Let me guess: You’re unusually busy this time of year, with all the holiday prep and expectations on top of your regular stuff. You don’t have time for one more thing in your schedule, even if it’d help you relax. But there is a technique you can use to reduce your stress–in less than a minute.
Mindfulness is a wonderfully simple variation of meditation that’s easy to apply any day, and you don’t need any special training.
The core concept of mindfulness is putting less focus on the stress of what’s swirling around you—anxiety, annoyances, difficult people, your to-do list—and instead filling your mind with awareness of your experience in the present moment. Surprisingly often, the actual experience of the present moment is much calmer than the “gerbil wheel” we tend to have running around in our minds. Even a few moments of mindful attention can increase your feeling of calmness and centeredness.
Pay attention to your breath. The simplest way to practice mindfulness is to take a moment to notice your breathing. You don’t have to change your breathing; just pause and notice it. Let your attention stay focused on the experience of breathing in and out for several breaths. Simply observe what breathing feels like for you right now. If you like, you may choose to take a deep slow breath or two, breathing into your belly, and notice how that feels.
One of the beauties of this is that you can pause and attend to your breathing anytime, anywhere, even in the midst of stressful situations. It takes very little time, and no one is likely to even notice that you’re doing it. But you’re likely to feel better, and better able to deal with what is going on around you.
Notice the changes in your experiences and sensations. When you start attending to your inner experiences, you will find that they continually ebb and flow. Notice how you are holding your body and where you are tight (for example, hunching your shoulders). You may decide to stretch or change your position, then observe how your body feels. Even unpleasant sensations like physical pain will shift in intensity and location, particularly if you don’t “latch onto” them. Just notice the sensations and how they shift from moment to moment. Often, it’s our negative thoughts about a situation that make things difficult, even more than what is actually happening.
Choose quiet. One of the side effects of modern life is incessant background noise. You might experiment with quiet for certain blocks of time, even while you’re doing daily activities. For instance, turn off the radio in your car. Instead of listening to whatever the media is sending out, just notice what’s going on inside your own head and heart, or listen to your breathing. Or, turn off the TV when you’re not watching a specific show. Instead of background noise, what do you notice about your actual environment or your internal experience? Another option is taking a walk outdoors without bringing your iPod. Just notice the natural world around you and how your body feels in motion.
As you get comfortable with silence, you may find it helpful to set aside time to just sit quietly for a few minutes. Meditation, in its most basic form, is being quiet and paying attention to the experience of the present moment. As thoughts flit through your mind, notice them, but don’t focus on them. Let each one drift off while you return to your breathing and sensations.
If you’re a person of faith, pray. Ask God to help you quiet your thoughts. I sometimes focus on “Be still and know that I AM” or “The peace of God which passes all understanding.”
Be mindful of your blessings. We tend to get so caught up in what needs to be done or what’s missing in our lives that we forget to notice how many wonderful things we already have. Recent research demonstrates that an “attitude of gratitude” has measurable mood and health benefits. Consider taking a moment (maybe at the beginning and end of each day) to name a few things you’re grateful for. You might include health; friends, family, and other relationships; skills, talents, and opportunities; the beauty of the natural world; fun activities and pleasant experiences; basics of life such as food, water, and shelter. Make a choice to hold in awareness the positive things in life.