Skills For Mindfulness Practice

"There are an infinite number of ways in which people suffer. Therefore, there must be an infinite number of ways in which dharma is available to people," Kabat-Zinn J. Mindfulness for Beginners: Reclaiming the Present Moment-and Your Life.

The English translations of dharma from Sanskrit are numerous, but the one that seems to most resonate for the purpose of helping others with suffering is to think of dharma as the stability and harmony of the universe. One of the foundational principles of counseling is for the therapist and client to meet where the client is. Because mindfulness can be practiced in a variety of ways, there are numerous exercises available to help develop a program of coping skills.

Below are four separate skills that can encourage the practice of mindfulness through a variety of channels that are a part of daily life: sitting, breathing, relaxing muscles, and walking. Practicing one of these skills for three minutes a day (even when it is hard!) is key to building mindfulness.

Seated Awareness

  • Shift around in your chair or in a seated position on the ground, until you find a position that, for you, symbolizes paying attention.

  • Be careful not to slouch your shoulders, but also be aware not to sit so straight that it hurts you to be in this sitting posture.

  • Spend some time paying attention to your body and make a mental note of what this posture of awareness feels like for you.

  • If your head starts to wander or you feel that you have stopped paying attention, use this as a chance to bring your attention back to the body posture of awareness.

  • Work up to practicing this in three-minute increments. This practice is an effective way to cultivate the attitude of patience.

  • If three minutes is attempted and simply cannot be done, consider adding in another sensory element and practice paying attention to that element (e.g., a scent, a simple sound, or a tactile sensation, like holding a rock).

  • If sitting is not accessible, this same exercise can also be done standing or lying down. Remember to keep the emphasis on awareness.

Belly Breathing

  • Put one or both hands on the upper area of your stomach so you can pay attention to the motions you are engaging with your diaphragm.

  • As you inhale with your nose, allow your belly to expand as far as it will go.

  • Exhale with your mouth, allowing the belly to pull back in.

  • Continue this inhale-exhale pattern and your own pace, giving it at least six to seven sets to find a rhythm and style that works. Curiosity is key.

  • After finding your rhythm, consider puckering your mouth and really exaggerating your exhale, striving to make it somewhat longer than your inhale. This should help facilitate relaxation.

  • If you feel awkward, consider starting with an exhale instead of the inhale.

  • If paying attention to the breath on its own is not working, consider adding a count to it (e.g., In-2-3-4…hold…Out-2-3-4). 

Muscle Clench & Release

  • Make fists.

  • As you focus on your clenched fists, bring to mind something that causes stress in your life.

  • As you reflect on the stressor, really notice the contraction of your muscles. Feel your fingernails dig into your skin, if possible.

  • Whenever it feels too uncomfortable for you to keep holding on, know that you can slowly, mindfully let go at any time.

  • Notice your fingers uncurling, and feel the trickle of letting go all through your arms and up to your shoulders.

  • Notice how good it feels to let go.

  • Any muscle group can be clenched and released, especially if clenching the fists is too painful or not possible due to context or physical limitations. Clenching and releasing the stomach and feet are other popular choices.

  • For help with sleep and deeper relaxation, clench and release one muscle group at a time (holding each clench 20 to 30 seconds and then slowly releasing). The entire exercise, known as progressive muscle relaxation, should take about 20 minutes.

  • A relaxing sound (e.g., nature sound, music) may be added in the background or an aromatherapy diffuser may be used to further relaxation.

Mindful Walking

  • Think about looking toward the horizon during the walk instead of down at your feet.

  • Consider the art of breaking this walk down into slow motion, as if you are experiencing it for the first time.

  • Standing tall, let your heel connect with the earth and allow the front part of your foot to point towards the sky.

  • Very slowly step down, shifting the weight from your heel to the ball of the foot.

  • Shift the weight from the ball to the toes.

  • Deliberately repeat this same motion on the other foot.

  • Continue taking this walk in this slow, deliberate fashion, observing each sensation with a new awareness.

  • This exercise can be done inside or outside.