As a psychiatrist and meditation practitioner, I work with many people who have heard of the benefits of meditation, and want to commit to a daily practice to help them feel more relaxed and at ease.
“But,” they tell me, “my life is so hectic. I don’t have time to meditate.”
Thankfully, you don’t need to spend hours a day sitting in a Buddhist monastery to achieve the benefits of meditation. Rather, you can use everyday experiences as opportunities to practice being mindful and connected to the present moment.
1. Practice mindful driving
I live in Los Angeles, where daily life is built around the ebb and flow of rush hour traffic, so needless to say, I spend quite a bit of time in my car. This time used to make me feel annoyed and irritated, but now I use it as a chance to practice.
Write “Drive Mindfully” on a small index card and post it on your steering wheel to remind you of your new practice. Turn off the radio and put away your cell phone. As you drive, try to pay attention to the sensations that you typically ignore.
How does your body feel in the seat? Is it hard or soft? How do you hold your hands on the wheel? What sounds do you hear coming from your car and out the window? Can you feel the vibrations of the road? Was it recently paved or are there a lot of potholes?
When I drive like this I find it to be a much more peaceful experience, even if I’m caught in traffic.
2. Practice mindful eating
Instead of scarfing down your food as you read the paper, watch TV, respond to emails, or whatever else, practice just eating. Really slow it down.
What does that first bite of food taste like? Is it different from the second? How soon do you reach your fork for more? What does it feel like as you swallow? What does it sound like as your chew?
You can even take it a step farther and try to imagine where your food came from. If you’re drinking a cup of coffee, try to imagine, where did the beans come from? Who picked them? Where were they roasted? How did they get shipped to the store where I bought them?
3. Practice leaving no trace
I’ll admit that when I get caught up in the responsibilities of daily life, I can really let clutter build up in my home. So I decided to pick one room in the house and practice “leaving no trace.”
I picked the kitchen, and what this means is that when I leave this room, I try to leave it exactly the same as I entered it, as if I had never been there.
If I have a bowl of cereal, I rinse out the bowl and spoon, dry them off, and put them back in the cupboard. If I make dinner, I don’t wait until later that night or the next day to clean up, but clean up right then and there. If I accidentally spill something on the floor, I get a paper towel and wipe it up before doing anything else.
This practice can help you become more aware of the impact you have on your environment, and it will probably make anyone you live with really happy, too!
4. Practice mindful listening
Often when we listen to another person talking, only part of our mind is listening. The other part is thinking about what we’re going to say in response, or making judgments about if we agree or disagree, or even daydreaming about something completely different.
Instead, practice really listening to what the person is saying, as if you were absorbing their words like a sponge. Pay attention to the sensations in your body as you listen. Do you feel excited? Tense? Calm?
Pay attention to the speaker’s voice, their body language, their tone. What emotion or feelings do you imagine them experiencing?
The best part about this exercise is that you are giving a gift to the other person. Is is so rare that people really get the full attention of another person.
5. Practice mindful waiting
This is perhaps my favorite exercise, because we typically view “waiting” time as a waste of time, but it’s actually an opportunity for your to pause, observe, and be mindful.
The next time you are standing in line at the bank, or sitting in the waiting room of your doctor’s office, or sitting at a restaurant waiting for your friend to show up, use that time to be mindful.
Without judging, observe how you are feeling in your body. Do you feel tense and impatient? Excited? Bored? Where in your body do you feel it? Is it like a tightness in your chest or a buzzing in your head?
You can even practice directing your attention to a neutral object, like your breath or the ambient sounds. When your mind wanders, bring it back.
6. Answer the phone mindfully
Often we hear the phone ring and immediately jump up to answer. Instead, practice pausing and taking two deep breaths before you answer the phone. Pause, deep inhale, deep exhale. Pause again, deep inhale, deep exhale.
Notice what you are experiencing for these few seconds. Do you feel excited about who it could be? Anxious about what task or obligation this could mean? Just pause, notice, and then proceed to answer the phone.
As you can see, mindfulness does not need to be some elusive or abstract concept, and it does not need to take extra time out of your day to practice.
And as you start to practice these small habits, you will notice big benefits. Mindfulness is a skill that you can develop, and as you do, you will start to notice and appreciate small joys in your day that had previously gone unnoticed.
Elana Miller, MD, writes at Zen Psychiatry about integrating western medicine with eastern philosophy to help people lead happier and healthier lives. To get more strategies and tips about how to be more present and joyful in everyday life, sign up for her free newsletter.