The practice of mindfulness meditation is all the rage these days, and for good reason: the proven health benefits of meditation abound — from stress and anxiety reduction to improved creativity and relationships. Plus, it just makes you feel good. But for those of us who aren't big on sitting cross-legged on pillows for half an hour every day, the traditional method can feel a bit prohibitive. Luckily, there are lots of ways to incorporate different forms of meditation into your life — and still reap many of the same benefits of feeling more present.
Before I started meditating, I thought that meditation was all about clearing the mind of any and all thoughts. Luckily, once I actually started going to my local meditation center, I learned that "emptying your mind" is not really the point of meditation. As meditation teacher Susan Piver put it in an article about how to meditate for Bustle, "trying to stop thinking is like telling your nose not to smell anything. It can’t help it, that’s just what a nose does. Instead, just let your thoughts be as they are ... should a particular thought run off with your attention, as you notice this, here is all you have to do: let go."
Mindfulness meditation is about deliberately noticing your thoughts — and being able to bring yourself back to the present moment when you begin to get carried away by them. By doing this, you gain a greater awareness of when your thoughts are controlling you, or when you're speaking to yourself as more of a dictator than an ally. The idea is that over time, by becoming better acquainted with your own thought patterns in this non-judgmental way, you feel less attached to and controlled by your mind, and more like an amused, knowledgeable friend of it. In other words, you don't need to stop thinking to meditate — you just need to observe your thoughts more consciously.
I'm no meditation teacher, but I have found the following alternative meditation methods to be useful for me when I feel like practicing without sitting. Of course, I didn't invent any of these methods. Buddhist monks have always considered walking, making art, eating, and basically everything else an opportunity for meditation — and they're right.
1. Take A Meditative Walk
Buddhist monks have been practicing walking meditations since forever, and with good reason: you should only sit so long. But while they might count prayer beads as they walk super slowly, you can adapt the practice to work for you.
Sometimes, I like to slow down and simply feel my foot hit the ground. If you're barefoot, you could try walking in a circle, and see if you can focus on walking heel-to-toe. Feel your heel, then the ball of your foot, then your toes hitting the ground, then your leg bending, and your body moving forward.
If walking quickly is more your thing, that's great, too! Take a walk somewhere green, and try to focus on the sounds and nature around you. If you're in a city, you could put on some relaxing music and try to consider the people around you, practicing sending loving kindness (basically good vibes) to individuals you pass, or maybe even making occasional (not-harassing) eye contact with your fellow humans.
If you have a particular topic you'd like to think about, you can also take a contemplative walk, consciously ruminating on a particular problem, relationship, or emotion; feeling whatever sensations arrive in your body, moment to moment, as you think about it, returning back to the topic like you would your breath, whenever your mind wanders. Nature is always going to be your best bet for this, but it's possible to take a contemplative walk anywhere, especially if you're able to use noise-canceling headphones or listen to calming music.
2. Have Sex As Presently As Possible
Ironically, we often have the most difficulty focusing on the present during the moments where we're supposed to be most in touch with our animal selves. Women especially often fall into traps of feeling like they need to perform in order to protect a partner's ego. (Thanks porn culture!) That's why sex is a great time to attempt to tune into the present moment and try to understand what you're actually thinking, wanting, and feeling.
You can try experimenting with mindfulness during sex by focusing on your breath, by maintaining eye contact, or even by challenging yourself not to make any inauthentic noises or actions. You can ask yourself, in the present moment, How do I feel? What do I want, right now? Am I feeling pressure to fake anything? When you feel your mind wandering to what you think you "should" want, or anxiety about when you think you "should" come, try to bring yourself back to your breath, the sensations in your body, and the person in front of you.
Bustle's sex columnist Vanessa Marin has even more tips about how to have sex honestly and authentically and how to be more in the moment during sex, so you should give those a read as well. Who says meditation can't be fun?
3. Devote A Public Transit Commute To Being Present
This is one of my favorite ways to squeeze some mindfulness into my day. Of course, it can be tempting to take your favorite book or podcast on the train — and you should. But sometimes, your daily commute is a perfect place to practice being present.
It's so easy to go from one screen to another — computer, iPad, Netflix — that we forget to simply let our eyes rest on what's happening around us. And that's no good, especially since too much screen time has been proven to restructure your brain and make you more prone to metabolic diseases, eye strain, and even an earlier death.
Without being a total creep about it (AKA staring at one person too obviously or too long), try paying attention to the people and conversations around you. Can you place your attention on your present environment for your full commute? You might be overwhelmed at first by the story in everyone's face — sadness and exhaustion are everywhere — but you will also be amazed by how easily you can cultivate compassion for your fellow humans, just by taking your earbuds out and paying attention to the sensations, conversations, and emotions all around you.
4. Focus On Your Food
This one is difficult for me. It's so easy to eat in front of a screen, or to gobble down food in between tasks. But eating mindfully, and slowly, has been proven to help you have a better sense of when you're actually full, and may even reduce your risk of diabetes and improve your relationship with food.
See if you can sit and just try to focus on eating your snack or dinner. Notice the flavors and sensations, and maybe even allow yourself to feel grateful for the fact that you have food in the first place. It's harder than it sounds, but reestablishing a connection between your mind and body when it comes to eating can have far-reaching impacts when it comes to your health and body image.
5. Try Meditative Writing
The practice of meditative writing aims to help you tune into the present moment by writing down exactly what you're thinking as it comes to you, without judgement or censorship. The idea is still to understand your own mind, only here, you're not trying to bring yourself back to the breath so much as record your own thought process honestly.
My favorite way to do it is by writing down my stream of consciousness for 10 minutes, perhaps starting with the phrase "Right now I...". I try not to censor myself in any way, and the only rule is to keep my pen moving. If I have nothing to say, I'll literally write what I'm thinking: "I have nothing to say, I have nothing to say." You can also try starting each sentence with a sense word — "I feel/smell/see/hear/taste" — in order to help build the muscles of tapping into the present moment and your thoughts, without judgement.
6. Place Your Attention On A Body Part Or Feeling
In my early 20s especially, a lot of my uncomfortable feelings and thoughts tended to get channeled into fixating on certain body parts I thought were ugly. Part of how I started reprogramming this kind of negative self-talk — besides therapy, journaling, and generally being more open about my body image issues — was meditation.
Sometimes, if I was feeling badly about, say, my stomach, I would place a hand on it and try to sit with that feeling. Sometimes, I'd also try to send compassion to that body part or feeling. Often, I would realize that the cause of my emotion wasn't really that body part at all. I might have been feeling badly about my job or my relationship, but I was scapegoating my own body as a way to avoid dealing with it directly.
You can also apply this practice to more abstract feelings. If you're feeling really annoyed and you're not sure why, pause for a second and close your eyes. Try to locate where that feeling and tension is located in your body. What other thoughts are popping up? If you can take a few deep breaths and try to send some compassion to that feeling, or even try to allow yourself to feel that uncomfortable sensation more fully, you might find you feel a lot better when you go back to the "real" world.
The health benefits of coloring are well-documented — from stress reduction to focus to relaxation — and mimic those of meditation. That's because coloring really is a form of meditation. It helps you be more present by focusing simply on what's in front of you, helping even the non-artists among us enter a state of creative flow.
Even if you think you can't draw, consider an adult coloring book — they even make some specifically for meditative purposes. (Once again, Buddhist monks have been onto this idea for centuries, by making mandalas.)
8. Look At A Candle For 5 Minutes
There's something about a flame that just helps the mind relax. (Ever noticed how people always space-out around a camp fire? You will now.) One quick way to reset a busy mind — especially before bed, or first thing in the morning — is to simply stare at a candle flame for awhile.
You don't even need to time yourself; just place your attention on the flame instead of your breath, and watch it move. If your mind starts to wander, just bring your attention back to the flame and let the relaxation commence.
9. Do Absolutely Nothing
This is pretty much the same thing as traditional meditation, actually, but sometimes I find it's easier to motivate myself to meditate if I simply think of it as "doing nothing."
It's ridiculous that we have to give ourselves permission to do nothing, but think about it — how much time do you spend each day just sitting and staring into space? We used to daydream all the time as kids, but more and more, we look at our phones, or watch TV during our "alone time," and are actually deeply afraid of being fully alone with our own thoughts.
Give yourself permission to zone out — perhaps don't even worry about focusing on your breath or noticing all your thoughts at first. Just practice allowing yourself to be just as you are, and relaxing with whoever that is, in that very moment. Just remember what it feels like to daydream and stare off into space, zoning out for as long as feels good.
Eventually, you can move towards noticing your thoughts more, and practice returning to the present moment when you start to run away with them, gently. And just like that, you're meditating.
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