7 Ways to Make Mindfulness Work for You This Year
I have a friend who believes in meditation. She’s well aware that it can help relieve stress, reduce chronic pain, improve sleep, and even calm the stomach. She also knows that it’s not complicated, and doesn’t require any special tools or techniques.
“Sit still and be quiet!” she says. “What could be easier?”
Well, apparently a lot of things, as my friend has yet to establish any sort of regular mindfulness practice in her life.
She wants to. She’s told me on many occasions that a mindfulness practice is what she needs, especially when she’s stressed out, or when she finds it near impossible to get the things done that she really wants to do.
“It’s so frustrating,” she says. “I’m always running around and I know meditation would help. I’ve got other friends who talk about how great it is. Why can’t I find a way to fit it in?”
My friend is right that mindfulness can create a lot of positive changes in life. Studies have connected it to a number of physical benefits, as well as to actual physiological changes in the brain that help protect against mental illness and depression.
But of course we can’t experience these benefits without actually practicing mindfulness on a regular basis. In today’s hectic world, though, that can be really difficult.
The New Year is a great time to start over, and to establish new habits that will improve our lives. If you’ve wanted to try mindfulness but haven’t yet, or if you had a regular practice going but then somehow lost it, we’ve got some tips for how you can make 2017 a much more mindful year.
What is Mindfulness?
Trying to nail down a specific definition for mindfulness can be difficult. Some think it’s just another word for “meditation,” but that’s not quite right. Yes, a mindfulness practice includes meditation, but that’s not all it includes.
Mindful Schools, a California educational organization that creates mindfulness courses for public schools, understands the confusion, and agrees that there is “an open and evolving conversation among practitioners, scientists, and scholars” as to any one definition of “mindfulness.” We need to define it somehow, though, so we know what we’re trying to accomplish.
While some refer to mindfulness as a sort of lifestyle that involves moment-by-moment awareness, others see it as the actual effort to be present in the moment. Still others see it as being “awake” to experience, or paying attention to our thoughts and feelings without judging them.
Mindful Schools offers this definition:
“Mindfulness can be considered a state, a trait, or a practice. We can have a moment of mindfulness (state), but also have a habitual tendency of mindfulness (trait). We can do the intentional formal practice of mindfulness using different postures and activities: seated mindfulness, mindful walking or mindful eating, for example. The formal practice of mindfulness leads to more moments of mindfulness and ultimately improved trait-level mindfulness. Higher trait-level mindfulness means that we’re more mindful even when we’re not consciously trying to be mindful. This is critically important: we’re learning to create a healthy habit of mindfulness.”
I think this is a great definition because it shows us how we can progress with our mindfulness practice so that eventually it becomes much more than something we do for ten-to-twenty minutes a day. We may start with a short meditation practice—10 minutes each morning, for example—and if we stick with it, eventually that practice will start having an effect in other areas of our lives.
We could find ourselves reacting more calmly to stressful events than we may have in the past, for instance. This is often an enjoyable benefit of regular meditation. Then, as we notice that improvement, we may step up our meditation practice, and start living more in the moment in our daily lives. With a lot of practice and experience, we start to find that we’re more mindful even when we’re not trying to be.
Voila, we’ve developed a mindfulness trait! We’ve incorporated mindfulness into our character, so to speak. And it all started with that 10 minutes of daily meditation.
That’s good news, because it means we don’t have to overcome Herculean obstacles or block out half the day to incorporate mindfulness into our busy lives in the New Year. All we have to do is form a new habit of mindfulness. But again, it can be confusing.
Exactly what does that mean?
What Does it Mean to Create a Healthy Habit of Mindfulness?
Meditation is definitely the key to mindfulness, and the easiest first step to take. But mindfulness isn’t about just meditating. Meditation helps us to become more mindful, but a holistic mindfulness practice includes a lot of additional activities.
Some examples of these activities include:
- Paying attention to your breathing throughout the day, and making a point to breathe more deeply and calmly.
- Noticing what you’re sensing in any given moment—the sights and smells around you.
- Tuning into the body’s sensations.
- Letting difficult emotions be without reacting to them.
- Making a point to listen more carefully when someone is talking to you.
- Focusing on all sensations when eating a meal, rather than just eating on the run.
- Letting go of judgments we may make in the moment—committing to “hearing out” a colleague, for example, rather than rushing to judge what he or she is complaining about.
Mindfulness includes a regular meditation practice, but it also involves applying mindfulness techniques throughout the day, every day.
But even if we really want to do that, how can we actually make it happen when our days are so busy and hectic?
7 Ways to Make Mindfulness a Part of Your New Year
We all know how New Year’s resolutions usually go. Research shows that though at least half of Americans typically make New Year’s resolutions, less than 10 percent actually achieve them.
You may have experienced this yourself, particularly when trying to set up a regular mindfulness practice. Maybe you tried once and failed to make it stick, or maybe you have just been confused as to how to get started.
This is where we need to combine a smart approach to setting goals with a simple approach to mindfulness. Following are seven suggestions for you.
- Simple Daily Meditation
The key word here is “simple.” We all have a lot of things going on every day, so if we really want to work meditation in, we’ve got to make it easy and fast. Researchers have also found that when we set simple, easy goals, we’re more likely to be successful in achieving them.
Start with five minutes of quiet sitting and focusing. That’s it. You don’t have to have special equipment or a fancy pillow or meditation music or anything else. All you have to do is find a quiet place to sit and focus on one thing for five minutes. For example:
Sit in your car either in a parking lot, at the park, or before leaving for work or home.
- Set a timer or alarm on your phone or watch so that you don’t have to watch the clock. Set it for five minutes and then ignore it until it goes off.
- Sit quietly and focus either on some quiet symbol, like the brand mark on your steering wheel, and allow your thoughts to come and go without reacting to them.
You can choose another quiet place to sit, of course, and any image you want to focus on. A lit candle works really well, or a photo of a beautiful landscape. The important thing is to set an alarm, and to be sure you’re somewhere you won’t be interrupted.
Stick to this practice every day. Schedule it into your calendar if you need to. Don’t allow yourself to go a day without doing it. It’s only five minutes! Pretty soon, you’ll start to notice the benefits and you’ll be more likely to want to continue or lengthen the practice.
- Breathing Check
Schedule four times a day to check your breathing. Then, spend five minutes slowing it down. For example:
- Set the times for 8:30 (just before work perhaps), noon (right before lunch), 5:00 (right before leaving work), and 10:00 at night (before bed).
- Each time, stop whatever you’re doing, close your eyes, and pay attention to your breath.
- Note how you’re breathing. Is it fast or slow? Deep or shallow? Are you moving more of your chest (upper lungs), or more of your belly (lower lungs)?
- Once you’ve noted the state of your breathing, focus on slowing it down.
- Breathe more deeply from your stomach rather than your chest. Count your inhales: 1-2-3-4, and then count your exhales, 1-2-3-4-5-6. (Exhales usually take longer.) Continue to do this until your five minutes are over.
Again, you can set a timer if you like so that you won’t be distracted by trying to keep track of the five minutes.
This sort of exercise is much like meditation. It forces you to slow down and tune into your body, which is a mindful exercise. You’ll emerge feeling calmer and better able to make your next decision.
- Choose a Word
Choose a common word that you’re likely to hear at least once every day. Something like “coffee,” “go,” “please,” or “car.” If your choice doesn’t work you can always change it.
Then, whenever you hear that word, stop and make yourself aware of your surroundings. For example, say your word is “coffee.”
- Whenever you hear the word “coffee”—when someone says they’re going to get a cup of coffee, or a server asks you if you’d like coffee, or when you see a Starbucks sign—that is your signal.
- Tune into your surroundings. What are you hearing, smelling, seeing? Notice it more carefully. How does the ground feel underneath you? The air around you? How warm or cold is it?
- Notice other things. What colors are you seeing? Are there details you haven’t noticed before? Imagine you were tasked with drawing your surroundings in great detail. What shapes do you see? What shadows and highlights?
Try the practice for a week and see how it works. You may need to add another word to your trigger words so you’re stopping and noticing at least twice a day. This teaches you to be more aware of your surroundings on a regular basis. The more you do it, the more it will start to become habit, even when you don’t hear your word.
- Question Every Judgment
We all make a bunch of judgments every day, usually without even realizing it.
You notice the weather first thing in the morning, for example, and make a judgment about it. It’s either warm or cold, good or bad. We do the same thing with most of the meals we consume, the experiences we have, and the people we meet.
The problem with all this judging is that it can encourage stress. We think an experience is “bad,” for instance, and our body reacts with tension and anxiety. If the weather is “cold,” for instance, we may duck our heads and grumble to ourselves about the day ahead of us.
This all creates a negative experience. If we can withhold judgment, mindfulness says, we can relax and enjoy the day regardless of the weather.
It’s time to pay more attention to those judgments you regularly make. A goal of mindfulness is to limit our emotional reactions, and to accept things as they are, rather than judging them so quickly.
- Every time you find yourself judging something, stop yourself. When you judge a colleague’s outburst, for example, the weather, or the traffic, stop and question that judgment.
- Tell yourself, “I’m judging this right now. Why?”
- Ask yourself if this judgment is helping you, making you feel more relaxed and joyful, or hurting you and making you feel more stress and anxiety.
- Define the feeling you’re having. Where is it located? In your head, shoulders, stomach? What color is it? What shape?
- Make a point to accept the situation just as it is. See if that acceptance relaxes you.
This regular practice of questioning each judgment will gradually get you into the habit of being more mindful of how you’re manipulating your own emotions with your judgments.
- Loving Kindness Meditation on Your Favorite Thing
This exercise involves choosing something you really like.
What do you have around you pretty much every day that you’re attached to? Most of us are attached to our cell phones, but they can be too distracting. Think instead of something like your coffee cup, favorite pen, picture of a loved one, key ring from somewhere special, unique piece of jewelry like a ring or necklace you wear most every day, or any other small thing you normally carry with you that you like.
Twice a day, pull that thing out and spend five minutes in a “loving-kindness” meditation.
- Set two times a day—first thing in the morning, and last thing at night, for example.
- Pull the item out and hold it tightly in your hands. Set a timer if you need to.
- Close your eyes and focus on your most loving, kind thoughts toward yourself. Send yourself love and forgive yourself for any mistakes. Remind yourself of how thankful you are for your body, and the fact that it pumps your blood and keeps you alive. Allow only positive thoughts.
- Next, spread those positive feelings toward others. Branch out to someone close to you, and then move to a friend or more distant acquaintance. Focus on sending out good, positive, loving feelings. Gradually continue to expand until you include all beings everywhere.
When you open your eyes from this meditation, you’re likely to feel more loving and compassionate toward yourself and those around you. This will help you feel more positive and optimistic, in general. The more you do it, the more you’ll radiate that sort of kindness to others.
- Start a Meditation Group
One of the reasons many of us fail to keep our New Year’s Resolutions is that we have a hard time keeping ourselves accountable. If this is something you struggle with, starting a meditation group may be just the solution you need.
Get together with one or more of your friends and determine a meeting time, preferably at least once a week. Start each meeting with a group meditation—10 minutes to focus on a central image, for example—and then spend the rest of the time, as you like. You can simply socialize, or incorporate mindfulness education or experts into your time. You can also agree to share your observations via email or social media throughout the week if you like.
The important thing is that you meet every week to meditate for a short period of time, and share your experiences with mindfulness. Knowing that your friends will be expecting you to share can give you the motivation you need to stick with your daily practice.
- Start a Mindfulness Journal
Researchers have found that journaling, by itself, can create a lot of health benefits, including reducing stress, boosting memory, and improving creativity. You can capitalize on this healthy practice by giving it a mindfulness twist.
Commit to a “mindfulness journal” by taking the following steps:
- Decide how you will journal—either in your computer, tablet, or phone, or by hand in a special notebook or diary.
- Schedule a time each day when you will journal for five minutes.
- During that five minutes, write down your observations about when and how you were mindful. Did you stop to notice your breathing? Question your judgments? Meditate? Take note of your surroundings?
- Write down, too, your observations of when you weren’t mindful. Did you overreact to something? Feel rushed and anxious most of the day? Skip your meditation practice?
- Finally, record your feelings about these observations, and end with self-compassion. Remind yourself that you can start over tomorrow.
Journaling has another benefit—it helps keep us accountable. If you’re recording your observations every night, you’re reminding yourself of your goals, and are more likely to progress throughout the year.
Good luck, and feel free to add more suggestions for a New Year’s mindfulness practice in the comments below!