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Mindfulness beyond meditation: What to do when meditation isn’t your thing

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Mindfulness has become a bit of a buzzword in personal development and wellness circles—and with good reason. Practising mindfulness is so powerful when navigating difficult emotions and creating positive change in your life.

Research shows that mindfulness improves levels of life satisfaction, self-esteem and positive feelings as well as helping with overthinking, anxiety and depression. But formal meditation practices, which are often suggested as a way to develop mindfulness skills, aren’t for everyone.

I’ve heard from many people that they “just can’t meditate”. It just isn’t for them. I deeply believe in the benefits of meditation but even for me, there are times when it can be boring or I’m way too pumped up to sit still on a cushion. Luckily, meditation isn’t the only way to get the benefits of mindfulness.

Mindfulness is the practice of bringing your attention to the here and now, in a non-judgemental way. In other words, noticing your feelings, thoughts, and actions as if you were an outside observer while trying to do so without any blame or praise towards yourself.

So how do you practice mindfulness without formal meditation techniques?

Firstly, start small

Mindfulness is like a muscle that can be strengthened through practice. But in the same way that we don’t go straight from the couch to running a marathon, it can take time to build up the endurance to practice mindfulness for long periods of time.

The good news is, research shows that we can benefit from even five minutes of mindfulness practice.

So, start with a short and sweet mindfulness exercise that fits easily into your existing routine. Here’s a simple approach that I’ve found to be effective, and that you may like to try.

In the following scenario, the morning shower routine is the setting for the mindfulness exercise. If this doesn’t suit you, choose another activity that you already do where you aren’t operating heavy machinery or looking after children (perhaps cleaning your teeth or preparing to get out of bed in the morning).

Pick one element of your shower routine that will become your Mindfulness Training Time, like shampooing your hair, washing your face, or shaving. Don’t use the whole shower time—that’s too long. Starting small is a virtue here.

The rest of your shower time will be free for your mind to run as wild as it likes. But while you are doing your chosen activity, try to follow the mindfulness prompts below.

This example uses washing your hair as the activity. As you start to wash your hair, bring all of your focus to that activity.

Run through all of your senses, one at a time, and notice what each one is registering as you wash your hair. Try to notice without judgement, like a scientist observing something in the lab.

  • What are you smelling?
  • What can you feel (hands, scalp, skin)?
  • What can you see? Are your eyes open or closed?
  • Can you taste anything?
  • What can you hear?

Try to list three items for each sense. You may find your mind wandering during this exercise (this is very normal) and if it happens, just notice it and gently return to the exercise.

Once you have finished washing your hair, pause for one moment and notice how you are feeling. Can you notice any feelings at all?

Either way, just notice what comes up for you—and then release the exercise. Return to your normal shower routine and let your mind go wherever it wishes!

So if you’re finding that formal meditation practices just aren’t working for you, this entry-level exercise will get a little mindfulness into your day, and it can be adapted to any setting.

Taking a few moments to bring your full attention to what your senses are registering is a great and convenient way to build a mindfulness practice on the run.

References:

  • Keng SL, Smoski MJ, Robins CJ. Effects of mindfulness on psychological health: a review of empirical studies. Clin Psychol Rev. 2011;31(6):1041-1056.
  • Howarth, A., Smith, J.G., Perkins-Porras, L. et al. Effects of Brief Mindfulness-Based Interventions on Health-Related Outcomes: a Systematic Review. Mindfulness 10, 1957–1968 (2019).

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