Mindfulness helps us move out of autopilot, where we think thoughts, feel emotions and act on behaviors without any awareness — without even realizing we’re having these experiences. Without any awareness of our thoughts, feelings and behaviors, we can get caught up in negative cycles.
Our mind buzzes with anxious thoughts. We engage in habits that aren’t fulfilling or even healthy. We get swept up in anger and lash out at our loved ones. We get caught up in judging ourselves, and our stress only expands.
Mindfulness also helps us move away from thinking and doing to being. It is in this state of being that our five senses take center stage and connect us to what’s happening right now, in this very moment, according to mindfulness teacher Ed Halliwell in his newest book Mindfulness: How to Live Well by Paying Attention.
In the book Halliwell features a wealth of information and practices to help us ease into mindfulness. Here are two of my favorites, which focus on using our senses and becoming aware of our inner lives.
Coming to Your Senses
For this practice Halliwell suggests having a chair and glass of water. Spend 3 minutes on each sense (for a total of 15 minutes).
Feeling: If you’re able to, sit upright with your feet on the ground. Rest your hands on your thighs. Close your eyes, if you like. What sensations do you notice? How do your feet feel? What sensations do you feel in your back? What temperature is it right now?
What kinds of internal sensations are you feeling? For instance, maybe you’re experiencing some aches or itching. Avoid trying to get rid of these sensations. Allow yourself to experience them.
Hearing: Let the sensations fade into the background so you can focus on sound. What are you hearing? Halliwell suggests thinking of our ears as microphones, “receiving and registering vibrations.” So we don’t search for sounds, we wait for them to come to us. Maybe you hear a high-pitched sound or silence. Maybe the sounds are pleasant or unpleasant.
Seeing: Open your eyes to focus on seeing. Instead of seeing objects such as a book or table or carpet, Halliwell suggests focusing on colors, shapes, shades, depth, height and lines. Let your eyes linger, instead of darting around. If you start naming objects or an object triggers a memory, simply acknowledge that your mind has wandered, and gently return to seeing.
Smelling: You can close your eyes, again, and focus on your sense of smell. Do you smell one fragrance or other scents? If you don’t smell anything, what’s the smell of “no smell”?
Tasting: Pick up the glass of water, and take a sip. Notice the sensation of the water on your tongue. How does the water taste? “Let the describing words fade into the distance, allowing the sensation of taste itself to be known.”
Swirl the water in your mouth. Does the taste change? Swallow the water at any time. Do traces of the taste remain? If they do, for how long? Take a bigger sip, and notice if the sensations are the same or different.
After you’re done with this practice, consider how it differs from how you normally relate to your environment. If it’s different, how is it different? When you pay attention to your experience, does it change the quality?
Halliwell suggests doing this practice once a day. You also can explore different locations, and taste different foods or beverages.
According to Halliwell, this practice helps us “come into awareness, wherever we are.” It’s especially helpful when we’re stressed out, because that’s when our minds go on autopilot and rely on habitual reactions.
He underscores the importance of not thinking of this as a relaxation practice, because this creates expectations. Instead, focus on bringing awareness to your mind and body. That’s your only intention.
Acknowledging: Sit in a dignified posture, which Halliwell describes as a king or queen sitting on a throne: head and neck balanced, shoulders not hunched, chest open and sitting upright.
Pay attention to your thoughts. Do your thoughts seem heavy or light, like they’re fluttering in and out? Are your thoughts occurring quickly or slowly? Are you having lots of thoughts, some thoughts or no thoughts at all? To acknowledge any thoughts, Halliwell suggests saying, “Ah, this is what’s going on in my mind at the moment.”
Bring your attention to your emotions. What emotions are present? This might be joy, sadness, anger or fear. What sensations are you experiencing? Where are these sensations in your body? “Are they changing from moment to moment? Are they increasing or decreasing in intensity?” You don’t need to change how you’re feeling. Again, the key is to allow yourself to experience whatever arises.
Next bring your attention to other sensations in your body. For instance, you might be experiencing aching or numbness or tingling. Where are you feeling these sensations? Avoid judging what you’re feeling.
Gathering: Let your thoughts and sensations fade into the background so you can focus on your breath. “Rest your attention on the rhythm of breathing — feel the expanding and dropping of the abdomen as the breath flows in and out.” When your mind drifts to thoughts or other sensations, gently return to your breath.
Expanding: Focus your attention on your whole mind and body. Allow yourself to experience your thoughts and sensations, “without having to identify with, change or reject them. Just let them be known with curiosity and compassion.”
Halliwell suggests practicing these three steps several times a day for several minutes. You can set an alarm as a reminder.
Mindfulness is powerful because it helps us pay attention to our thoughts, emotions and behaviors. It interrupts habitual patterns, which only amplify our stress and perpetuate vicious cycles.
Mindfulness gives us the opportunity to pause, check in with our inner and outer worlds and intentionally make helpful, meaningful decisions.