Practices and Exercises to Cultivate Awareness
Mindful Living Exercises
As you go about your everyday routine, you can engage your awareness and your senses, making any activity a mindful one.
Choose any task, such as taking a shower, brushing your teeth, doing the dishes, or washing your hands. You can start by simply choosing to do the activity more slowly.
Here are some examples of exercises you can use anytime throughout the day to train your present-moment awareness:
When you wash your hands, feel the way your body aligns as you stand or bend over the sink.
Feel the water as it meets your hands. Notice the temperature of the water and the sensations as your hands go from dry to wet. Listen to the sounds of the water. Smell the scent of the soap and feel its texture. Observe the way your hands move. Feel how your wet hands dry, or the texture of the towel.
When you drink water, pick up the glass or bottle and notice the way the light reflects on both it and the liquid inside.
Notice how it feels as you hold it. Notice the weight and the temperature. Feel the sensations as you lift the water to your mouth and sip and swallow. Feel the water traveling through your body.
Each time the phone rings, pause for a moment before you pick it up.
In this moment, you can make a choice: answer the call, let it go to voice mail, or let it ring one more time while you allow yourself a deep breath. You can also use the ring as a reminder to bring your awareness to your body and scan it for signs of comfort or discomfort.
It’s good to know that you have a choice, and by interrupting the habitual reaction of immediately answering the phone, you become more aware of the choices available in every moment.
After you get into your car, give yourself a minute in silence before you start the engine.
Close your eyes and simply sit. With your eyes closed, you’ll notice that your other senses are more active. Feel your body, feel the flow of your breath. Feel the temperature of the seat, the air.
Then, when you are settled and ready, start your car. Notice the sounds. Feel the movement and vibration of the vehicle. Feel the sensations in your body as you drive. Take it easy and slow down, just a little.
Don’t tailgate or try to make it through the yellow lights. At the red lights and stop signs, give yourself a moment to relax your body and tune in to your breath. Smile to yourself and make the journey as important as the destination.
When you find yourself waiting, it’s a perfect time to practice present-moment awareness.
Whether you’re in a waiting room, grabbing lunch with a friend, or in a line at the grocery store, bring your attention to the moment at hand. Notice the people around you and your physical surroundings. What do you sense as you stand there? How do you feel?
Recently, I was heading to a meditation retreat. My plane arrived late, as did my shuttle, and it looked like I was going to miss dinner at the retreat center. I asked the shuttle driver to take me to a grocery store. I ran in and grabbed a snack, then got in the long checkout line. I was impatient to get to the retreat center.
I wanted the moment to be over fast—I wanted to get in and get out—and was focused solely on my future satisfaction.
Suddenly, as I was standing in line I remembered something that the Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh says: “I’ve arrived. This is it.”
I instantly realized that this moment in line was the moment I was living my life.
I brought my attention back to the way my body felt standing there; I felt the sensations of my breath, I shifted my attention, and I fully arrived at the moment at hand, holding my snack, waiting in line with these sweet people I hadn’t even noticed before.
Choose any of these or other ordinary activities to remind you to be aware of what you’re doing as you do it.
I have a mindfulness bell on my computer that goes off at random intervals to remind me to arrive in the present moment. When it chimes, I stop what I’m doing and either close my eyes for a moment or look out the window. I turn my attention to my breath and how my body feels. I take a deep breath, relax, and sit up straight. You can do this, too.
Paying attention to the breath is another simple way to connect to the present moment and become more self-aware. This is a relaxing, easy practice anyone can do, anywhere, anytime. It’s a great preparation for the sitting meditation you will learn next week.
Read through the following instructions. Review them again each day before you practice. It’s natural not to remember each and every step, but as time goes by it will become second nature. Remember to let go of expectations, be kind to yourself, and complete your entire practice period.
Practice Breath Awareness for 10 minutes the first time, and 15 minutes each day thereafter this first week.
· Determine how long you’ll be doing this practice before you start. Keep track of the time by looking at a clock or watch. Don’t set an alarm that will make you get up to shut it off.
· You can sit or lie down for this exercise. Your eyes can be open, half-closed, or closed. Turn off music, sounds, TVs, or what have you.
· Breathe naturally through your nose.
· Bring your awareness to each breath, focusing on the movement and sensations the air creates as it moves in and out of your body.
· As the breath enters and leaves through your nostrils, notice the cool air on the inhale, the warmer air on the exhale.
· Feel your chest and back rise and fall on the inhalation and exhalation.
· Feel your belly expand and contract.
· This practice isn’t about imagining or controlling the breath, but simply feeling its sensations. Allow the breath to come and go in its own natural pattern. There’s nothing to figure out. Nothing to control. Nothing to change.
· Keep your focus on each breath. Then, for a few breaths, let your attention rest on the natural pause between the exhale and inhale.
· Whenever you notice that your attention has drifted away from your breath—shifting to a noise, a thought, or some other distraction—simply refocus your attention to the breath.
· This is a practice, so don’t give yourself a hard time about losing focus. Distractions are natural. Be kind to yourself without concern for how many times you drift off. Don’t judge your experience based on how many times your attention drifts away.
· If you get distracted by physical sensations, recognize them but don’t attempt to figure out why they’re happening, or go into a story about them. Simply keep the sensations company with your awareness, exploring the sensations and feelings until they dissipate. When they do, gently return your attention to your breath.
· You may find your breathing spontaneously gets faster or slower, deeper or shallower; it may even pause for a moment. Observe any changes without controlling, resisting, anticipating, or expecting anything. Do nothing but observe.
· Rest your attention on the breath and its sensations for your predetermined period of time. When the period comes to an end, take your attention off your breath. Sit or lie still for a few minutes. After a few minutes, slowly open your eyes (if they were closed), and take your time moving back into activity.
Like the Breath Awareness exercise, this exercise will help you be more intimate with how you feel, which leads to more self-awareness. Adopt the attitude of an explorer as you do this exercise; feel, watch, listen, and detect sensations as they come and go. As you explore, you become the witness of your body and breath and this helps you develop present-moment awareness. I suggest you do this exercise for 15 minutes each afternoon or evening this week.
· Do this practice with your eyes open, half-closed, or closed.
· Sit up comfortably.
· Let your breath remain natural, breathing through your nose. It might slow down, speed up, get deeper or shallower, or stop for a moment. Feel it, and let it be as it is.
· Move your awareness slowly, deliberately, from your head to your toes, in a continuous flow. You’ll be doing this a few times. The first time that you scan your body, you will relax each area.
· Feel your body from the inside out, noticing every sensation, relaxing each area and any tension you find.
Give yourself a few seconds or so on each body part in a continuous fashion:
- Head (including your scalp, forehead, ears, eyes, nose, cheeks, mouth, tongue, chin, and jaw)
- Each arm, elbow, and wrist
- Each hand and each finger
- Chest and diaphragm
- Upper, mid, and lower back
- Hips, pelvis, rear
- Each thigh, knee, and calf
- Each foot and each toe
· Once complete, scan your body a second time, from head to toes. This time, let your attention rest on areas of your body where you find pain, discomfort, or illness.
· Allow yourself to “be with” any sensations, even discomfort, rather than trying to make the sensations go away, change them, or create a story. You may be used to avoiding certain areas. This exercise is an opportunity to allow yourself to experience whatever sensation is actually present with curiosity and nonjudgmental awareness.
· As you experience sensations in your body, you may find you begin to tell yourself a story about a specific area such as, My knees hurt, or My stomach is too big, or I am too tired to do this. Once you realize that you’re storytelling,gently return your attention to the area you are focused on.
· Feel free to pause and shift your attention from the story or thought to the physical sensation as many times as it takes. Be patient and kind to yourself. Simply feel the sensations of that area from the inside out; do not focus on the thought about it. Being present with the pain or discomfort without trying to change it is called “bearing witness".
· Don’t judge your experience or worry about how many times your attention drifts away from the body.
· Welcome whatever you feel. If you don’t have any distinct sensations, welcome that, too. When thoughts about the future or past distract you from your focus, notice them, then simply return your focus to your body’s sensations — Continue this practice for the predetermined period of time. When you’re finished, take your attention off your body. Notice your state of mind as you sit still for another few minutes.
· After a few minutes, slowly open your eyes (if they were closed), and take your time moving back into activity.
Schedule of Practices
Week One: Suggested Daily Practices
- AM- Breath Awareness: 15 Minutes
- PM- Body Awareness: 15 Minutes
Additional Awareness Exercises
- AM- Breath Awareness: 15 Minutes
- PM- Body Awareness: 15 Minutes
This article is an excerpt from Sarah McLean’s book: Soul-Centered: Transform Your Life in 8 Weeks with Meditation (Hay House 2012) and has been published with permission.
About the author
Sarah McLean, an inspiring contemporary meditation teacher, makes meditation accessible to everyone. She’s spent much of her life exploring the world’s spiritual and mystic traditions, and has worked with some of today’s great teachers including Deepak Chopra, Byron Katie, Debbie Ford, and Gary Zukav. She’s lived and studied in a Zen Buddhist monastery, meditated in ashrams and temples throughout India and the Far East, spent time in Afghan refugee camps, bicycled the Silk Route from Pakistan to China, trekked the Golden Triangle in Southeast Asia, and taught English to Tibetan Buddhist Nuns in Dharamsala.
Sarah is the founding director of the McLean Meditation Institute in Sedona, Arizona which offers meditation training, self-discovery retreats, and teacher certification programs that have transformed thousands of lives, and have earned her the praise of her peers and students.
To know more about Sarah, visit her website www.McleanMeditation.com.