By Kristen Manieri
“Mindfulness isn’t difficult. We just need to remember to do it,” says renowned writer and meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg. What a paradox! Mindfulness—the act of bringing our attention into the present moment—is easy… if we’re mindful!
It’s true that nearly anyone can cultivate the skill of mindfulness. In fact, most of us learn present-moment awareness without being formally educated in it, without ever being told what mindfulness is and why it matters. We have all experienced what it’s like when our attention returns to the moment we are actually in right now, regardless of how fleeting that particular moment of presence was. This is mindfulness. Easy.
But try to build a mindful life—a life so steeped in present-moment awareness that mindlessness is battled nearly to extinction—not so easy.
The good news is that we are all capable of more mindfulness when we make a commitment to practice more often. A reliable tool for regular practice is habits. Any activity we do with enough consistency to become automated no longer requires our focus or deliberateness. Once we habituate an activity, it becomes seemingly effortless.
Using the power of habits, mindfulness can become effortless, too.
Whether your goal is to become more present or productive, compassionate or creative, it all starts with turning your awareness to the present moment. Mindfulness habits, coupled with the right intention and attention, dig mental grooves that allow you to return to your awareness and the present moment over and over again.
When we merge the science of habits with the art of mindfulness, we discover a formula for a mindful life and a solution to Sharon Salzberg’s challenge. Mindfulness isn’t difficult. And we CAN remember to do it. We just need a little help. The following habits are a great place to get started.
Mindfulness is a homecoming. So much of our day is focused on the exterior of our lives. When we slow down and pause, we’re invited to revisit and re-inhabit our inner world, even for just a few seconds.
The practice of a 30-second check-in is simply pausing to tune in to the feelings, sensations and thoughts in the body and mind. Think of it like a weather report. Close your eyes and check in. Is it stormy, breezy, or sunny? Are you holding any tension or ruminating on any worries?
Noticing what’s happening inside grants us an opportunity to tend to it. Are you thirsty, hungry or achy? What needs is the body asking to be filled? With our awareness turned inward we may notice anxiety, stress or frustration building. Maybe you need a break or to step away to get perspective. When we are mindful, we can choose to regulate ourselves, which helps us access the higher functions of the brain where our capacity to make good decisions and wise choices is stored. We become less of a knee-jerk reactor and more of a thoughtful responder.
Try this: Start tiny! Close your eyes for 10 seconds and simply see what’s there. How do you feel? What are your dominant thoughts? What emotions are present? Notice what it feels like to return to yourself.
Here’s a habit recipe you could try:
After I use the restroom, I will close my eyes for 10 seconds and check in with myself.
Mindful Mealtime Pause
Put up your hand if you sit down to eat and just start mindlessly chowing down. If you could see me, you’d see my hand up, too. Meals are perhaps some of our most mindless moments. It’s tough to eat mindfully, but I find it gets easier when I begin my meals with the habit of taking a mindful pause.
When I sit down to eat dinner, I close my eyes and let myself feel my hunger. This pause offers me the chance to feel very grateful for the food in front of me, all those who played a part in getting it to my table, and to appreciate how fortunate I am to have healthy food to eat. I find this pause also slows me down long enough to savor my food, at least the first few mindful bites.
Here’s a habit recipe you could try:
After I sit down to eat, I will close my eyes, pause and feel grateful.
Waiting in Gratitude
I had a terrible habit of checking my phone when I’m stopped at red lights and I really wanted to break it. As I learned from BJ Fogg, it’s much easier to replace a habit than to break one, especially one that we’ve been doing for a long time.
So, I began the habit of placing my phone in my purse instead of in the center console. Having it out of reach lowered the temptation and removed the visual prompt. Then when I arrive at a red light, I take a moment to think of a few things I’m grateful for.
Here are habit recipes you could try:
After I get into the car, I will put my phone out of reach and out of sight.
After I stop at a red light, I will think of three things I’m grateful for.
Three Deep Breaths
Without getting too much into the science, believe me when I say that just taking three deep breaths has a tremendous influence on your nervous system. We breathe short, shallow breaths when we’re stressed. It’s a way of our body getting us into a position for either flight or fight.
The trouble is, we don’t typically face any real threats most of the time. But we think threatening thoughts, which make our body think that we’re in trouble. A good way to reset and to restore our inner peace and calm is to slow and deepen our breathing.
Try this: Once a day, sit somewhere comfortably and close your eyes. Take a breath in through the nose to the count of five or six. Hold the breath for a second or two and then exhale through the mouth with a big sigh. Repeat this again two more times.
What you’ll likely notice is a feeling of ease as your nervous system starts to register the signals that you’re safe and well. You might even say silently to yourself, “all is well.” This quick, little reset can help you power down at the end of the day, shift from work to family time, and can help you regulate your emotions when you’re feeling upset.
Here are a few habit recipes you could try:
After I get into bed at night, I will take three deep breaths.
After I get into the car after work, I will take three deep breaths.
Handwashing is something we all (hopefully) do automatically and mostly mindlessly several times a day. This makes it a great anchor for a mindful moment!
For this habit, you’ll still wash your hands as you normally do. The only difference is that you’ll wash them with your attention singularly focused on the task at hand rather than letting your mind wander or rushing through.
I like to use this moment of presence to practice keeping my attention focused on something that’s pretty mundane. My mind isn’t really interested in focusing on washing my hands because it’s something I’ve already done a million times and I don’t need any special attention in order to do it correctly. Being with my mind as it naturally wanders away with thoughts of my day or what I’m going to do next is an interesting exercise in simply training my mind to stay present. And since I wash my hands about a dozen times a day, I get loads of practice.
Try this: As you turn on the tap and put soap onto your hands, tune into the sensory experience (sight, sound, smell, touch) of this everyday practice of washing your hands. Allow yourself to drop deeply into the experience and really feel all the sensations you’re experiencing. Use this practice as a mini holiday in your day and a chance to come home to yourself, even for just 20 seconds.
Here’s a habit recipe you could try:
After I put soap on my hands, I will bring my full attention and awareness to the act of washing my hands.
Making Habits Stick
If you’re up for it, pick just one of these habits to work on in the next week. Instead of aiming for a slam dunk, set the intention to simply learn about how you build habits. Troubleshoot and pivot rather than throw in the towel if a habit isn’t sticking. And remember, keep it tiny and easy. You can scale up your habit once it’s sticky.