The coronavirus has disrupted the schedules of Americans in ways not seen since -- well, maybe ever! Some of us have a lot more free time than before, and some have a lot more stress than before. Whichever of the two camps you’re in, mindfulness exercises have much to recommend them right now.
What is mindfulness?
Let’s start with some basics. Mindfulness refers to our innate ability to be focused and present in a relaxed and nonjudgmental way. We are all mindful sometimes, even if we’ve never practiced mindfulness before. It’s not a new ability we need to develop.
Why is mindfulness important?
Mindfulness is relevant because when we practice mindfulness we draw on our inherent ability to manage anxiety. Studies show that regular practice of mindfulness can improve anxiety symptoms and help some physical difficulties too.
Below are four ways you can practice mindfulness tailored to your level of experience:
If you’re completely new to mindfulness, a great first exercise to do is called “unplugging.” This is best done at home (perfect for the lockdown!). Take 30 minutes where you don’t look at your phone, computer or TV. Nothing electronic. Notice the impulses you have to turn on one of these devices. Notice what sensations and thoughts come up. Notice your emotional reaction – do you find yourself feeling relieved? Irritated? Sad? For 30 minutes, try to become a fascinated observer of your own experience.
Mindful eating is a great practice because eating is something you need to do anyway! This exercise literally takes no time out of your schedule. The next time you sit down to eat alone, whether it’s a meal or a snack, pay attention to your sensory experience very closely. This will require you to make sure you’re not multi-tasking – so no phones, no TV, no computers or magazines or books.
Pay rapt attention to every moment of the experience as best you can. Notice the temperature of the food as it touches your lips. As you begin to chew, notice the impulse to move the food from your lips to the back of your mouth, and remember there is no need to rush. Try to find something new about the appearance of the food, even if you’ve had this item hundreds of times before. Does the lettuce on your sandwich look more red-tinted than you’d thought? Is the mustard gloppier than you remembered it? Good, these are exactly the kinds of things you want to look for.
Anytime that you notice yourself having a distracting thought arise (e.g., this sandwich is better than I expected), return your attention to your sensory experience of the food. Throughout the exercise, remember that your job is to observe your experience, not evaluate it. So it’s not important if the sandwich is tasty or not, only whether you observed your experience.
If you’ve done mindful eating and are looking to broaden your mindfulness practice, try mindful driving. Cars have a lot of entertainment options these days. There’s the radio, maybe hands-free phone calls, or just making mental to-do lists.
How often have you driven somewhere local for the 100th time to realize that you have no memory of your drive at all afterward? When we’re mentally checked out of an experience in that way, we’ve missed an opportunity to practice mindfulness.
The next time you’re driving, practice noticing everything you see as you go – buildings, scenery, other cars, even painted lines on the road. Do this noticing with a curious attitude. Avoid settling into opinions like, “driving is so great in this town” or “this trip always takes forever.” Imagine that you’ve never been on this trip before and that you’re seeing everything you pass for the first time. Bring that type of curiosity to your experience.
When your mind wanders to thoughts about where you’re going or about something that happened earlier, notice that too, and bring your attention back to the present moment. Refocus on your experience driving. If your mind gets distracted over and over and over, that’s ok! Just keep redirecting your attention back to your driving.
If you’re intrigued enough by your practice of exercises like those described above, try sitting meditation. I’ll present a brief instruction here and recommend more comprehensive instructions at the end of this section.
Set aside a specific amount of time – 5 minutes, 10, 15, it’s up to you – using a timer. This way you won’t feel the need to check the clock.
When you’re starting out, the simplest way to sit comfortably is to use a chair. Sit with your back straight – don’t lean against the back of the chair. Keep your legs uncrossed, and make sure the bottoms of your feet are flat on the floor. Place your hands palms-down on your thighs so that your elbows are directly below your shoulders. Relax any tension you may be holding in your back or your shoulders. Keep your eyes slightly open and direct your gaze downward at around a 45 degree angle, softly focused toward the floor or wall in front of you.
As you sit, notice your breathing. There is no need to breathe quickly or slowly. Just let your body breathe as it wants to. Pay close attention to every aspect of your breathing. What is the feel of the air coming in through your nose? Does it feel like it goes to your chest first, or to your belly? Is there a pause between inhalation and exhalation? If so, how long? Is it voluntary?
Try to immerse yourself in these kinds of questions and observations. When thoughts come up, just notice they’ve arisen and taken you away from your intended focus – your breathing. Thoughts will come up again and again. If you notice you’re sucked into having opinions about these thoughts, or about how good or bad of a job you’re doing – gently return your attention to your breath, without getting caught up in judgments. Each time you meditate, be prepared to repeatedly return your attention to your breath in this fashion dozens or even hundreds of times.
Every time you return your attention to your breathing, you’ve strengthened your ability to be mindful a little bit! Keep up the good work.
You can find good detailed sitting meditation instruction here from Jon Kabat-Zinn, or on this resource on mindfulness and meditation, or in this video on Zen meditation which includes depiction of the helpful Burmese, half-lotus, kneeling, and sitting postures if you’re ready to move beyond sitting in a chair.
Practicing mindfulness is an easy, free and natural way to boost your anxiety coping skills. Not only that, but it also helps our ability to manage emotions, and with some aspects of our physical health. If the coronavirus lockdowns has left you with some extra time, make this crisis into an opportunity for you to start (or strengthen) a healthy habit – mindfulness practice.
About the Author
Dr. Paul Greene is the director of the Manhattan Center for Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy in New York City. He received his doctorate in clinical psychology from Boston University and completed postdoctoral training at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. Dr. Greene served as an assistant professor at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine for six years. He is an expert in the treatment of anxiety and related disorders, and the application of mindfulness in cognitive-behavioral clinical interventions.