Mindfulness 101: Tips from the Pros

Mindfulness 101: Tips from the Pros

Mindfulness is one of those ideas I tend to automatically accept as something I fully understand. But when I sat down to write this article, I realized I couldn’t actually describe what it means to be mindful. Does being mindful simply mean being present? Does it mean giving full, unadulterated attention to everything I do? Is mindfulness an all or nothing practice, and if so, am I destined to fail thanks to the daily distractions of the modern world?

When you get down to it, the idea of mindfulness is rather simple. It’s all about being purposefully aware of your thoughts and actions in the present moment. What’s difficult, though—at least for me—is putting it into practice.

I sought tips and advice from a range of experts—from mindfulness coaches and psychologists to meditation experts and authors—and what I learned encouraged me. There are so, so many simple, no-cost mindfulness approaches; enough angles and practices to work for anyone and everyone, from children to seniors. Read on for my favorite tips for beginning a mindfulness journey.

1. Why mindfulness matters: the present moment is a peaceful place

“We are constantly distracted by any number of different things that pull us away from the present moment and our current experience,” says Dr. Aaron Weiner, licensed clinical psychologist. The primary culprit of distraction, Weiner says, are our own thoughts. “We might be talking with someone, or going for a walk, or eating, but instead of being fully immersed in that moment, we might be thinking about our work, our family, something we’re worried about, or something we regret. We also may be judging ourselves or the situation.”

Weiner says not only do these thoughts cause us not to focus on what we’re doing in the moment, but they can also cause a lot of stress and unrest. Why? “Because the present moment is generally okay. We usually aren’t in danger or in crisis at this moment. But what happens is we create these narratives, either by looking into the past or into the future. We’re creating these catastrophes in mind.”

“If you can keep yourself here, if you can practice being mindful, being truly present,” says Weiner, “it can be a very peaceful, very soothing place to be.”

2. Notice your mind, rather than clearing it

Weiner explains there’s a difference between mindfulness and mindfulness meditation, and recommends practicing the latter daily. Mindfulness meditation helps with a variety of conditions, from anxiety and depression to chronic pain.

“It helps you notice your thoughts, and to differentiate yourself from them,” explains Weiner.

So what is mindfulness meditation? It’s the act of training your mind, says Weiner, to notice when you’re not in the here and now. When meditating, you generally focus your mind on your breath (called the “anchor point”), and when you catch your thoughts straying from your anchor point (which they will, but this is totally normal and okay!), then you release and start over.

“A lot of people think mindfulness meditation is about clearing your mind,” says Weiner, “but it’s more about noticing your mind, and watching your mind, and seeing when it gets carried away,”

3. Keep your head where your feet are

“People in western cultures often find the word ‘mindfulness’ confusing because we associate the mind with thinking,” says meditation coach and award-winning author Nita Sweeney. “For beginners interested in mindfulness, I ask them to notice what foot they use to walk through a doorway. Most people have a ‘favorite’ foot, but are unaware of it. Once they have determined which foot they most often use, I invite them to notice that foot every time they go through a doorway.”

Sweeney urges her students not to change anything about the way they move, but only to sense what their favorite foot feels like as they walk into a new room, or in/out of a building. “This awareness brings the person into the present moment,” she says. “And that is the ‘goal’ of mindfulness: it tasks you to bring your attention to the ‘now.’”

4. Take it outside

“The magic of being outside is that all of our senses are engaged,” says Tina Hnatiuk, a life coach, yoga, and mindfulness teacher. “We feel the temperature of the air, see with our eyes, hear the sounds. All of these guide us into the present moment.”

Hnatiuk says simply being outdoors and noticing all the sensations calms our minds, hearts, and bodies, allowing us to enter a state of peace and calm.

5. 5-4-3-2-1 Exercise

You know when you’re waiting on someone else to make a big decision that impacts your life? I think we can all relate to this, whether it’s waiting to hear back after a job interview or whether or not your child’s school is going to open back up during a pandemic.

Or sometimes you stress about the outcome of something you simply can’t control. A canceled flight or gridlock traffic, for example. Well, when you notice your mind starting to spiral in those moments,

This technique is suggested to us by both Weiner and Amanda Stemen, a licensed clinical social worker and mindfulness coach. It’s called the 5-4-3-2-1 Exercise, and the goal is to engage all your senses.

5: Look around you and find five things that you can really see in full detail. For example, it could be the grain of the wood on a table or the texture of the carpet.

4: Find four things you can hear.

3: Three things you can touch

2: Two things you can smell. Dr Weiner says it’s ideal to be able to smell two things where you are, but if you can’t, recall a specific smell and hold it firmly in your mind.

1: One thing you can taste. Again, if there’s nothing around that you can taste, recall something from memory that you like to taste.

5. Remember the good times!

“In Indian philosophy, memory is called Manas, the place inside the body which saves your memories,” says Kaudinya Arpan, a glaciologist and a Karma Yogi mystic from Sikkim, Himalaya. Arpan explains that good memories are great to focus on when trying to calm yourself from a place of stress, but it’s often more difficult to recall good memories rather than bad ones—especially when we’re experiencing stress and anxiety.

Arpan suggests to approach this twofold: the first thing you should do is work to find and understand everyday occurrences that make you happy, and to spend more conscious time doing those things. He then says to sit down with some physical memories, like photo albums or mementoes, and really attempt to feel those moments within yourself.

How does this help with mindfulness? “The whole point of this exercise is to make you feel your emotions,” says Arpan. “Afterward, you may realize that you had no other thoughts when you were sitting with your good memories. This is mindfulness.”

6. Four square breathing

If you’re a steady reader of the blog, you’ve probably seen this tip before in our article dedicated to breathing exercises. This exercise tip comes from Liz Hughes, a licensed professional counselor. Four square breathing is a deep breathing exercise, and helps with stress management by regulating our parasympathetic nervous system.

Four square breathing is really easy, mostly because the technique is in the name. You simply breathe in for four seconds, hold at the top for four, breathe out for four seconds, pause for four, and repeat!

What helps you stay mindful? Let us know in the comments.

Featured image: @vincemlobo