Noticing the here and now sounds simple, right? That’s the core of mindfulness practices, which invite participants to direct their attention to the present.
“I define it as paying attention to our present moment experiences with openness, curiosity and willingness to be with that experience,” said Diana Winston, director of mindfulness education at UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center. “Not lost in the past, not lost in the future.”
Mindfulness meditation can mean sitting quietly and paying attention to your breath, with no special props or skills needed. But it’s often said that while mindfulness is simple, it is not easy. That’s because we’re easily distracted.
“There’s a misconception that you’re going to do the practice, and your mind is going to be blank or in a state of bliss,” Winston said. “That’s just absurd. That’s not what happens.”
In fact, you’ll almost certainly find your mind drifting away from the practice. That’s OK, Winston said. “If your mind wanders, you don’t yell at yourself: ‘Get back in the present moment!’ ” she said. Instead, try to redirect your thoughts back to the now.
“Just keep doing this over and over,” she said. “It builds concentration, it builds stability of mind and builds the ability to return to the present moment. That’s the skill we’re wanting to do.”
You can start at home, either on your own or using some of the free apps and audio meditations that have proliferated in recent years. Winston helped create free audio meditations for UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center that include breathing meditations, meditations for sleep and more.
“If you’re a beginner, it’s great to be guided,” she said. And when it comes to choosing the right guided meditation for you, Winston said it purely a question of personal preference.
“See how you respond to the person’s voice,” she said. “Does that person’s voice make you feel calmer? Do you feel like you can relax? There are so many people’s voices, and you want to find one you respond to. Not everyone is the same.”
Common techniques include mindful breathing, body scans, listening meditations, mindfulness walks and loving kindness. Those are five great ways to start a mindfulness practice today — and we’ve got five reasons to add a little mindfulness to your life.
1. Pay attention to your breath
Noticing your breath is a starting point for many mindfulness practitioners, said Amishi Jha, professor of psychology at the University of Miami and author of a forthcoming book, “Peak Mind: Find Your Focus, Own Your Attention, Invest 12 Minutes a Day,” on improving focus and attention through mindfulness.
“This is the most foundational practice,” Jha said. “It’s part of every tradition and every program currently available for mindfulness training.”
To try it, turn your attention to the physical sensation of your breath, without trying to control or manipulate your breathing. You could set aside three minutes to practice, Jha said, or just spend 30 seconds doing mindful breathing while waiting for a red light to change.
Pretty soon, she said, you’ll probably get distracted. That happens to everyone. “You’ll notice your mind has wandered away,” Jha said. “All you need to do is redirect it back.”
That process of refocusing over and over is like doing mental pushups, Jha explained. With time, your ability to focus will get stronger.
“Thirty seconds is just to get a taste of what we’re talking about,” Jha said. “The goal is to build up to some regular period of practice.”
Why try: Jha’s research shows practicing mindfulness builds up your ability to focus on tasks — even when you’re not meditating.
2. Try a “body scan”
Sometimes we tune out our physical sensations, especially at times of pain or discomfort. A mindfulness practices called a “body scan” is a way to return attention to the body.
“You’re systematically directing your attention to an area of the body,” said Patricia Rockman, director of education and clinical services at the Centre for Mindfulness Studies in Toronto, whose free app includes guided body scan meditations. “Either starting from the head and going down to the feet, or from the feet up to the head.”
Rockman described the process of a body scan as “placing, exploring, shifting.” That means you place your attention on one body part at a time — such as the soles of the feet — pausing to explore any sensations or feelings in that area. Then, you shift your attention to your ankles. Pause there, and repeat.
It’s a practice Rockman said is worth pursing even if you’re coping with pain or other unpleasant sensations.
When bringing your attention to a difficult part of the body, she said, “maybe you stay there very briefly and then move somewhere else. Or maybe you’re able to sit with it and bring a different attitude, like ‘yeah, OK, I don’t like this. But can I be interested in it?’”
Such curiosity can be transformative, said Rockman. “You can imagine how that translates into life.”
Why try: Practicing mindfulness can temporarily reduce pain, in what researcher Eric Garland, a distinguished professor and associate dean for research at the University of Utah College of Social Work, calls “meditation as medication.”
3. Listen to the world around you
Turning attention outward can be powerful too, said Rockman, and mindful listening is a great place to start. That means taking a few minutes to listen to what’s happening around you.
“You’re just listening to sound as sensation, without naming or describing,” she said. “Just listening to the tone, the volume, the spaces.”
You don’t need an idyllic, quiet space to try it out. “Often people when they do mindfulness or meditation, they think the conditions have to be right: ‘Oh, it’s got to be quiet, my kids can’t interrupt me and my dog shouldn’t be barking,’ ” Rockman said.
But mindfulness meditations, she said, are made for real-world conditions.
“You could just be sitting in your house in a chair,” she said. Set a timer for a five minutes and tune into sounds, whether a buzzing fan, birdsong or a nearby car alarm. “Close your eyes, open your ears and just hear what’s coming and going.”
Why try: If you’re dealing with insomnia or poor-quality sleep, mindfulness practices can help you get better rest.
4. Take a mindfulness walk
While many mindfulness practices happen while sitting or lying down, staying still isn’t a requirement, Rockman said.
“Walking can also be a form of meditative practice,” she said. To try it, she recommends choosing a small area, which could be a yoga mat on the floor or a 15-foot stretch of grass in the outdoors.
“Walk back and forth along this path,” she said, “trying to direct your attention in a specific way.” Start with the soles of the feet, noticing sensations as you set the foot down and shift your weight. After a few minutes, you could move your attention to the lower legs.
“You’re really just attending to the sensation of walking,” Rockman said, adding that it’s a practice you can bring to everyday life. “Once you become accustomed to it, you could use this when you’re walking anywhere.”
Why try: Studies show mindfulness is effective at reducing stress.
5. Practice some loving kindness
The meditation practice called loving kindness is all about feeling the love — for yourself and others.
“The loving kindness practice is affirmations that you say to yourself, and to loved ones, to friends, to community members,” said Travis M. Spencer, executive director of the Institute of African American Mindfulness and a meditation facilitator.
It’s a good idea to start with some guidance, said Spencer, who leads a 10-minute loving kindness meditation that’s available online each Friday morning. In it, he invites participants to silently repeat a series of lines such as “may I be happy, may I be healthy, may I be filled with loving kindness.”
Once you’re used to the practice, Spencer said you can continue on your own. It “really supports cultivating self-compassion, and cultivating compassion for others, as well,” he said.
Why try: Mindfulness has been shown to reduce anxiety and boost mood.