Techniques for Mindfulness in the New Year

These exercises can help you create a more calm and centered 2018

Now that we’re full swing into January, the holiday reverie has worn off and everyone is focused on all they have on their plate for the new year. Whether you’re working or still in school, it’s easy to get distracted and bogged down by all you have to do throughout the day. Getting stressed out is all too common. But we’ve got some suggestions for ways to buck that trend and stay calm, cool and collected—it’s called practicing mindfulness.

The beauty of mindfulness is that it doesn’t require a huge time investment. And yet it can pay off huge in terms of improving your attitude and ratcheting down your stress level. So take a look at these simple exercises, and choose one or two you’re willing to try in the next day or so. Before you know it, you’ll be tapping into reserves of mindfulness you didn’t even know you had.

1. Breathe

Mindful breathing is the key to yoga as well as meditation, because it’s so simple. You can do it anywhere, any time. Even in the most stressful situation, if you focus on your breath, you can come back to yourself and loosen the grip of an anxious mind. It will connect you with your body, as well as with the here and now. Here’s how:

  • Focus on a deep inhale, through your nose. Count to at least 4.
  • Exhale through your mouth, and make the exhale the same length as your inhale. Let there be a smooth transition into the next inhale.
  • Close your eyes, or simply soften your gaze so you don’t focus too intensely on any one thing.
  • Let thoughts float in and out of your mind, as though they were clouds. Don’t get attached to any one thought. Simply let each one go and come back to the breath. Don’t worry if this takes some practice—each try will make you more mindful!
  • Envision that with each inhale you’re taking in all the calm and reassurance you need right now, and that with each exhale you’re letting go of all the stress, strain, and negative energy you don’t need.

There you go—you just did a mini meditation! Remember you can come back to your breath at any time throughout the day.

2. Pay attention

How aware are you? Can you focus your attention and escape the speediness of your mind? This exercise offers a chance to observe an object and contemplate its nature and its essence. You’ll get outside your own head for a few minutes, but will also come to appreciate an aspect of the world around you.

  • Choose a natural object you can see from where you are. Maybe there’s a plant in your room, or you can see a tree outside the window.
  • Take a moment to quiet your mind, and filter out all thoughts that are not associated with this object.
  • Consider what this object would look like to a child who’d never seen one before. What is its shape? What would that child see about it? What do you notice about its beauty? What qualities stand out about it?
  • Contemplate whether you think the object has a particular “energy” about it. Does it seem strong or vulnerable? Does it seem happy or wistful? How does it make you feel to look at it? What about the object would you like to absorb into your own being, or your own life?
  • Think about the purpose the object serves in the natural world. It is a home for other living things? Does it provide nourishment or shade? Express gratitude for this purpose, even if it does not affect you directly.

At the end of this exercise you’ll have entered into a quiet moment of contemplation. If you’re seated outside, you’re likely to have an endless variety of objects to choose from.

3. Practice listening

We each bring all kinds of judgments and associations to what we hear every day. This is an exercise in freeing yourself from that subjectivity and getting lost in the transcendent sensory experience that sound can provide.

  • Choose a piece of music you’ve never heard before. Try turning the radio to a station that features a genre that you don’t usually listen to. Maybe find a Country Western or Classical station, if you usually listen to Rock music. Jazz is an excellent choice for this exercise, for its freeform and often unpredictable qualities.
  • As you listen, notice if you begin to wonder about the name of the artist or the song. Let go of those familiar lines of thought, and pay attention instead to the specific sounds and nuances. Notice any patterns and structure in what you’re hearing.
  • Try to distinguish between the sounds each instrument is making. Follow the notes of one particular instrument, and see how long you can maintain your attention on just those sounds, to the exclusion of everything else.
  • Envision a graceful dancer and the movements they might make in response to this song. Get lost among the visuals within your mind’s eye.

If you find you’re able to remain attentive and present for the length of an entire song, try a different kind of music for the next song.

4. Transform tasks into meditations

Every little occupation, from brushing our teeth to doing the dishes, can take on a meditative quality if you devote presence and attention. According to some Eastern philosophies, being “enlightened” means you can find grace, beauty, and sacredness in everything—even everyday activities. Here’s how to access this mindful presence:

  • Choose an activity or chore you need to do every day. It could be taking out the trash, washing your face, or preparing food to eat.
  • Decide that the time you need to perform this activity on this particular day will be precious. Don’t be in a rush for it to be over, but don’t slow down, either. Do the task at your usual pace.
  • Observe all of the tiny movements and decisions that go into this particular activity. Notice how your body moves, gracefully or fitfully, as you go about the steps required to complete it. Visualize all the different muscles and body part involved.
  • Be aware of all the associations you tend to make with this activity, and let go of them. If you’re preparing food, think about the nourishment and strength you’ll receive from eating it. If you’re making vegetables, consider the farmers who tended the crops. If you’re eating meat or fish, be grateful for the sacrifice of that animal, so that you might gain energy by ingesting it.
  • As you conclude, think of the time you spent doing this activity as an investment in improving the quality of your life.

This practice just might change how you go about your day, how you enjoy a meal, and how you bring presence to what are all too often mindless activities.

Once you’ve learned how to integrate mindfulness into your everyday life, begin looking for more opportunities to practice it. Maybe start focusing on your breathing every time you get into your car and put the key in the ignition! Think of these as mini vacations you can take in the midst of your day. They don’t cost much time or effort, but can help you reconnect to your physical self, a sense of peacefulness, and the beauty of the world around you. Enjoy!

This article is part of the Branford Hall weekly blog. We care about the health and well being of all of our students. Learn more about the professional training programs we offer at ten different campuses in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, and New Jersey. We invite you to each out to us for more information, or call 1.800.959.7599 and schedule a visit.