One of the ways to train awareness is by targeting an object of focus, such as s candle flame or observing the breath. Another is by narrowing the channel of observation, such as sense perception. In the former, you could focus inward on bodily sensations, thoughts, or emotions. In the latter, you could focus outward, for example, by closing your eyes and focusing on sounds in a quiet room.
When you are beginning, it is really valuable to keep it simple. Simplicity supports awareness. Therefore mindfulness of thoughts, for example, is something that might better be attempted after practice, or with the help of a teacher or therapist. It’s a little like practicing with a sailboard in a lagoon before taking it out to open ocean.
With all practices of mindfulness it’s important to approach it with a supportive attitude. Being very patient and light, not heavy-handed or with strong expectations. One of my favorite analogies is to view it like house training a new puppy. It’s not really only about discipline and control of your dog. It’s also an investment into the quality of your relationship, and the more kindness and joy you put into it, the better and more effective the rewards in the long term.
The following exercises can be practiced from 1 minute to 1 hour. As an introduction, you might try a period of 5-15 minutes.
You can be in any posture and be aware. However some postures make it easier to be mindful, and to sustain mindfulness. You can sit in straight-backed chair or a stool, or sit on a block or cushion on the floor. The important thing is to make it easy for your spine and neck to be straight and upright without being rigid or tense. If in a chair, make sure your feet are flat on the floor. Keep your head aligned with your spine; don’t bow your head or crane your neck. Being able to breathe easily is a good cue that your posture is conducive to meditating. Being comfortably alert is another one.
A simple way to build awareness and concentration is to count your breaths. Close your eyes and notice yourself breathing in and breathing out. Start to count each cycle of breath as you observe yourself breathing. Can you get up to 10? It’s not unusual for people to get lost in thought long before that. As soon as you recognize you’ve lost count, smile at yourself and start over.
With eyes closed, simply keep your breath “company.” Watch it go in and out. Notice when it speeds up, when you take a bigger breath, or a shallow one. When your mind wanders away from breath, bring it back. This form of breath meditation is different than pranayama, yogic breathing practices that use directed breath to channel energy. The focus here is on staying present to observation.
Sometimes thinking and emotional activity has such a strong gravitation force it can be difficult to pull away. Body scan can be a quick way to become mindful.
One form of body scan is to notice what parts of your body are in contact with something. The contact your seat is making with the cushion or chair. The feeling of your hands on your lap or folded.
Another form is to notice where there is “noise” – tension or pain is an easy draw for attention, so bringing your attention to it gently, without fighting with it or trying to change it.
Finally you can scan your body from head to toe. Let your attention first dwell on, then move downward. What do you notice happening at the crown of your head? The muscles in your face, your forehead, around your eyes, your jaw, around your mouth; your neck, shoulders, etc.
Eating & Drinking Meditation
To demonstrate how mindfulness is something that can be practiced anywhere, anytime — and at its best when integrated into daily life — try this:
While you are at a café having coffee or seated at a meal, close your eyes as you take the next sip or bite. Let’s say you are eating an orange. As you bring the orange closer to your mouth, what sensations or changes do you notice, even before you take a bite of it? What is the sensation of taking a bite? You notice taste. Where is the taste? Is it in the front of your palate, back or side? The texture? Temperature? Meanwhile what is happening in your mind? Is it pushing you to take the next bite, or already thinking about what you will do after your meal? By slowing down an experience you discover its complexity and enjoy its richness at the same time.
Standing in Line Meditation
This exercise can be challenging because of the many sources of sensory, mental, and interpersonal input. However it is a particularly valuable one because it’s a great way to put “wasted” time to good use, and supports mindfulness while living your life.
You can start by putting away the phone, closing your eyes for a moment and giving yourself a deep breath to support the exercise. With eyes open or closed, what do you notice about your posture? Is your weight mostly on one foot; or are you leaning on something? What sensations are in your body? Are there muscle groups that are tense? What is your breathing like? What is the tone of your emotions? Are you bored, impatient, or simply far away, disconnected? If so what is it like to bring your presence back to the here and now? What can be noticed that you didn’t notice before? What kind of flooring are you standing on? Who is around you? What shifts do you notice in yourself as you wait? If you like the idea of this meditation but find it challenging, one way you could support the practice is to break it down by recording your observations as you go.
Loving Kindness and Compassion
This is a very specific and scripted meditation that systematically cultivates concentration and the positive forces of love, kindness, and compassion. In the Theravadan Buddhist tradition they are called Metta and Karuna meditations.
You start by thinking of someone who is easy to love or care for, and repeat phrases such as “May you be happy,” or “May you be free of suffering.” You include yourself, and move onto people you are either indifferent to, or you may be in conflict with. It is a very powerful meditation. In terms of its effect on the mind it has some similarities with the positive psychology movement and the power of cultivating gratitude and appreciation. As it turns out, the mind is quite powerful and can be directed to cultivate positive forces just as effectively as it can continuously grind out resentment, anger, disappointment, etc. To get started on this you could simply make the focus of mindfulness a phrase such as “May I be well and happy,” and while you are thinking this phrase do your best to mean it.
Formula for Mindfulness Meditation Exercises
As you can see from these examples, no matter what you are doing there are common elements to cultivating mindfulness. Here are some of them:
- Coming into presence. We spend most of our day distracted or lost in thought. Bringing conscious awareness to the here and now.
- Noticing sensations and perceptions. Sensations and perceptions are something that only happen in the present moment. Staying close to them is the best way to support mindfulness.
- Being inquisitive. The more inquisitive you are about what is happening, the more there is to notice.
- Being patient. Patience, and its sibling Perseverance, are the qualities most conducive to progress.
- Reducing reactivity and interference. As you meditate, notice more than alter what you observe. For example, take the Counting Breaths meditation. You start counting, then quickly realize you had stopped counting and were lost in thinking. Rather than getting impatient with yourself, berating yourself, feeling exasperated or judgmental, the practice is to simply to bring your attention back to now, and starting over. In the time it takes you to react to what is not happening, you are losing the opportunity to simply practice. Or you may find yourself revising or improving ways to count your breath. This too can be a form of reactivity. For the sake of cultivating mindfulness, just try to keep it simple.
- Kind attitude. Joseph Goldstein once said that the path of mindfulness without ethical behavior was the equivalent of rowing a boat while tethered to a dock. Similarly, mindfulness without kindness misses the point. Although it is often the natural (and eventual) consequence of practice, it helps to realize from the beginning that a kind and friendly attitude toward oneself is part of what you are aiming for. If concentration is like movement in a dance, kindness is the music.