Updated: Jan 13
Confession time: I am not a huge fan of meditation.
In my late teens and early 20s, I practised regularly and even went to my fair share of meditation retreats. Still, something about the formal practice of meditation never resonated with me.
Meditation has become a hot topic in the mental health and wellness space over the past few decades. And with good reason, we know from research that meditation can significantly positively affect our well-being, attention, anxiety, depression, and a general sense of well-being.
So what is someone to do if (like me) they don't like to meditate?
The good news is that the 'active ingredient' in meditation that makes it pack such a positive punch for our mental health is mindfulness, being fully present and aware of where we are and what we are doing.
Mindfulness and meditation are often used interchangeably, but they are separate concepts. We can think about mindfulness as being a particular state of being, while meditation is a formal practice for learning to be in this state. And just like we can learn to dance without having ever taken a formal dance lesson, we can also learn to be mindful without practising meditation.
Great news for us non-meditators!
What is a state of mindfulness?
The first step is for us to define what it means to be in a state of mindfulness. We can think about mindfulness as a present-moment awareness that non-judgementally observes our thoughts, physical sensations, surroundings, and emotions without getting caught up in them.
One of the big misconceptions of both mindfulness and meditation is that they will 'quiet your mind' or that a state of mindfulness means an absence of thought in our head.
In truth, our brains love to automate processes and responses, worry about the future, dwell on the past, and chatter away to us in the background. We won't be able to turn those processes off, and part of mindfulness practice is accepting that our brains will wander.
What we want to develop through mindfulness is the practice of constantly redirecting our attention back to being in that observant, non-judgemental, not caught-up state whenever we notice we've left it.
And this practice of bringing our wandering mind back to the present moment is a skill that we can cultivate in very no formal ways in our activities of daily living.
What about painful or unhelpful thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations?
When we practice mindfulness, we don't want to try to control the thoughts, physical sensations, and emotions that flow through our heads. If you are struggling with intrusive or anxious thoughts, you've probably been working hard to keep them out of your head. It sounds counter-intuitive, but it is often our attempts not to think about something that make them more present in our head.
Try not to think about Donald Trump riding a pink elephant down the streets of New York for the next minute or so. Whatever you do, don't think about that.
How did you get on? Probably not too well because for your brain to know what not to think about, it had to think about it.
When you practice mindfulness, see if you can also practice holding all of your thoughts gently. Acknowledge the thought, "I am noticing that I am anxious," and then connect with your physical body and engage in the mindful activity you are doing.
How to practice mindfulness without meditating
Below are some examples of mindfulness practices you can incorporate into your daily life. Find something that resonates with you and experiment with creating your own mindful moments in your day.
All mindful practice has the same three steps that you want to run through that we can remember with the simple acronym ACE:
A - acknowledge whatever thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations you are experiencing
C - connect with your physical body by focusing on one or all of your five senses
E - engage back with whatever activity you are currently doing
As we practice mindfulness, we will keep running through 3 steps as often as we like.
Take a mindful shower.
Work through your five senses as you have your shower; what can you feel, taste, hear, smell, and see? See if you can slow down and be present for each shower step. As you notice your mind wandering, bring your attention back to your five senses and be present in the moment until your shower is done.
Eat your lunch or dinner mindfully.
Put your phone away, turn off the Netflix, and be fully present for your lunch or dinner. Again you may want to run through your senses and be fully present with the meal you are eating. Focus on the textures, tastes, smells, and visuals of the food you eat and savour every mouthful.
Mindfully Listen to Music
Music can provide an excellent opportunity to practice mindfulness. As you listen, see if you can hear the individual instruments, pick out changes in tempo or key, connect with the piece's emotion, listen to the lyrics of the music, and be fully present with the experience. This practice is gratifying with headphones.
Look out for a particular colour as you go about your day.
Decide on a colour of the day or week and when you spot it, take a moment to be fully present and observe that colour.
Savour time with friends and family
Put your mobile phone away and be intentionally present with friends and family. If you notice your mind wandering, bring it back to the conversation and connect with your loved ones.
Enjoy your cup of tea or coffee.
Run through your five senses with a cup of coffee.
Be present during a walk.
Take a mindful walk outside.
Mindfulness is the opposite of what our brain wants to do, so it is natural for the practice of mindfulness to feel a bit awkward and unnatural. Pick an activity to practice with that you want to be fully present for and that you find enjoyable. When you do, being mindfully present enhances the enjoyment you already get from the activity and makes it much easier to practice your new skill.