Take a moment to Breathe

Make mindfulness part of your routine.
By Nora Simmons

Meditation teachers tell us that simply observing the chatter going on in our minds without analyzing or judging our thoughts will lead us to a deep sense of calm. Alas, it’s not always easy to shut off the mental noise and sit in silence, even when we know it’s good for us. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep trying—and not just to stay calm. Researchers point out that meditation’s benefits go beyond stress relief. In fact, a recent study revealed a correlation between Zen meditation and improved attention span, as well as a reduction in age-related cognitive decline. Past studies have also shown that meditation is good for your heart, slows memory loss, and can help you heal faster when undergoing major medical treatments.

Whether you’re a longtime zafu sitter or just getting started, here are three exercises to help you cultivate mindfulness as you move through your daily routine.

Ten mindful seconds
“When you conduct your daily activities in a state of presence, there’s no waste,” says Sarah Susanka in her book The Not So Big Life (Random House, 2007). In fact, being present is like an energy faucet—once you turn it on, it can invigorate you. This year, rather than stumbling through life only half awake, take Susanka’s advice: Practice bringing your full awareness to even the most mundane moments. Do this exercise just one or two days a week at first, and see how it makes you feel.

Practice: You’ll need a timer—preferably one you can set to vibrate so you can spare your coworkers’ sanity—and set it to go off every 15 minutes. Each time it does, close your eyes for 10 seconds, and witness what is happening in your body and mind. Throughout the day this simple exercise will bring you into the moment over and over again. Adapted from The Not So Big Life. For more info visit www.notsobiglife.com.

Conscious eating
Eating with awareness helps you learn how to nourish yourself. With practice, you begin to discern whether you’re still hungry or fully sated and then slowly to understand what attracts you to some foods and steers you away from others.

Practice: Select a food you really enjoy, one you feel is good for you. You could start with a snack or create a whole meal, but choose a time when you can eat alone without any distractions. Place the food in front of you, and pause, taking a moment to drink in the food’s appearance and its aroma. Before you begin to eat, set the intention that you will focus your attention completely on your first and last bites. Slowly and deliberately take that first bite. Savor the tastes, textures, smells. Pay attention to any thoughts or emotions that arise as well. Then continue eating as you normally would until you’re ready to take that last bite. Once again, as you bring the final forkful to your lips, pay attention to the experience, remaining fully conscious of the feelings, sensations, thoughts, and emotions. Don’t be surprised if you forget to be conscious for the last bite. That’s normal. Repeat the exercise once a day for a week, and notice if anything has changed. Are there some days when the exercise is easier for you? Some days when you forget entirely? Bringing conscious awareness to even simple everyday actions—like eating—will gradually bring a sense of calm and balance into your life. Adapted by Mary Taylor, co-author with Lynn Ginsburg of What Are You Hungry For? (St. Martin’s Press, 2003)

Give-and-take
While waiting in a long line at the coffee shop and mulling over your to-do list, how often do you make eye contact with someone or share a smile? Our way of life continually emphasizes separateness. Yet the great thinkers of our time are still trying to help you see that you are intimately connected to your underappreciated barrista, whether or not you choose to acknowledge that shared humanity. Next time you find yourself tapping your feet anxiously and activelyavoiding human interaction, try this simple meditation.

Practice: Close your eyes, and take three deep breaths. Imagine that the man or woman behind the counter—who has served hundreds of glum faces like yours in the last few hours—is someone you love very much. Then, as if speaking to that loved one, offer a sincere “How’s your day going?” If you’ve ever worked in the service industry, you know that one good customer can make your entire day. And if you’ve ever been that person, you know that it makes your day, too.