Getting started with mindfulness is easy. You don’t need to go anywhere special, or wear anything special, or buy anything special. In fact, one of the simplest and most effective mindfulness exercises involves a single raisin. Just one. (And you can use just about any other small piece of food if you don’t happen to have a raisin on hand, or if you happen to hate raisins. Some people do.)
Begin by looking at the raisin. Examine its shape, its color—is it the same all the way around? Next, explore it with your senses of touch and smell. When was the last time you smelled a raisin? It’s probably been a long time.
Listen to the raisin if you feel like it. (We don’t think you’ll hear much of anything, but who knows?) Then slowly taste, chew, and swallow the raisin, paying attention to what happens, and how you feel, during each separate step. Finally, explore how you feel having completed this.
What is Mindfulness?
The basic idea of mindfulness is pretty simple: Attend to your thoughts and feelings, to your body and your breathing, and to what’s happening in and around you—and feel better in mind and body.
It sounds easy. And for the most part, it is. And there’s plenty of research to show that mindfulness reduces stress, increases memory and focus, and boosts our happiness and self-esteem. So why don’t we end this mindfulness lesson and get started? Good time for a raisin or two, right?
Here’s the thing: It’s also easy to get off track. To start thinking, or worrying, about the past or the future. To let our thoughts fly off to other places, then back again, then off to something else. That’s the opposite of mindfulness.
But it’s going to happen when you’re practicing mindfulness, so we should talk about ways to re-center our minds when it does.
Our breathing is a direct link between our physical and mental state—so it makes sense to be mindful of our breathing. It’s also something we always have with us, so it’s easy to bring our attention to it in just about any situation.
To practice mindful breathing, you essentially focus consciously on inhaling and exhaling—and avoid shallow breathing. Some find that it helps to breathe deeply, especially when starting the practice, but if it becomes distracting, ease off. Counting during your breathing can also be helpful. The following approach is often recommended: three seconds in (through your nostrils), hold for two seconds, four seconds out (through your mouth). But adjust this for your own comfort.
The important thing, again, is to pay attention. Counting is just one option. You can also attend to how your breath feels, where in your body you feel it, or visualize something happening as you breathe.
As you do this—for five to seven minutes at a time, at least to start—attend also to your wandering mind. When your mind wanders, you haven’t failed. Simply notice it, then try to draw your attention back to your breathing.
Despite our fancy electronic devices and complicated social rituals, we humans are natural beings. Mindfulness can put us back in touch with the natural world.
To try this, follow these steps:
- Pick a natural object that you can see from where you’re sitting. A tree, a flower, a cloud. (Nothing that’s going to run or fly away from you, so probably not a chipmunk or a bee, though it could be interesting to try.)
- Notice it. And keep noticing it. For as long as your attention allows. If you wander, gently bring your attention back.
- Try to look at the object as if seeing it for the first time.
- Visually explore the object. Try letting it become, in the moment, everything in your world.
- Connect with its purpose and place in the natural world. If you’re observing a cloud, let yourself float. If a tree, feel your roots.
In mindful immersion, the idea of the exercise is to let yourself fully experience an activity you do all the time. To turn it from a chore into an experience.
You can do it while walking, while bathing, or while doing the dishes. You could even try it with something you usually find unpleasant. (Maybe the dishes.)
Let’s say you’re doing the dishes. Instead of rushing through to get everything done, take your time. What does the soap feel like? What does it smell like? What about the little scratcher pad you use to clean the pans? How is it looking these days? How does a dirty spoon feel different from one that’s soapy, or one that’s been cleaned and rinsed? Does a soapy plate look different in the light from one that’s merely wet?
This exercise has two tricks to it. In addition to your attention wandering, you may find yourself falling into routine actions without noticing. So you’ll need to watch for your wandering mind, but also for signs that your mind has shut down completely. Either way, gently bring your attention back when you notice it happening.
There are lots of approaches to explore. And lots of benefits that you might not have thought of. There’s even a mindful approach to driving, which can not only make you a calmer driver—but also, probably, a safer and happier one.
And if you find you want more support or guidance in mindfulness, Hancock Health has a support group for that.
Now, who’s ready for a raisin?