What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is not sitting in lotus position on a mountain top.
Below is the often-cited definition of mindfulness from Jon Kabat-Zinn (author and founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts).
“Mindfulness is paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”
Why is it important?
I wrote recently about mindfulness being a critical practice in performance settings. In situations of stress and pressure, mindfulness is the scalpel that sits between my reaction (which I can’t control) and my response (which I can choose).
By connecting to the present moment, I can focus on doing what matters (task-focussed attention) and align my choices, decisions and behaviours with importance (values, people, goals, objectives, purpose, impact).
Modern science continues to validate the beneficial effects of millennia old mindfulness practices on attention, memory, executive function, and cognitive flexibility – all great things for both wellbeing and performance.
How to practice mindfulness
What does that definition of mindfulness actually mean in practice?
In simple terms there are three parts to mindfulness:
- Focus: We focus on something (eg breath or sound).
- Drift: We inevitably drift away from the focus with thoughts, feelings or sensations.
- Come back: We notice we’ve drifted and come back to our focus.
Focus, drift, come back, repeat.
The beauty of mindfulness is that it can’t be done “wrong”.
It’s the inevitable drifting and coming back that are the reps in the gym that, with practice, can lead to the benefits described earlier and even change the physical structures in your brain.
Daily mindfulness examples
But the reality is that there’s no need for an app. Mindfulness can be practiced in literally every moment of a day.
There are plenty of times when I just slam a coffee down first thing in the morning to stave off the effect of a child-interrupted sleep.
When I’m more mindful though, I sit with my coffee and really try to appreciate it.
- How does it truly smell?
- How does it truly taste?
- What is the temperature of the cup on the palm of my hands?
For just a couple of seconds, I’ve purposefully focussed my attention on a subject and in the present moment, tried to truly experience it non-judgementally.
It doesn’t take up more time. It doesn’t require a special place. It just takes a choice to really engage with that moment.
I do something similar with my first glass of water each morning.
I hold the glass with both hands, and as I drink the water, I recite my values to myself in my mind: Love, Gratitude, Humility, Exploration, Contribution.
Building a practice for yourself
In helping people develop a mindfulness practice, my first question is:
What is something you do everyday (or nearly everyday)?
Like the examples above, it could be your first glass of water, a shower or a coffee.
This becomes the anchor.
The next step is:
How can you really pay attention to this experience?
It might be through any or all of your senses sound, sensation, taste, smell, sight.
With these two questions you’ve built yourself a personalised mindfulness practice that slots perfectly into your existing patterns and habits.
[If you want to explore more about building positive habits check out Atomic Habits by James Clear.]
19 mindfulness activities that take less than 1 minute
Below is a list of mindfulness activities and practices that I’ve tried over the years that I find useful in all sorts of settings including work, leadership, parenting, home, health, fitness and difficult conversations.
I use them as a situation requires but as you’ll see, opportunities for mindfulness are as varied as I’d like to make them.
Most are framed as questions to help to purposefully bring my attention to the present moment.
- 4-7-8 breath. Breathe in for 4, hold for 7, out for 8. Repeat three times. (Pioneered by Dr Andrew Weil.)
- Breathe through my nose: Do I notice the difference in humidity on the inhale vs the exhale? How far down my throat can I follow my breath?
- Am I breathing with my chest or diaphragm?
- Am I breathing through my nose or mouth?
- Can I feel the sensation of the wind or sun on my face?
- What sounds can I notice close by? What sounds seem further away?
- Wiggle my toes in my shoes: what sensations do I notice?
- Sitting down: What is the sensation of the chair on the back of my legs?
- Air conditioning in a meeting room: Can I notice the sound of the air conditioning in the room I’m sitting in? Are there different tones?
- Can I take a mindful sip of water to pause before I respond to a question or situation?
- Shower: Can I notice the droplets hitting my skin? Can I separate them individually?
- Washing up: What does the water feel like on my hands? How does the scrubbing brush feel in the palm of my hand?
- Parenting: Where in my body do I feel the frustration at the toys not being put away? What are the sensations in my thumb when my daughter holds it as she falls asleep?
- Strength work: Can I notice the contraction of my muscles? Can I notice each of the individual fibres?
- Swimming: Are the tiles on the bottom of the pool in clear focus? Can I notice the different colours on the bottom of the pool as light refracts through the water?
- Walking/running: Can I notice the sensations in my feet? The airflow on my face?
Food and Drink
- Food: What does the meal actually taste like? Can I separate the flavours? Can I feel the different textures?
- Water: Can I notice the temperature? The texture?
- Coffee/Tea: Can I notice the smell, taste, temperature, the steam rising from the cup?
As Greek poet Archilochus says:
“We don’t rise to the level of our expectations; we fall to the level of our training.”
And this list is really just a prompt and reminder to me to explore how I might bring mindfulness into my day.
I want to practice it daily so that when the pressure is on, I can use mindfulness as a tool to notice my reaction and choose my response.
I’d love to hear about any other favourite mindfulness practices you’ve tried or that have worked for you in the comments below.