If you’re like most people, you spin a lot of plates on a daily basis, often skipping the present moment to get to the next item on your agenda. You hop in and out of the shower to get to work instead of being in the shower. You multitask to get everything done before calling it a day instead of being present with each task. You rush through dinner to watch T.V. instead of being present with your meal and loved ones.
What’s wrong with this picture? Is this really the way you want to continue living your life? If you’re “always on,” the slightest inconvenience can trip your inner alarm system, causing you to lose your cool before you know it. Over time, stress has, in effect, kidnapped you, and you probably haven’t given much thought to doing anything about it. You may have noticed the shrinkage of your contentment, well-being and happiness, but you may not know what to do about it. When your brain hijacks you into worry, stress or depression, it magnifies its chronic perception of threats, compromising your mental and physical health.
Whether you’re a harried parent, driven businessperson, worried retiree, or student coping with an uncertain future, eventually these stressors catch up with you, forcing your brain to adapt negatively to them as only it can. But there’s good news. Informal mindfulness exercises can reduce stress that accumulates during the course of your workday. Paying closer attention to the routines you usually fast-forward through gives you new insights into your life. Studies show that this slowing down changes your body chemistry, making you calmer on the inside and more productive on the outside.
Open awareness meditation
Open awareness meditation — the peaceful observing what’s happening around you as it’s happening — allows you to meditate while you go about business as usual without spending extra time. It can be any brief activity that makes you mindful of the present moment. Open awareness meditation for just 60 seconds helps you unwind, clear your head, and raise your energy level.
Sit in a comfortable place with eyes open or shut for one minute. With curiosity, focus on all the different sounds around you, and see how many you can identify. You might notice the heating or air conditioning system, traffic off in the distance, a siren, voices from other areas in the building, an airplane, ticking of a clock, or your own gurgling stomach. After one minute, instead of trying to remember the sounds, bring your attention inside and notice if you’re not calmer and more clearheaded.
Now, turn your attention to your fingers and focus on them for another minute. Wiggle your fingers. Notice how this sensory experience feels. Focus on how the wiggling looks and sounds. Do you hear crackling in your joints or sounds of skin against skin? Do you appreciate how hard your fingers work for you? Do you judge yourself or the exercise? Is it difficult to stay focused? How does it feel to slow down?
When you’re fully engaged with curiosity in these two exercises, you notice that previous worries or stressful thoughts are absent. You might be aware that your heart and respiration rates are slower and your tight muscles have loosened. That’s because you took yourself off the red alert of your thinking mind and brought it into the present moment, activating your rest-and-digest-response.
The beauty of open awareness meditation is that you can blend it into your daily routines without added time. You can intentionally walk with present-moment awareness bringing your attention to the sensations of your feet against the ground or noting the feeling of the open sky, sights, and sounds around you as you make your way to the parking garage.
When you weed the garden, you can pay attention to the plants’ resistance against your hands as you tug and the sound of stubborn roots and smell of fresh soil as you unearth the weeds from their home. When you clean the toilet bowl, brush your teeth, drive your car or cook a pot of soup, you can step out of your thought stream and make yourself fully present in the activity while going about business as usual.
While waiting in the doctor’s office, you can practice mindful listening. When in line at the grocery store, you can tune in to your body sensations. Stuck in traffic, you can focus on your in-breath and out-breath and imbibe the calm in your body. You can even practice open awareness right now. As you read on, you might find your mind wandering from time to time. If it does, just be aware of your wandering mind, let its distraction be OK, and gently bring it back to the words on the printed page. That, too, is a form of open awareness meditation.
Start with a mindful morning shower
Try an open awareness exercise during your morning shower. Pay attention to the sounds and feel of thousands of beads of water splashing against your skin. Hear the rushing water beating against the shower curtain or smacking against the tub. As you lather your body, be aware of the smell and feel of the slippery soap gliding over your skin, the soap bubbles swelling and popping on your neck, arms and chest. Notice how the water feels rolling down your body, the fresh fragrance of shampoo and its cleansing feel against your scalp. As you dry off, feel the fabric of the towel against your skin. Continue your present-moment awareness while brushing your teeth, driving to your workplace or your feet against the ground as you walk to your workstation.
During the workday, practice chair yoga
You can recharge your batteries in the middle of the day with yoga right at your desk, in the very chair you’re in, as long as it has a back. Sitting in your chair, inhale and raise your arms toward the ceiling. Let your shoulder blades slide down your back as you reach upward with your fingertips. Anchor your sit bones in your seat and reach up from there. Place your left hand over on your right knee. Place your right arm on the back of the chair. Stretch lightly for 60 seconds with eyes open or closed. Notice the stretch and what happens inside. After 60 seconds, bring your body back to center. Then reverse the stretch. Place your right hand over your left knee. Put your left arm on the back of the chair for another 60 seconds. Stretch lightly again with eyes open or closed. Pay attention to the stretch, and notice what happens inside. After three to five minutes of repeating this exercise, you will notice a renewed energy and mental clarity, then you’re ready to get back in the game.
End the day by preparing a mindful meal
You can use open awareness by preparing a meal as if you’re cooking it for the first time. Pay close attention as you assemble the ingredients. Notice the unique character of each vegetable, fruit, or piece of meat — the myriad of colors, diverse smells, and varied textures of foods. Even the sounds are different as you chop, slice, cut, grind or pound. You might pop an ingredient into your mouth, noting its texture against your tongue and its unique taste. As you combine the different ingredients, notice the visual transformation as they become one. While cooking, observe the chemical process as the separate items morph into a collected whole. Inhale the aroma, noting if you can still identify the unique smells of each ingredient or simply one succulent blend. When you sit to eat, take in the smells and colors of the meal before you dig in.
Out-of-the-moment episodes are roadblocks to relaxation and career success. They disconnect you from yourself and your surroundings and keep your stress needle elevated. My prescription: Watch your mind. Notice where it goes from moment to moment for the next 24 hours. Note the difference between when you’re present and when your mind drifts to the past or future. When you find your mind wandering — even now as you read these words — gently bring it back into the present. As you continue to notice where your mind goes in each moment throughout your workday, tension will subside, you’ll feel more relaxed and your mindful productivity will soar.