7 Tips for Getting Started With Mindfulness (Without Meditating)
Another hype word these days? Mindfulness. If you’re onboard this mindfulness train — great! This post will give you a refresher on mindfulness tools to use in your practice. But if you’re still confused and skeptical about mindfulness, you’re in the right place. Wondering if it’s possible to practice mindfulness without meditating? You’re definitely in the right place!
In this post we’ll cover:
1. What is mindfulness?
2. Why does mindfulness matter?
3. Seven ways to practice mindfulness that don’t include meditation.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is the practice of being aware of ourselves and surroundings from a non-judgmental point of view.
That last bit — non-judgmental — is important. It’s easy to slip into a negative outlook, constantly criticizing, especially ourselves.
Mindfulness is the opposite of autopilot, numbing, avoidance and cynicism. To put it simply, mindfulness is the practice of noticing. Having our mind “full” of our current experience. Being as present as possible in the here-and-now, versus shifting into focusing on the past, future or the elsewhere.
Think of your attention or focus like the beam of a flashlight; mindfulness is about how and where we beam that light.
My journey with mindfulness.
The truth: children have been my greatest teachers of mindfulness and being present.
For about a year, I worked as a nanny for a little boy who was 9 months old when we met. His parents wanted him to get outside every day (no matter what Chicago weather we faced) and I obliged, knowing it was better for both of us.
At first, during our time outside, I would walk with urgency. I’m not exactly sure why. We had nowhere to be, and when you’re taking care of a toddler, the time can sometimes move painstakingly slow. Plus, he was learning to walk and letting him walk forced us to slow down. So I finally gave in to the process, learned to slow down, which in turn allowed me to be more mindful.
As we leisurely strolled, he’d want to look at every little thing on the ground and in the sky. A small pebble on the sidewalk? The most fascinating discovery. A leaf? Worthy of intense observation. So we did! When I finally leaned into that process, I realized these mundane things actually can be fascinating if you’re looking at them from an open, child-like perspective.
Taking care of that little boy, I learned to become fully grounded in the moment. I became more observant of the here and now of the world around me. Not my phone. Not the tv. Not my thoughts, even. Just him. And me. And whatever we discovered along the way.
I’d later learn that among mental health experts, mindfulness has become a popular tool. Research continues to show it’s one of the best stress-reduction and relaxation-promoting tools. Traumatic stress often disconnects us from our physical experience, and mindfulness reconnects our minds and bodies.
Beyond trauma recovery, mindfulness helps us connect deeper with our lives and enjoy the everyday. Plus, mindfulness can help diminish anxiety and boost our mood and overall well-being.
Ways to practice mindfulness besides meditation.
Let’s review the backbone of mindfulness: noticing (with all senses) and being non-judgmental (not trying to change or shame).
Mindfulness is often practiced as meditation. Meditation can seem esoteric or frankly just too difficult or unrealistic for everyday life. There are ways to practice mindfulness without straight meditation! Thankfully, there are still ways to grow in mindfulness in the things we already do daily.
1. Mindful walking.
Mindful walks are not just for nannies and two-year-olds, but for anyone! All it takes is walking, ideally outside. No phone. I suggest trying without music or audio, as well. Just walk. Pay attention to your surroundings. Try shuffling through each of your five senses, noting what you experience through that sense: I feel the chill breeze on my cheek. I smell the fresh soil from a neighbor’s garden (or the gross trash). I hear the car doors opening and closing, the sirens in the distance. I feel the firmness of the sidewalk under each step. I notice my heart rate increasing. I feel how my jacket makes a swish sensation with each movement. Just notice. This noticing may naturally lead to appreciation, but not always, which is OK.
2. Mindful eating.
Many of us eat our meals in autopilot mode rather than taking them in as a full-body experience. How often I just scarf down a granola bar in the car and call it breakfast. And that’s fine and understandable, but mindful eating is a way to become more present (and it’s also good for our well being). I don’t mean as a weight loss approach, but as a way to be more aware and anchoring that awareness to something we do all the time: eating.
Rather than a hurried meal, instead try taking time preparing and savoring your food (no matter how simple or unexciting). Slowing down to notice every bite can be a practice in mindfulness.
3. Body scan.
Mindfulness isn’t only about being aware of what’s going on around us; It’s also about being aware of what’s going on within us. A body scan is a simple way to practice strengthening this skill of noticing our internal experience.
To do this, imagine you are taking the flashlight of your intention and slowly waving it over every muscle and part of your body. Pause for a moment on each part and check-in, noticing how that part of your body feels. Is there tension, ache, pain, lightness, emotion and so on?
4. Mindfulness rituals.
The easiest way to add new habits into your routine is to anchor them to another habit or ritual you already do with ease and consistency. Mindfulness practices are no exception.
Consider taking a minute to mindfully check in with yourself when you do another routine. It can be something as simple as when you wash your hands after using the restroom, brush your teeth in the morning or showering. Any of these habits can be transformed into a mindfulness ritual by shifting your focus and attention.
Take showering as an example: what would it be like to spend that time reconnecting with your body and senses, noticing how your skin feels, tending to any soreness or stiffness?
Two guideposts to consider to reconnect with the here and now:
- “I’m noticing…”
- Notice each of your senses.
For example, whenever I was in front of a mirror, I used that as an opportunity to pay attention to my inner state. I even kept a small mirror on my desk at work. As a therapist, it’s easy to get swept away into your client’s needs and world, so I used the mirror to remember myself. Something about seeing myself physically, in the flesh (dark circles, pimples and all), helped me stay present (and aware of my needs).
5. Stream of consciousness journaling.
Sometimes, we aren’t aware of all the thoughts that go through our minds. Journaling in the “stream of consciousness” fashion can help us reconnect with and notice these thoughts. To do this, set a time for 1, 3, 5 or 10 minutes (whatever seems best to you, I suggest starting small first). Grab a pen and paper of your preference, and write whatever comes to mind for that period of time. The only “rule” is that you don’t edit your thoughts. You let your mind wander and note whatever comes up.
If traditional writing doesn’t work well for capturing these thoughts, try typing on a computer, scribbling, jotting words (this isn’t English class, no grammar rules apply) or using other diagrams or drawings instead.
It’s important to try to withhold judgment for whatever comes up during this time. The purpose is to notice, pay attention and accept whatever it may be. You can take any required action later.
This practice can be especially helpful for calming racing or anxious thoughts, organizing your thoughts, or if you’re feeling overwhelmed.
6. Grounding techniques.
Grounding is another buzzword similar to mindfulness and being present. “Grounding” places particular emphasis on connecting with our physical surroundings (even a connection with the physical ground below us). “Grounding” also focuses on connecting deeply with ourselves. Grounding is also used therapeutically for people who experience dissociation, flashbacks, mild/intermittent psychosis or heightened anxiety.
Grounding techniques can also generally help us practice mindfulness. There are so, so many different types of grounding techniques to use, but here is a simple one that’s great for all ages. It’s widely practiced by therapists, so much so that I’m not sure where it originated. It’s called the 5-4-3-2-1 method (or something along those lines). To try it, pause for a moment, and then notice:
- Five things you see.
- Four things you feel (the cushion beneath you, texture of your shirt, the temperature of the air, and so on).
- Three things you hear.
- Two things you smell.
- One thing you taste (but to be honest, this can be hard to discern, you can also just imagine your favorite taste).
Take a few deep breaths to finish.
An even simpler version is what I call my “Not-I-Spy I-Spy game.” To play, pick one color, then look at your surroundings and notice (either silently or aloud) all the items of that color you can see around you. Once you have finished that color, move on to another color. I play this often with kids to help them return to a state of calm, and I usually let them pick the color and we take turns. But I also teach them how to “play” by themselves.
7. Mindful driving.
Driving is another activity during which it can be easy to zone out. But, it can also be a time to practice being more mindful. This can be a great time to ask — what do you see and notice around you?
Research and experience continue to show mindfulness to be an incredible way to reduce stress and to improve quality of life.
But, mindfulness can sound a bit mysterious or like something only super “spiritual” or disciplined and focused people can do, but it’s not! The trick is to find practices that work for you, push past the strangeness of doing something new and remember the essence of mindfulness: attention without judgment.
Let me know how it goes!
Photo by Ronaldo Oliveira on Unsplash