Don’t have time to meditate every day? Here are 3 mini mindfulness exercises you can do in five minutes or even five seconds.
Happy New Year, everyone! How was your holiday season this past year? If it was anything like mine, you probably not only had lots of joyous moments, but also lots of hectic running around, getting things ready, hosting, traveling, ordering last-minute presents, and getting in touch with loved ones.
Times like these can sparkle with fun energy and can leave us feeling frazzled. That’s because all this running around makes it hard to be mindful. By mindful, I mean being present in the here and now with a non-judgmental attitude. The opposites of mindful are multi-tasking, judging, worrying, mentally planning, and getting stuck in our minds instead of being simply and fully in the real world in this current moment.
When was the last time you were fully mindful? What did it feel like?
If the answer comes readily to mind, good for you! You’re probably reaping the benefits of being mindful by being regularly tuned into the here and now. Those benefits include better physical health, better relationships with sleep and food, better job satisfaction, higher self-esteem, and being less prone to worry. In children, mindfulness training may improve the development of their self-regulation skills. In adults, mindfulness training can improve coping with health problems, stress, anxiety, and depression.
How to be mindful without meditation
I hear you protest: “Sure, I’d like to be more mindful, but I don’t have time to sit down and meditate for 30 minutes every day!”
We want to be present for all of these events, whether pleasant or unpleasant, to live a rich and full life.
Worry not! Although meditation is an excellent practice, it’s not the only way to cultivate mindfulness. The ultimate goal of practicing is to become mindful in our day-to-day lives, during our commutes, our work, our play, our diaper-changing and fights with spouses, our awkward conversations, and our giddy triumphs. We want to be present for all of these events, whether pleasant or unpleasant, to live a rich and full life.
There are some mini mindfulness exercises you can do during any of the scenarios I just described. No meditation required! Put these in your back pocket to use for five seconds or five minutes, any time you could use a dose of mindfulness.
1. Riding your breath
The breath is always my first go-to. It’s always with me, always accessible. Breathing is also closely connected to the parasympathetic system in the body, which does the opposite job of the sympathetic system, which prompts the fight-or-flight response. The parasympathetic system is sometimes called the rest-and-digest system because it calms and slows your body into relaxation.
Your only task is to be a curious, neutral observer. You only have to ride along.
Even without these calming perks, the breath is a beautiful thing to be mindful of. It’s life-affirming, reminding you of the rhythm of your life, and reminding your mind of its connection with the body. That’s the main point of a mindful breathing exercise—to be grounded in your body. Because of that, we don’t necessarily have to find a quiet room and a 30-minute block to meditate on the breath. We can do it any time, anywhere—when you’re waiting in line, walking, sitting at your desk, or cooking. Anytime you’re breathing, you can be mindful of your breath.
Here's how to practice.
- You can sit or stand, walk, or keep doing whatever you were doing, as long as it doesn’t require so much of your attention that you can’t fully be with your breath.
- Then, simply notice how your breath feels. What does the air feel like as it enters your body? Is it cool or warm? Is it slow or quick? How does your body naturally move to invite in that breath? Does your chest rise, your belly? And what does it feel like to let go of that exhale? What happens to your core, your shoulders, your chest, as the warm breath leaves your body.
- During this process, know that you’re not trying to change or fix anything. You don’t have to force the breath to be slower or deeper, to change its rhythm or shape. Your only task is to be a curious, neutral observer. You only have to ride along.
- As you do this, you’ll notice your mind wandering. Sometimes, it slips into planning mode as you start mentally going down your to-do list. Sometimes, it starts to replay conversations you had earlier, or to worry about what’s coming up next today. You might even think, “Am I doing this breathing thing right?” That’s okay. No need to banish or change any of those thoughts. Just notice that they happened, and gently bring your attention back to how your breath feels.
- Notice how your breath changes, or doesn’t change, throughout this exercise. Simply notice without judging the things you notice as good or bad.
- When you’re ready, thank your body for the breathing and go on with your day.
Here's an exercise from Mindful.org that you can try right now: A 5-Minute Mindful Breathing Practice to Restore Your Attention
2. Have a conversation with your little toe
In addition to focusing on your breath, you can also be mindful of the rest of your body. If you have a chance to do a dedicated meditation in a quiet environment, one of my favorites is the body scan. This is where you slowly walk your attention from head to toe, taking a moment to focus on and acknowledge each part of your body. People often find this relaxing, which is a bonus! But the true purpose is to get in touch with your body in the here and now.
If you’re on the run, in public, or otherwise don’t have a chance to do a full-body scan meditation, you can still do a partial one. You can focus on just one small part of your body—say, the little toe on your left foot!
The little toe is an underappreciated body part that works hard all day to help you keep balance and walk around. But I bet you weren’t noticing it until I mentioned it. Too often, we take our bodies for granted. Imagine if we treated our friends this way, counting on them to help us every day, but never saying “thank you” or even noticing them.
So, rekindle the relationship with your little toe by having a “conversation” with it. By this, I mean sincerely asking, “Hey little toe, how are you feeling?” And then pausing to really “listen.” How does your little toe feel? What’s the temperature down there in the corner of your shoe? Is it roomy there or cramped? Does your little toe feel relaxed or tense? Is there an itch? How does the texture of your sock feel? Wiggle your little toe around and see how that feels.
Give this tiny, seemingly insignificant part of your body all of your attention, and see what happens to your mental experience.
3. Do the 5-4-3-2-1
So far, the mini mindfulness exercises listed have all focused on our bodies, which is a great place to start. But we can also expand out and be mindful of what our bodies are getting from the environment through our five senses. I think sometimes there is no better way to pull ourselves out of a mental spiral into the present moment than to make a roll call through our senses.
Sometimes there is no better way to pull ourselves out of a mental spiral into the present moment than to make a roll call through our senses.
This is what I call the 5-4-3-2-1. Here’s how it goes:
- FIVE. Notice 5 things you can see with your eyes. Look around, is there anything in the room you hadn’t noticed before? Perhaps a piece of artwork on the wall, knick-knack on the shelf, or a branch swaying outside the window? The things you notice don’t have to be objects. They can be colors, patterns, the way a shadow falls across a wall, or expressions on people’s faces. There are hundreds of things to notice with your eyes.
- FOUR. Notice 4 things you can hear with your ears. Is there a fan humming? Distant footsteps? Someone’s music spilling out of their headphones? The sound of your breath? Remember that there is nothing to judge as good or bad here. We’re simply tuning in to notice with non-judgmental ears.
- THREE. Notice 3 things you can feel with your body. This can be anything from the temperature of the room, to the texture of your clothing, to the pressure of the chair you’re sitting on. You can even close your eyes to heighten your body’s tactile senses.
- TWO. Notice 2 things you can smell with your nose. Most of the time, we don’t notice smells unless we have a yummy meal in front of us, or when we’re taking out the yucky garbage. But I bet you’ll notice little subtle smells if you try. Maybe there’s a whiff of someone’s coffee from the other room. Or a cozy smell from the laundry you’re folding. And if you’re outside, see if you can catch the changing smells as you walk down the street or through the garden.
- ONE. Notice 1 thing you can taste with your tongue. Savor the taste of that meal you’re eating, the gum you’re chewing, or even the plain water you’re drinking. If you’re not eating or drinking, you may not have anything to taste. That’s okay! In this case, you can replace your one item with one more of any of the other senses you just walked through. Or sometimes I like to replace it with noticing one emotion I’m feeling in the moment.