Calm the mind: 8 ways to be mindful every day
The practice of mindfulness is proven to calm the mind and reduce anxiety, and it can be incorporated into even the busiest of routines, says Katie Byrne.
Ten years ago, mindfulness was something of a fringe activity promoted by New Age types and yoga practitioners. These days, it’s a mainstream movement that is helping an increasing number of people to manage stress and cope with the breakneck speed of modern life.
Over the last decade, mindfulness has been introduced to the corporate world, embraced by a number of schools, hospitals and prisons and given the seal of approval by scientists.
Researchers from Johns Hopkins University reviewed almost 19,000 meditation and mindfulness studies and concluded that mindfulness can improve the symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Nonetheless, there are still plenty of myths and misconceptions surrounding the practice. Some think mindfulness has to be learned in an eight-week course; some think it can only be practised in a cross-legged position.
The truth is that you can practise mindfulness anywhere and everywhere, and while formal classes are beneficial, they are far from mandatory.
Mindfulness is simply the practice of bringing awareness to your current experience — without judgement — and using the breath to keep you anchored there. It is a tool to bring you back to the present moment when you’re operating on auto-pilot... and worrying about the bills.
Mindfulness can make you more focused at work, more present in your relationships and more at home in your own mind. Here are eight ways to introduce it to your everyday life.
1. Mindful shopping
If the idea of shopping mindfully sounds like a contradiction in terms, take a moment to consider mindless shopping and its aftermath. Mindless shopping takes place on the sofa on a Friday night when we click ‘buy’ while watching TV, drinking wine and speed-reading WhatsApp messages.
Mindless shopping takes place during sales season, when our fear of missing out overpowers our better judgment.
Mindful shopping, on the other hand, starts with a clear intention.
If you’re shopping online, don’t allow yourself to become distracted by incoming emails and messages.
If you’re visiting a bricks-and-mortar store, take a few moments to map out your route before you venture inside.
Should the queues and crowds become overwhelming, take a deep breath, noticing the rise and fall of your chest. Notice the soles of your feet and the way they make contact with the floor. Wiggle your toes.
Run your hand along a garment, noticing the way the fabric feels against your fingertips.
These simple exercises will bring you back to the present moment — and away from the sign reading: ‘Clearance: Everything Must Go’.
2. Mindful eating
Mindless eating is rushed. It’s the piece of toast you push into your mouth as you fly out the door or the sandwich you eat hurriedly at your desk.
Mindful eating, on the other hand, is always a ceremony. We sit down, we slow down and we take the time to notice the flavours and the textures of the food we’re eating.
Mindful eating has all sorts of health benefits. Slowing down and chewing more leads to fewer digestive issues, plus it helps the body produce more of the gut hormones that regulate appetite. Better still, when we learn to eat consciously and mindfully, we begin to develop a guilt-free relationship with food.
3. Mindful listening
John O’Donohue was a highly respected poet and philosopher who spoke Gaelic as his native language and lived in a remote cottage in the west of Ireland until his untimely death at the age of just 52 in January 2008.
The task of true friendship, he wrote in his book Anam Cara, “is to listen compassionately and creatively to the hidden silences”.
“Often secrets are not revealed in words,” he added.
“They lie concealed in the silence between the words or in the depth of what is unsayable between two people.”
This task that O’Donohue described becomes easier when we learn to listen mindfully. Mindful listening is the practice of remaining open and present, without preparing your next question or predicting what the other person is going to say next.
When we fully absorb what another person is communicating, we start to pick up on hidden subtleties and underlying intentions.
To hone your mindful listening skills before an important conversation, you could try closing your eyes and bringing your attention to one of the sounds around you — the ticking of a clock, the buzzing of a bee (far left), the chirping of a bird.
This simple practice will help you listen consciously and attentively, and it should calm your mind in the process.
4. Mindful tea-making
If you’ve ever witnessed a Japanese tea ceremony, you will know that the simple act of making a cup of tea can become a ritual that promotes mindfulness.
A kettle takes roughly two minutes to boil but most of us spend this time multitasking. In the morning, especially, we rush around the house in search of phone chargers and tights that aren’t laddered instead of taking the opportunity to check in with ourselves while making tea.
It’s only two minutes, so why not pay full attention to the process? Notice the steam rising from the spout and the sound of the bubbling water.
Notice how the cold ceramic mug warms up as you pour the water in. Go deeper, and see if you can feel the pressure of the water against the teaspoon as you stir.
Now, in the words of Zen master and Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, “Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the earth revolves — slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future.”
5. Mindful beauty
Most women reserve a pocket of time for their morning beauty routine, whether it’s full hair and make-up or a layer of moisturiser and a coating of lip balm.
Whichever one it is, why not try to do it mindfully? Brush your hair slowly and methodically, noticing the sound of each stroke as the brush runs from scalp to tip. If you’re using a cream or serum containing aromatic essential oils, rub it between your hands first and inhale deeply, taking a moment to enjoy the evocative scent.
If your mind starts to wander towards your commute and your schedule, come back to your breath with this mantra by Thich Nhat Hanh: “Breathing in, I
calm my body. Breathing out, I smile. Dwelling in the present moment, I know this is a wonderful moment.”
6. Mindful showering
A lot of people say they have their best ideas in the shower. This is probably because it’s one of the few environments where they truly experience the sensations around them: the pressure of their fingertips running down the scalp; the heat of the warm water washing over their skin; the scent of the shower gel.
The solitary aspect also makes it especially conducive to the practice of mindfulness. If your thoughts are still tumbling, Jessamy Hibberd and Jo Usmar, authors of This Book Will Make You Mindful, suggest a simple variation of the Thich Nhat Hanh mantra to help you return to your breath.
Breathe in. I know I’m taking a shower. Breathe out. I can feel the hot water kneading my skin. Breathe in. I can taste the water. Breathe out. I can feel it falling all around me. Breath in.
I can see swirling patterns of steam rising from around my feet. Breath out. I can smell the perfume of my shampoo.
7. Mindful reading
One of the surest signs of a mind in overdrive is the need to read a paragraph over and over again. When we read in auto-pilot, our eyes are on the page but our thoughts are elsewhere.
Mindful reading, or deep reading as it is otherwise known, takes a different tack. Rather than just skimming the surface, the reader dives in to the prose by slowing down the pace and taking the time to let the words sink in.
If you’re used to reading on a screen, try printing off a short story or long-form article. Put your phone in a drawer and take a moment to ground yourself before you start reading.
Notice the sensation of your back against the chair and then bring your attention down to your feet. Can you notice the almost imperceptible tingling or pulsating sensation?
When we direct attention to the different sensations in our body, we take a break from our thoughts. This exercise will bring you into a more receptive space, helping you to slow down and savour the words, and retain more information.
8. Mindful ironing
Most of us try to avoid ironing, or find distractions while we’re doing it. However, if you would like to make this chore a little less humdrum, try thinking of it as an opportunity to calm your mind rather than a mundane household task.
Notice the texture and feel of the fabric, the smoothness of the ironing board and the pressure of the iron as it glides back and forth.
Similarly, if you’re washing the dishes, notice the sensation of warm water washing over your hands and the worlds within the worlds within the bubbles.
If you find your mind wandering, come back to the breath, focusing on the inhale and the exhale. If you’re feeling especially stressed — or overwhelmed by the size of the laundry pile — try inhaling for three seconds (sending the breath to the base of your abdomen); hold for two seconds and then exhale for four seconds.