You’ve probably heard about the benefits of mindfulness meditation: decreased stress and sadness, greater sense of happiness and calm, a clearer head, better focus. And who couldn’t use a little more of that?
But what if you’ve tried meditating, sitting with your eyes closed for 10 or so minutes, focusing on the breath, and it felt…uncomfortable? Not at all relaxing. A little stressful, even. Is there something wrong? And is a formal meditation practice the only path to peace of mind?
“Those whose minds are particularly active can find meditation, especially at first, really challenging,” says meQuilibrium meditation expert Katherine McHugh. “Their awareness of the breath can make them feel anxious. Also, people worry that they’re not ‘doing it right,’ which causes more anxiety.”
But just as there are many ways to train the body—walking, swimming, weightlifting, yoga— there are a number of ways to train the mind (both formal and informal) to be more mindful, aka more present and aware. “With exercise, you can run, you can bike, you can take a barre class; but whatever you do you need to do it consistently to get stronger and more fit. There are no shortcuts,” says McHugh. “The same goes for mindfulness. You need to train your brain to become better at it.”
Here are four ways to practice mindfulness without meditation:
1. During Your Shower
Your daily shower is a perfect opportunity to practice mindfulness. Whether it’s quick or leisurely doesn’t matter; just make sure to leave your electronics in another room so you won’t be disturbed.
As you step under the stream of water, notice how it feels on your face, your arms, your torso. Is the water hot enough? Pay attention to which parts of the body you soap up first, and change the order next time. Become aware of the sensation on your scalp of washing your hair, the scent of your soap or shampoo. When you’re done, notice how soft (or not) your towel is as you dry yourself off.
During familiar daily routines like showering or brushing our teeth, our brains go on autopilot, and our minds tend to wander off, worrying about the future or rehashing the past. If you notice that happening, gently bring your attention back to the present.
2. Taking a Listening Break at Work
“Listening for sounds is one of the best and simplest way to practice mindfulness, and you don’t have to close your eyes to do it,” says McHugh. At the office, for instance, take a minute to simply become aware of the sounds within your range of hearing. “There’s no need to strain or seek any experience—just being available to the arising and passing away of sound, without attaching any interpretation.” Maybe it’s the low murmur of colleagues’ conversation, a phone ringing, or someone pecking away on their computer. If you’re near a window you might hear the traffic passing, a car honking, a jackhammer, or rain against the glass. “Being curious about the sounds and engaging the senses gets you out of your head.”
3. At Lunch
A working lunch often means scarfing down a sandwich and a bag of chips at your desk while catching up on emails or jotting down a grocery list. Our thoughts are a million miles away, often in worry mode.
Here’s a mindful alternative: Before your first bite, put your phone and other distractions away, and pay attention to the food you’re about to eat. Engage your senses—taking in the sight, the aroma, the texture of the food. As you begin to eat, don’t inhale your meal. Chew slowly, aware of the flavors of what you’re eating. Once we bring our awareness to the experience of eating, we stop getting lost in the thinking mind.
4. While You’re Walking
There are different styles of walking meditation, which you can do either indoors (in a hallway or large room, where you have enough space to walk freely for 10-20 steps ) or outside (a street, path, park, or any place where you can put one foot in front of the other). Wherever you choose, the idea is to pay attention to the physical sensations as you walk.
Before you begin, stand still for a moment and become aware of your posture. Feel your feet in your shoes, your shoes on the ground, and the ground supporting your weight. Notice all the subtle movements that go into keeping you standing upright and balanced. There’s no need to change anything about the way you’re standing. Simply being aware, and relaxed, is key.
Start to walk at your own pace, whatever feels comfortable, where your arms and hands move naturally. Notice how the body feels: Is it heavy or light? Stiff or relaxed? Pay attention to your footsteps, noticing the feeling of your feet making contact with the ground. Use that rhythm, the soles of the feet touching the ground, as your base of awareness, a place you can bring your attention back to any time your mind wanders off (which of course it will).
The more fully you can engage your senses, be in your body, the more you can get out of your head and not get caught up in those busy anxious thoughts. “The more awareness you can bring to each moment, and the world around you,” says McHugh. “That’s mindfulness.”