boston Public Library (main branch)
Brookline Public Library (main branch)
NOBLE Public Libraries (Beverly Farms and Salem)
MVLC Public Libraries (Hamilton-Wenham)
Please let me know if you find it in other locations!
52 (more) Flower Mandalas: An Adult Coloring Book for Inspiration and Stress Relief
52 Flower Mandalas: An Adult Coloring Book for Inspiration and Stress Relief
Paths to Wholeness: Selections (free eBook)