I mention mindfulness in all of my posts, it is part of my blog title, but I have never offered up a list of simple, real exercises to practice mindfulness. Being mindful is like exercise. It is like building muscles. If you don’t practice, you won’t have muscles. If you’ve practiced for a while and then stop, you will love it to a certain extent. You still have muscle-memory, so when you start your mindfulness practice again you will more easily get it back, but lose it you will. I’m going to jump right in with my top 10 list. I hope you’ll find some here that you feel comfortable trying! I’ll post more in later posts. There are so many to choose from! But for today, here are Thich Nhat Hanh’s 10 Exercises that he recommends in his book, Happiness.
Breathe: Conscious breathing involves being aware that you are indeed breathing. Sound strange? Breathing is regulated by our autonomic nervous system. Notice the word “auto” in that? Yes, that is because it is automatic. Thank goodness we didn’t have to remember to breathe! (I know I’d have forgotten by now.) Focusing your attention on breathing will bring you body and mind together, synchronizing what is usually disconnected.
Exercise: Sit comfortably. As you inhale and exhale, bring your attention to the flow of air moving in and out of your nostrils. Notice that for a while. While you inhale, think to yourself, “I’m breathing in.” When you exhale, think, “I’m breathing out.” When you do this for a while, you can shorten it to “In, Out”. Doing this exercise will bring your mind to pause, only thinking about breathing. It unites body and mind. Putting a slight smile on your face while doing this can relax you even more. You can extend this exercise even more to noticing the blue sky while inhaling, and much more. But for now, practice breathing and being conscious of it. It will bring you immediately out of the past and future and into the present moment.
Sitting meditation: One of my personal favorites, meditation can calm the mind, soften the heart, and relax the body. Mind, body and soul unite. Meditation is so healing, whether you have pain, anger, fear, whatever stress might feel. When we meditate we allow these feelings to exist without putting much value on them. Oh how freeing that is!!!
Exercise: Sit in a comfortable position. No need to sit like a yogi in Lotus pose. Just sit, on the floor, in a chair, on your bed, however you like. Meditation shouldn’t feel like work. If you start to get uncomfortable, if your foot falls asleep, just stay calm, move you foot, stretch your leg, and continue. Start by closing your eyes, focusing on the third eye helps you maintain your focus. Try not to become competitive. Just enjoy the moment and don’t put pressure on yourself to not have any thoughts. Just sit and focus on your breathing: “Breathing in, breathing out”. If your thoughts start interfering, accept them as they are and know they will float by like drift wood. They are merely thoughts. Breathe, sit, be.
Walking meditation: Have you ever tried meditating while walking? Sounds a little dangerous doesn’t it? Walking meditation can be summed as Thich Nhat Hanh says, “walking just to enjoy walking”. We aren’t walking somewhere. While walking, be grateful that you can walk.
Exercise: As you walk, notice how your feet touch the ground, and you put one foot in front of the other, and how you arms swing while you walk. Now, while you walk mindfully, breathe. In other words, when you breathe in, take two or three steps, depending on the capacity of your lungs. If you feel like you need two steps while inhaling, do so. If you feel you need 4 steps while inhaling, do so. When you exhale, do the same. Just know how many steps you want to take upon exhaling.
Waking up: If you follow my blog, you know that I really do not like waking up. But we can actually start our day with a smile and with gratitude. If we can make ourselves aware that we are alive and be thankful for that, we can set our day off mindfully.
Exercise: Waking up in the morning, open your eyes, and say “Thank you”. Be thankful that you woke up, that you have a fresh new day ahead of you. When you get up, look out the window and if it’s not too dark, notice everything outside, listen to the birds, or other sounds of the street. Tell yourself you will try to be mindful this day. Smile. Smiling activates the feel-good parts of your brain and induces happy feelings. In order to remember to smile after you wake up, put a sign somewhere as a reminder. Stick a post it on your alarm clock. Whatever works.
Bells: Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a calming bell ring every so often during the day, no matter where we are or what we’re doing? A bell that reminds us to stop, breathe, and become aware of the present moment? At monasteries, this actually happens. The monks here a bell and are expected to stop talking and stop moving. They do this happily. We can do this too whenever we hear a bell ring, whether it is the church bells, a stranger’s telephone ringing, whatever kind of sound. You can just stop, and notice. It’s important, however, to bow to the bell. See the bell as your little mindful friend who is reminding you to be mindful yourself. Be grateful when you hear a bell.
Exercise: if you can find an actual bell, first bow to it, then take it in your open palm. Imagine your hand is a lotus flower, and the bell is a jewel inside of it. Use your breathing exercise from above to become mindful. Ring the bell only halfway, as a kind of warning to the bell and to yourself. It warns you to start to become mindful of the bell. Now ring the bell and enjoy three breaths in and out. Thich Nhat Hanh says to recite the following poem as you breathe in and out:
This wonderful sound
brings me back
to my true home.
It’s beautiful isn’t it? Listen, listen means you listen to the bell with all of your heart. My true home means life, with all its wonder.
Telephone meditation: I like this one because the telephone causes me great anxiety. I am a big introvert and introverts are well known for not liking to answer the telephone. On the other hand, many people love to talk for hours on the phone. For both kinds of people, this exercise is beneficial and easy.
Exercise: The next time your phone rings, stay where you are. Don’t answer yet. Become aware of your breathing. Thich Nhat Hanh says to repeat these words: “Breathing in, I calm my body. Breathing out, I smile”. When the phone rings a second time, breathe again. When it rings a third time, answer the phone, but remember you are now mindful, you are smiling, and spread that good energy to the person calling you.
When you want to call someone, breathe in and out two times and recite this verse by Thich Nhat Nanh:
Words can travel thousands of miles.
May my words create mutual understanding and love.
May they be as beautiful as gem,
as lovely as flowers.
Now, pick up the phone and dial. Continue while the phone rings to breathe, reciting “Breathing in, I calm my body. Breathing out, I smile”.
Doing this exercise can counteract stress and depression and can be done in your own home. If the recitations are too much for you, I suggest just leaving it out, but still breathing, still becoming mindful, and still smiling.
Bowing: Most of Westerners only know bowing from Asian cultures. Bowing when we meet someone helps us acknowledge the other person as our equal, to honor the other human being standing before us. It sets a beautiful tone for the interaction. This might not go down well in your culture. However, you can bow in your mind, without actually bowing to the person. You do it in your mind.
Exercise: When you see someone, join your palms together in prayer position, and breathe in, saying (or thinking), “A lotus for you”. Breathing out you can say or think, “A Buddha to be”. If you don’t like the Buddha aspect of this, you can still practice it. Just bow, breathe in and say, “I am grateful for you.” Or make up something else you can say that you feel comfortable with. It’s not about what you say, but rather the attitude of gratefulness and respect you give to the other person. You are stopping all judgmental thoughts and recognizing that person as a soul having a human experience. Alas, we all just want to be happy.
Gathas: Gathas are short verses that help us practice mindfulness in our daily activities. In our modern world, this could be a good example:
Before starting the car
I know where I am going.
The car and I are one.
If the car goes fast, I go fast.
Now, just reading that verse sounds really silly. But if you recognize that it tunes you in with what you are doing in that moment, you become fully present. You experience the NOW. Gathas are like little daily thoughts we can use to remind us to be present and mindful.
Exercise: When you turn the water on, LOOK at the water coming out of the faucet and say:
Water flows from high mountains.
Water runs deep in the Earth.
Miraculously water comes to us,
and sustains all life.
Again, this might be too wacky for you, or simply too hard to remember while you wash your hands on your break at work. If you’re at home you can write it on a post it and stick it on your mirror. If that’s not possible, make up your own. You could say something like, “Water is precious. Water sustains me. Water is essential to life. I’m grateful for water.”
Or, if that still is too much for you, just say “I am grateful that I have water to wash my hands with.”
I Have Arrived, I am Home: When I fly from Germany to the USA, I usually have three kids with me. Sitting squished up in economy is not the most wonderful way to spend the next 8 hours. I usually think, “Ugh, I can’t wait to get there.” A good practice in mindfulness is to remind yourself that the present moment is the destination.
THE PRESENT MOMENT IS THE DESTINATION.
So, telling yourself, “I have arrived. I am home” is key to being mindful of your present moment.
Exercise: Whether you’re in an airplane, a car, or even at home doing some chore you don’t want to do, remind yourself by saying or thinking, “I have arrived. I am home.”
Taking Refuge: Whenever you experience something that is stressful, dangerous, traumatic, you can become your own island of refuge. You don’t need someone else and you don’t need to wish for whatever is happening to you to stop or go away. You can find peace inside.
Exercise: This gatha can be used to return to yourself, to return to your own place of refuge:
Breathing in, I go back to the island within myself.
There are beautiful trees within the island.
There are cool streams of water,
there are birds, sunshine, and fresh air.
Breathing out, I feel safe.
Again, you can make up your own image in your mind of how that place of refuge looks. Do what feels right to you. These words are suggested by Thich Nhat Hanh in his book “Happiness”. But you can certainly use your own words. When we have a gatha to recite or think in our heads, we have an anchor that helps reduce stress, helps us to remain calm and not panic. Then, when we find that refuge we can deal with the situation in a mindful way.
There are so many more exercises in mindfulness. I will continue to post some in the future for you. In the meantime, I hope you find at least one here that will help you get used to being mindful in your everyday life. Our lives are stressful. Our lives are full of distraction. Building in little modernday exercises in mindfulness is often the only realistic way to become mindful in this crazy world—without having to join a monastery.
Please post comments and let us know which exercises you tried, and how they worked for you. I would love to hear your thoughts! Also, if you found news ways to practice mindfulness, please let me know too! We can all benefit from it!
Sat nam. (Truth is my name)
Source: Thich Nhat Hanh. Happiness. 2009. Parallax Press, Berkelely, CA.