Present moment awareness is called mindfulness. Mindfulness allows you to become aware of your internal experiences, such as your thoughts and feelings—and your external experiences, such as what is happening around you.
Consider this: Just as it’s the nature of the heart to beat, it’s the nature of the mind to think. I call the mental content that cycles through the mind “STUFF,” which is an acronym for:
STUFF serves an important function, since it helps you navigate through life. Yet, you may not even realize this STUFF is present. It can fade to the background of the mind, but it’s still there, influencing your behavior.
Try this: Pause for one minute. Notice what’s going on in your mind—your STUFF.
Some people are surprised by the amount of STUFF they notice during this one-minute exercise. Others don’t notice much of anything at all. There’s no right or wrong; the point of the exercise is to become aware of your experience.
When you develop your power of awareness, you can respond to life’s events consciously, rather than react to them unconsciously. As ancient Greek philosopher Epictetus wrote, “We cannot choose our external circumstances, but we can always choose how we respond to them.”
A proven way to build your awareness is through the practice of meditation. Meditation is a practice of noticing. You don’t try to stop thinking; rather, you allow your STUFF (Stories, Thoughts, Urges, Frustrations, Feelings) to surface and then let it pass, without judgment or internal comment. You practice noticing your experience in the present moment, observing your STUFF as if you are witnessing it.
How to Meditate
I recommend choosing a regular place to meditate. Sit on a chair or floor cushion in a quiet room. Start with 2–3 minutes, setting a timer if needed. As you become used to practicing, gradually increase your time to 15–20 minutes a day if your schedule allows. If you’re short on time, try to meditate for just a few minutes to maintain a daily routine.
Here are steps to follow:
- Start by sitting up straight, without being rigid. Keep your spine aligned with your head and neck. Gently close your eyes. Try to release any physical tension, keeping your body relaxed—but your mind alert.
- Choose an anchor—a neutral focal point that doesn’t stimulate your mind. Commonly used anchors are: your breath; your body; a word repeated silently, such as peace; a sound you listen to, such as ocean waves; or an object to hold, such as a smooth stone.
- Rest your attention on your anchor. Whenever your mind wanders, gently refocus on your anchor. For beginners, this may be as often as every second or two. Although many people think the practice of meditation involves stopping all thoughts and feelings, this is not so. Expect that thoughts and feelings will continue to arise.
- Accept your wandering mind. Meditation is a practice of returning to your experience in the present moment. Again and again and again. Notice when your attention wanders, and then return your attention to your anchor. The intent of meditation isn’t to suppress thoughts and feelings. Consider anything that draws attention away from your anchor to be like a cloud passing, or like a boat floating by as you watch from the riverbank. Allow it to pass without judgment and gently refocus on your anchor.
- Continue gently refocusing on your anchor for the rest of your practice time. This process is key, since it exercises your mind’s “muscle.” Just as the repeated practice of doing abdominal crunches can build your core strength, the repeated practice of noticing distractions and returning to your anchor can build your power of awareness. The practice of shifting your attention to a neutral focal point (your anchor) is like shifting your mind out of “drive” and letting it rest in “neutral.” Each time you refocus on your anchor, you’re training your mind to let go of distracting thoughts.
Meditation is a simple practice, but it can be challenging. As stated earlier, people often have the best success by starting with brief periods of regular practice time and gradually increasing the length of time spent meditating as they become used to practicing.
When to Meditate
You can meditate almost anytime. (Note: Don’t meditate when driving or performing another task that requires your full attention.) It’s important to practice when it works best for your schedule. Meditating for a few minutes is preferable to not meditating at all.
Many people find practicing first thing in the morning works best, before they get busy with the day. It’s helpful to schedule meditation practice to coincide with an activity you do regularly, such as brushing your teeth in the morning.
Where to Meditate
I suggest creating a dedicated meditation place. Over time, you may find your mind begin to quiet down by simply entering your dedicated place. Meditation places can even be portable—for example, a meditation cushion that’s used in different settings. An entire room in your home could be devoted to meditation—or just a corner of a room. One meditator carved out a small space next to the dryer in her basement laundry room by installing a sliding translucent screen. Another transformed a bedroom corner into a private space by using a sheer curtain as a divider. Another uses a favorite chair in the living room.
A meditation place should include a dedicated place to sit, such as a chair or meditation cushion. Some people also like to include inspirational items, such as books of short readings (for before or after your practice), meditation beads, candles, or music.
You can practice meditation almost anywhere. You could even meditate in your car—once it’s parked!
Simple Meditation Practices to Try
You can choose from the following practices, or listen to recorded audio meditations posted on my website, www.joyrains.com.
Body Awareness Meditation
Use this as a stand-alone practice or as a starting point for other meditations. Begin with your head and move your awareness downward to one muscle group at a time. Alternatively, start with your feet and move your awareness upward to one muscle group at a time. As much as you can, try to relax each muscle group before moving on to the next one.
You can release muscular tension with your imagination, visualizing your in-breath surrounding the tension and your out-breath gently releasing it. Or, imagine the tension becoming warmer and melting away. Take as much time as needed. If any tense areas won’t release, see if you can accept them as they are.
You can also tighten each muscle for a few seconds and then relax it, to differentiate between a tensed muscle and a relaxed muscle. Be gentle and don’t strain.
Throughout this process be aware of your body and how it feels. Allow your spine to support you, and allow the seat and ground beneath you to support you. Release any muscles not needed to support you. Keep your body relaxed but your mind alert. Try to develop a muscle memory of what it feels like to relax.
Simple Breath Meditation
Start by sitting up straight, without being rigid. Keep your spine aligned with your head and neck. Gently close your eyes. Try to release any physical tension, keeping your body relaxed and your mind alert. Rest your attention on the pace of your breathing, without changing anything; simply notice. You might notice the coolness of the air as you inhale and its warmth as you exhale, or you might notice the rising and falling of your chest. You could even silently say “rising” with each inhale, and “falling” with each exhale. Each time your attention wanders, gently refocus on your breath.
Smooth Stone Meditation
Choose a smooth stone that fits in your hand. Start by sitting up straight, without being rigid. Keep your spine aligned with your head and neck. Gently close your eyes. Try to release any physical tension, keeping your body relaxed and your mind alert. Then, shift your attention to the stone in your hand, noticing its various characteristics, including: its weight, temperature, shape, texture, and size. Each time your attention wanders, gently refocus on your stone. You can also keep your meditation stone in your pocket to remind you of an intention, for example, being relaxed or staying focused.
More Ways to Practice Mindfulness
You can also cultivate mindfulness by considering your activities to be meditative practices, as if the activity itself is your anchor. For example, consider integrating brief mindfulness breaks into your daily routine, such as pausing for a moment and noticing two full breaths, washing your hands and noticing the feel of the soap and water, or eating a meal with full awareness of the textures and flavors of your food.
Another simple way to integrate mindfulness into your life is with a walking meditation. As you walk, gently bring your attention to the soles of your feet as they touch the ground. Any time your attention wanders, gently bring it back to your feet. Consider using a walking meditation as you transition from one place to another. World-renowned meditation teacher Thich Nhat Hanh says to “be aware of the contact between your feet and the Earth.”
Joy Rains is a corporate and community mindfulness trainer. You can find her primer for beginning meditators, Meditation Illuminated: Simple Ways to Manage Your Busy Mind, on Amazon and BN.com.