How to Be More Mindful (Without Meditating)
Learning to harness your attention can lead to better workouts, relationships and health.
Instagram version: You're sitting comfortably with a straight back, eyes closed, peacefully laser-focused on your breath and nothing else. Reality: You're fidgeting every which way trying to get the sudden ache out of your back, and all you can focus on is how you must have the creakiest floor on the planet. Does the latter sound familiar? That's meditation. More difficult—and for many, definitely less relaxing—than it looks.
The good news is that meditating isn't the only way to clear your mind, de-stress, and feel more calm, cool and collected. When it comes down to it, meditation's aim is to teach you to become more mindful—but there are other ways to get to that goal and unlock the benefits.
"Mindfulness is attention training", says Nick Wignall, PhD, a clinical psychologist at the Cognitive Behavioral Institute of Albuquerque. "It's the mental muscle that allows us to 'downshift' from a high gear, like problem-solving, into a lower one, like observing".
If that muscle is weak, anything can overpower your attention, says Wignall. But if it's trained and strong, you'll have an easier time regulating your emotions and staying in control during any situation, whether that means keeping your cool in an argument or finding your flow at the gym. "When it comes to your well-being, enhancing your performance and having good relationships, it's hard to imagine another mental muscle that's more important to have", he says.
"Mindfulness is attention training. It's the mental muscle that allows us to 'downshift' from a high gear, like problem-solving, into a lower one, like observing".
Clinical Psychologist at the Cognitive Behavioral Institute of Albuquerque
Mindfulness has legit physical health benefits too, says Dan Siegel, MD, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and the executive director of the Mindsight Institute, in Los Angeles. With consistent practice, it can lower the stress hormone cortisol, along with high blood pressure and cholesterol. That sets your body up to better control inflammation, which can improve your immune system and recovery, says Siegel. "Mindfulness can even help repair and maintain the ends of your chromosomes. It can literally slow the ageing process".
Here are a few ways you can develop this mental muscle without meditating.
- Wake up, breathe.
Your alarm goes off, you open your eyes. Now, notice your breath. "Don't think about how you're breathing, just be aware of the sensation", says Wignall. Doing this first thing ensures you won't forget, plus it sets the tone for the rest of your day.
Inevitably, you will get distracted. You'll think about breakfast or your to-do list. And that's OK, he says. "The goal is, can you catch your mind wandering, and can you bring your attention back to your breath?" Your breath is your body's built-in rhythm that's always there for you. Every time you return to it, you coach yourself to choose your internal music over the world's outside noise.
- Dial in during mundane moments.
Instead of going on autopilot, start paying attention to what's around you. For example, Wignall says, if you're driving, "Feel the vibrations of the road, acknowledge the colour of the sky—try to notice things without thinking more about them", he says. You can do that while you're washing the dishes (note the warmth of the water and the weight of the dish), brushing your teeth (be aware of the sensation of the bristles on your teeth and gums), or looking out of a window (notice a neighbour walking their dog). Training yourself to be more observant even in unexciting scenarios can make you more mindful over time.
- Try a body scan.
Begin at one end of your body—for instance, your feet—and focus on what your toes feel like, then your heels, ankles, shins, knees, etc. until you reach the top of your head. There's nothing intrinsically special about how your knee or hip or shoulder feels, says Wignall. The idea is that physical sensations are visceral, and tuning in to them can help you turn off your brain. That laser-sharp focus is key to ignoring noise, be it your thoughts or the creakiness of your floor, on an everyday basis.
The Long Game
Here's the thing: The examples above are akin to doing push-ups during a TV ad break or taking the stairs instead of the lift. Just as true fitness requires real workouts, you need a regular daily, or near-daily, practice to experience the full mental and physical benefits of mindfulness, say our experts.
As with exercise, you can pick multiple forms and "cross-train". Maybe you do breathwork before breakfast and a body scan one day, then an actual guided meditation the next. Start with an easy duration of five minutes, and gradually build the length of your sessions (Wignall says a good goal is 20 minutes).
Seem tough? Like any kind of effective training, it's supposed to be hard, says Wignall. "What throws most people off is that mindfulness is almost always framed as a tool for relaxation or peace of mind", he says. But those benefits don't actually happen in the moment, they happen afterwards. "Mindfulness shouldn't be calming any more than bench-pressing 68 kilogrammes should be. It only works because it's hard, just as your muscles only get bigger because you challenge them", he says. "Each time you get distracted, notice it and bring your attention back to the present. That's a mindfulness rep. And if you're not doing reps, you're not building muscle".
Whenever you get frustrated, remember this: Struggling with meditation—or pistol squats, pull-ups or whatever active skill you aren't great at—is a good sign, says Wignall, because it means that you're working on a weakness. "I've found that if people really see it like that, it clicks for them fairly quickly".