Mindfulness: 10 Practical Exercises You Can Do Almost Anywhere

by Leah McClellan

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Hands with water

One of my big realization or Ah-Ha! moments happened in college, in a sociology class called Modern Social Problems. The professor was great. I already had him for Sociology 101, and I loved how he blended lectures with stories or examples that we could relate to and discuss as a class.

One day he asked for a show of hands in response to the following question:

How many of you remember driving to class this morning?

Laughter and giggles broke out as faces looked puzzled, chins were rubbed, and hands were raised and dropped a few times. I raised my hand at first but, after thinking about it, I realized there were stretches in my ten-mile commute that I definitely didn’t remember. Finally, in a class of about twenty-five students, not one hand was raised.

I forget exactly what the discussion topic was all about, but I do remember this: it was one of my early realizations of how our minds can be so busy with our thoughts that we aren’t truly present. In our minds, we’re often replaying events from the past or imagining the future. Sometimes we’re having imaginary conversations with people we know and maybe some we don’t. We’re not in the moment, we’re not conscious of our surroundings, we’re not mindful. We’re not “in the Now.

If you can picture being on auto-pilot while driving, imagine that a deer suddenly jumps out in front of you.

You didn’t see it coming. Your emotional response is some combination of surprise, fear, shock, horror, or panic. In a split second, you decide to swerve to the right.

You weren’t paying attention. Because you were startled, you just reacted in the best way you knew how at the moment. But it didn’t turn out well for the deer, for your car, or for you. You realize later that you had other options, and now your mind is filled with could haves and should haves and worries as you drive your rental car to work.

Things often go the same way with our communication. If we have sudden, unexpected emotional responses to something someone says or does, we’re likely to react without considering options, and the option we choose is usually the one we know best from long habit. And it might not be the best option.

“But that’s normal,” I hear someone protest. Sure, it’s very normal and typical. But is it peaceful? Is it compassionate? Is it about choice? Is it even related to what the other person said or did?

If the deer is headed to your right, why would you swerve to the right if you’re trying to avoid it? If you had been looking—if you were mindful—you would have seen other, better options.

The same is true in communication. There are options that we might be aware of during a relaxed, calm time, if we think about it. But at the time of a sudden emotional upset, we forget they’re there. We can’t see them, and we react out of habit because that’s all we can think of in that split second. We just react.

Thing is, we can’t learn to respond in an emergency situation—think spouse, parents, kids, friends, neighbors, colleagues—if we don’t practice. If we aren’t familiar with our thinking and emotional responses during calm times, how can we manage them at stressful times?

Are you on auto-pilot and lost in thought when you’re interacting with or talking with someone?

Maybe you’re planning the next thing you’re going to say. Maybe you’re making judgments about the other person. You might be a million miles away and just responding enough to make the other person think you’re listening. Maybe you’re responding with your same ol’ same ol’ and matching story for story, tale for tale. Maybe you’re making hints that you have to get going, and you’re getting frustrated that the other person isn’t responding.

Maybe you’re just reacting, and maybe you’d like to do something different and get different results. Maybe you’d like to be more aware of options and make better choices.

One way to change our communication habits is to practice mindfulness in everyday activities.

Mindfulness is simply being in the moment and being aware. It can also be about “watching” as various thoughts and emotions arise, when and if they do. It’s about being in the Now and being aware of what is going on right here, right now. Nothing else. And the only way to become more mindful is to practice.

Here are some exercises you can do any time, with no special skills or preparation. The goal is simply to become more aware of your thoughts and emotions while you’re engaged in ordinary tasks.

1. Wash the dishes. Feel the water, feel and smell the soap. Look at the shine on the clean dishes. Just wash the dishes.

2. Eat. Really eat, and that’s all. Whether it’s something healthy or not healthy or a sweet treat, enjoy every bite of it. Chew slowly and purposefully. Notice texture, warmth or cold, the flavor and smell.

3. Drive. Watch everything and everyone around you without judgment. Cars ahead, behind, and to the side. Feel the steering wheel, the gear shift, the seat. Look at trees, houses, grass, garbage at the side of the road.

4. Sit. Just sit. It doesn’t have to be meditation. You can be on a train, a plane, or in your living room. Just sit and breathe.

5. Walk. While walking, notice your breath and how your body feels. Feel the air, the warmth or cold, the roughness or smoothness beneath your feet.

6. Run. Pay attention to your breath, the movement of air on your cheeks, the scenery that passes, the way the road or path feels to your feet. Notice smells and sounds.

7. Listen. Really listen to someone. Instead of talking, pay attention to any thoughts that arise in response. Ignore them. Try to respond only to the speaker. Say “I hear you” or “I understand.” Ask questions, and resist the temptation to voice judgments or give advice or tell your own story in response.

8. Shit. Forget the magazines or newspaper. Go to the toilet, do your business, and only do your business.

9. Sing. Really sing. Play your favorite music and sing along. Or make up your own tune. Involve every part of yourself in it. Sing it, hear it, feel it.

10. Pray. If you don’t pray, substitute affirmations or positive self-talk. Recite a poem that you like, or express your dreams and goals out loud. Listen to yourself. Hear your voice. Smile. Breathe.

During any activity, we can practice mindfulness. We can be aware. We can be in the Now.

If we are mindful, we will see that we have options. We will see that a deer has run out of the forest and is headed in our direction. We will see that there are no cars to our left, so we can swerve safely in that direction. We will know that no car is behind us, so we can slam on the brakes safely. We will know that if we just keep driving, the deer will safely cross the highway.

The key thing to remember is that you are not your thoughts and you are not your emotional responses.

Thoughts and emotions are not you, they are not your inner essence, and they do not have to control you. You can contemplate thoughts and emotions and reactions and observe them during any activity. This is part of what develops mindfulness. Only when we become aware of our thoughts and emotions–instead of being them–can we become mindful, aware, and in the Now.

If you don’t see the practical application of this exercise at this particular time, never fear. In many future posts, I’ll refer back to this one as well as two recent posts on triggers and living in the now because the topics are so integral to interpersonal communication.

Thoughts? Comments are always welcome.

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{ 18 comments }

Angela Artemis

Hi Leah,
I loved this post. You’ve made so many great points! We are not our emotions or reactions – I think we’re all so distracted by our busy external lives that we neglect the real us on the inside.
Angela Artemis´s last blog post ..Rewire Your Brain- 7 Days to A New Positive You

Leah

Thanks Angela! You’re exactly right–we’re so distracted that we’re not really paying attention to the “real us” as you put it. Thanks.

Rosemary

Hi Leah, Really enjoyed this post. I’ve read other posts on mindfulness but you came up with something very interesting that I haven’t come across before. “Thoughts and emotions are not you, they are not your inner essence, and they do not have to control you”…so simply put yet such a powerful message. Thanks Leah
Rosemary´s last blog post ..5 Steps to Recovery From an O-D of Shiny Happy Peeps

Leah

Thanks Rosemary! Glad it spoke to you. It’s a pretty amazing thing to realize this, that we have a choice in how we react no matter what we’re thinking or feeling, and that there’s an “I” who is feeling or thinking these things, who can be aware, and who is actually the entity in charge. “I” am in charge of “my” thoughts and emotions. Who is this “I?” Knowing that is what awareness and mindfulness is all about, to me. :)

Ande Waggener

Beautiful! This is something I can never be reminded of too often Especially #2 is something I need to do MUCH more often.

One way I ground myself in the present is to sit and watch my dog sleep or just pet her or hold her and wait until my breathing begins to synchronize with hers. Connecting with an animal’s energy can be a powerful way to be mindful.
Ande Waggener´s last blog post ..How To Change Your Happiness Programming

Leah

Thanks Ande! I know what you mean about connecting with an animal’s energy. I used to do exactly what you describe to help a sick dog, and I occasionally do it now to help my dogs calm down if need be–allowing them to synchronize with my breathing. But it hasn’t occurred to me to do the opposite, to follow their breathing for myself! I’ll have to try that. Just petting or holding them, though, anytime but especially before they go to sleep and hearing that long sigh of contentment as they finally relax is so soothing.

Randy

Thanks Leah,

I was at the gym one day singing the heck out of the new Train CD, when a woman came by and told me to quiet down, as others were staring at me and, by the way, I shouldn’t quit my day job. So I was making a fool of myself and I couldn’t sing, if by chance I thought I could. I was mortified (Can we still get mortified, at least if we are of a certain age?) and in shock. I never expect people to be unkind so when it happens I am always taken aback and have no witty retort.

But you know, I was in the moment. I was feeling emotions and really there. The experience left me feeling like Mr. Tanner (of the Harry Chapin song) who now sings softly to himself after public humiliation when he used to sing for the joy of it. You only experience joy in the moment. Thanks for reminding me.

Randy

Leah

Sing it, Randy! Meet Virginia…Train’s really good. I think people get uncomfortable, for some reason, when other people sing. It’s like they’re uncomfortable with someone letting it all out and being free. That’s on them, ya know. Their reactions only reflect their emotional reactions, not you or your singing talent (or lack thereof, as the case may be).

Yes, we can get mortified at any age. I was mortified just yesterday :)

Keep singing, be in the moment, and forget what people think–well within reason, I guess :)

Giulietta Nardone

Hey Leah,

Man, I used to be so on autopilot when i drove that a few times I ended up on a turnpike scraping up money on the floor to get off the next exit. I “came too” and said, where the hell am I? The last couple of times I went somewhere became the roadmap my fuzzed out mind followed when I got in my car.

Scary!

Have worked on that by knowing where I’m going when I leave. You are so right than an “awake” person will make more rational decisions. I mean it’s like being awoken in the middle of the night!

I try to stay awake when I’m awake as much as possible. Singing I’m totally in the moment – just love karaoke! Eating, pretty good or I may choke. Conversations I’ve worked hard to be present — at least most of the time. That’s easy — I just comment on what folks say to me. Instead of going off on some unrelated tangent when they are done speaking.

G.
Giulietta Nardone´s last blog post ..Strip!

Leah

Oh gosh G., I’ve done exactly that on the turnpike and lots of other roads! I think certain areas have messed up gravitational pulls, and it makes our brains go wacky, or something. So maybe, in some cases, when we space out while driving it’s not our fault ;)

I agree that it’s a good idea to know where we’re going before we set out. For me, I have a habit of *thinking* I know where I’m going, but it’s been so long since I’ve been there–or I was never there–and I have no clue.

I think “commenting on what folks say” is a great way to be present while communicating. It’s so easy for me to just go on auto-pilot sometimes! And sometimes if the other person isn’t saying anything, it can get awkward. So then it’s a choice between being at peace in the silence or thinking up a graceful way to exit :)

Christopher

Love the post on mindfulness Leah. In my life, mindfulness is directly correlated with my happiness. The more mindful I am, the greater life is on a daily basis. Your 10 activites reminded me of Thich Nhat Hanh’s book “Peace is Every Step.” No matter what we do in life, mindfulness never leaves us alone.

Love the new picture. I can see your pretty face without the hat on!

Leah

Thanks Chris! Definitely agree about the happiness correlation. How can we be happy if we’re living in the past or the future? No surprise that you’re reminded of Peace is Every Step. That’s the first book of Thich Nhat Hanh that I ever read, though it was ages ago. This is all very much Zen stuff.

Nice that you stopped by! Hope all is well.

Alison Kerr

I love the way you started out with the story of the lecturer. It was a great way to engage me in what you had to say.

Great post Leah!
Alison Kerr´s last blog post ..Why chickadees are so greedy

Leah

Thanks Alison! Glad it pulled you in. Obviously that guy got me thinking too! He had quite a talent for asking great questions and getting us thinking.

Thanks :)

Ricardo Bueno

I spend a lot of time on the road already (I commute to- and from work and I love my job). It’s relaxing for me actually. It’s a great opportunity for me to reflect on the ideas that I have brewing throughout the day.

Another exercise that I’d love to get to and do more of though is running! I used to run 2-3 days a week (3-4 miles at a time). Again, totally relaxing and a great opportunity for me to reflect. Always felt refreshed afterwards…
Ricardo Bueno´s last blog post ..A Few Reasons Genesis Rocks!

Leah

Hi Ricardo, I know what you mean about reflecting on ideas while driving. Just watch out for those deer :)

Running is great. Just do it! I walk a lot, and though it’s good for reflecting or sorting through a problem or figuring something out, I also find that focusing on what’s around me is also good. I sort of switch back and forth, but if I’m really being mindful, I just enjoy the scenery.

Thanks for stopping by!

Gwen

Hi Leah,

That was a well-written post. Loved it. You had me hooked from the beginning but when you got to point #8…I had to LOL!!!

All for now,
Gwen

Leah

Thanks Gwen! So many people I know have bathrooms stocked with magazines and call them “the reading room.” At a job I used to have, it was funny to see people going to the restroom with a newspaper lol. This multi-tasking just has to stop! lol

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