The Ultimate Guide To Mindfulness Practices
By Kelly Nickels.
The ultimate guide to mindfulness practices is that there is no ultimate guide to mindfulness. *insert eyeroll emoji here* Before you click away, hear me out! There is no right way to do mindfulness because there is no wrong way to do it either. That is what’s so wonderful about it. So much of life is thinking you have to show up, act, dress in a certain way when in reality, all you need to do is be you.
Think of mindfulness as a safe place to be who you are devoid of any constraints or expectations. Ok, cool. But where do I start? In this article, I will do my best to give you personal examples of what has and hasn’t worked for me in the past in hopes that it may give you a launching off point. I’m not an expert. I don’t claim to know anything more than anyone else. There are so many resources on the internet about mindfulness, but what I can give you is a personal look into how mindfulness has helped me and how it continues to expand my life.
What is Mindfulness?
In my own words, mindfulness is the act of consciously choosing to reside in the present moment. Easier said than done though, yeah? When your head is full of things to do, future aspirations and goals, and dwelling on the fact you told the server to enjoy their meal too, how does one successfully manage to reside in the present moment?
Easy. You don’t. At least not at first. It is called Mindfulness Practice for a reason. Practice sometimes makes “perfect,” but when “perfect” means enlightenment, go easy on yourself and, well, your Self. See what I did there...
The funny thing about self-awareness is you can be aware of your patterns, what you’ve learned, and how you’d like to change, but still make the same mistakes. But those mistakes are worth making. I’m a musician and recently, I tried to pick up the mandolin. Since I play guitar decently, I thought it would transfer over pretty readily despite already knowing every instrument has a unique learning curve. Regardless, I picked up the instrument with the expectation to be performing full songs in a week.
When you go into anything with the expectation of instant satisfaction, you will most likely be disappointed. But if you approach a task with the intent to be better than you were when you started, then you will always be satisfied. Mindfulness is the same. When I approach life with the intent to be mindful and my mind starts to wander, I try to accept the thought for what it is. A thought. A thought that is fleeting and will pass. That way, when a negative thought enters my stream of consciousness, I don’t let it ruin my day or cascade into a vicious thought cycle. It doesn’t then run the show.
The practice of mindfulness then becomes a cosmic roleplay where you are a miner with a gold sieve sorting through your thoughts to land on the truth of the moment. Filtering out what no longer serves you and sending love to the thoughts that empower you and “feel” genuine to your identity. Before you know it, residing in the present moment becomes easier and easier since you have sorted through the thoughts that have been keeping you living in the Past or Future. All aboard the Now train! Woo Woo!
What are the Benefits of Mindfulness?
Living in the present moment comes with its perks. When I started introducing mindfulness practices into my everyday life I saw many wonderful benefits including (but not limited to):
- Boost in Confidence
- Healthier Habits (sometimes)
- Increased Productivity
- Deeper and More Meaningful Relationships (both romantically and platonically)
- Management of Mental Health
- Cultivating an Unconditional Loving Relationship with Yourself
For me, mindfulness acted as means of understanding my anxiety and creating a symbiotic relationship with it. Growing up, mental health was a pretty new phenomenon for me. I never heard my childhood friends say “I have such bad anxiety.” Maybe it was because there was more of a negative stigma surrounding mental health or we were 14 and that seemed too angsty to say. But as an adult, it seems most people verbalize it much more often.
The months leading up to my wedding, my anxiety was off the charts. I thought it just was stress at work or wedding jitters, but things really weren’t that stressful and wedding jitters shouldn’t make your hair fall out in clumps in the shower.
Anxiety is the language in which your heart attempts to communicate to you, you are or are about to be off course.
Kelly, how do you know this? You’re not a health professional.
That’s true! But modern science has admitted to not fully understanding anxiety. In the past, what has been deemed as one having a “hyperactive amygdala” has been revised to the collective understanding that “no one brain region drives anxiety on its own.” Then what is driving it? Instead of seeking that answer ourselves, we are told something is inherently wrong with us and in order to function in society, you need to “stop being anxious” and numb it with medication. Or worse, addiction.
I once called my doctor on the phone, mentioned the word “anxiety” and was blindly sent a Xanax prescription to my local pharmacy, without even an in-person consultation. This isn’t solving the problem, it’s just delaying it. There is a source to anxiety. It’s not a negative entity, it’s trying to help you. Do I think it’s simply luck I had the worst anxiety of my life that magically resolved itself after I left my marriage? No. This was my body talking to me. But sometimes it’s hard to listen when you don’t like what it says.
Mindfulness techniques are the way we start listening. When I consciously choose to reside in the present moment, I found a power in that. A power to balance negative energies in my life. Most of my anxiety was fear-driven. Full of worst case scenarios my mind had constructed of possible future outcomes that would never come to be. But I believed them as the truth. My mind kept me stuck in this fear-based autopilot which caused unnecessary suffering and prevented me from being mindful. Prevented me from simply being ME! When I started being mindful and aligning with my true identity, my anxiety took the back seat. I think a lot of people harp on about removing anxiety and its physical sensations completely, but I personally don’t think that’s possible. I like to see it more as befriending your anxiety as means of not letting it control you.
Now at this point, you’re probably thinking “all this sounds great, but how do I actually achieve mindfulness”? Simple mindfulness practices!
A list of 10 Best Mindfulness Practices:
Mindfulness Practice #1: Do Things Alone
Sounds simple right? Great. So let me add another layer. Do things alone and don’t distract yourself in the process. For example, when I do some meditation walking in the woods, I avoid drowning out my mind with music. If I go eat dinner by myself, I try not to scroll on my phone.
It may feel awkward at first. Embrace the awkwardness! Sit with it. Ask yourself why sitting alone at a restaurant makes you feel awkward? Sit in the discomfort and when you answer that question, maybe you’ll find that it wasn’t the situation that was awkward, it was the perception of the situation that appeared awkward, most likely, only to you.
Our minds can be our worst enemies. That couple across the way is not judging you for sitting alone. The waitress isn’t laughing because she thinks you got stood up on a date. The bartender isn’t commenting on how sad it must be to be drinking alone on a Saturday night.
But what if one of those scenarios is actually true? Like I actually overheard the bartender saying that.
Then you know what? You’ll be too busy enjoying the moment you are in to even let that phase you. You will be so secure in who you are and your choice to be sitting alone that nothing anyone can say can change that. That is the power of mindfulness.
Mindfulness Practice #2: Do What You Love
The best mindfulness practice I’ve found is simply doing what you love. For me, that’s music. Mindfulness becomes very simple when you are in tune with your authentic Self and when you’re in alignment with your heart. When I am singing, it forces me into the present moment. There’s a level of it being technical. You need to focus so that you don’t sing wrong notes. But there’s also an ease that comes with it because I feel it is what I’m meant to be doing. Find what makes you feel a peaceful purpose in your daily life. Maybe it’s art. Maybe it’s cooking. Once you find it, delve more into why it is the source of your peace. You doing what you love then becomes part of your daily practices of mindfulness.
Mindfulness Practice #3: Journaling
Journaling is a great way to organize your thoughts, keep a detailed memory log, write down a dream you had last night, and/or gain clarity on life’s bigger questions. If you find yourself with a bad case of writer’s block, free writing is a great technique to add to your daily routine for getting out of your own way. What I mean by that is getting your mind out of your way. Before pursuing my music career, I was a professional video editor, so writing has always been hard for me because I tend to edit what I’m writing as I write. The shortcoming of this is you never fully get the idea on the page before you are deciding it is wrong. Free writing is a way to avoid over-editing your ideas before they are formed. Try writing for 10 minutes straight without lifting your pen or hitting the backspace on your laptop. As you write, try not to judge what comes out. It can be helpful to write a topic or a phrase at the top of the page to guide your writing if you need some direction. That way if you feel like you’re getting off topic or you get stuck, you can look back at the top of the page and start again.
Mindfulness Practice #4: Yoga
Yoga was a slow burn love story for me. I tried Yoga for the first time when I was in high school and I just didn’t ‘get it’. I recently reapproached it as a mindfulness exercise with new eyes a few months ago and it was night and day for me. If Yoga doesn’t resonate with you, trust that. Maybe it will later like it did for me! The great thing about it, when it does resonate with you, is that it forces you into the present moment by the amount of focus it requires to hold the positions, give full attention to your body, and allow for mindful breathing.
Mindfulness Practice #5: Appreciate What You Have
You hear this one all the time, but it is so important and much harder than you think. Most people are capable of empathy and recognizing privilege, but waking up and longing for material things you don’t have is hard to avoid. In a time where sponsored ads are perfectly catered to your interests, how do you scroll on Twitter and not want to buy that sunflower crop top just so you can tweet about it? We all have our kryptonites. Mine happens to be sunflower decorated products. Mindfulness isn’t about removing all wants and desires from your life. But it’s about reminding yourself how lucky you are to be alive every day you live. I have a lot of credit card debt and it took me a long time to be at peace with that and not let it affect me living my life. The biggest way I healed my fear associated with money was by realizing even with my credit card debt, I have a roof over my head, I can afford groceries, and I trust myself. Think of five things you are grateful for. They can be people, material things, something that happened to you today. Jot them down in your Mindful Travel Journal on one of the many gratitude pages or check out gratitude practices to add your daily routine in addition to your travels. Make this a part of your practice and you will see that the value of what you already have is infinite.
What Are Some Mindfulness Practices For Anxiety?
Mindfulness Practice #6: Focus Your Breathing
This is a pretty common one, but honestly this is the first thing I always do when I recognize the physical sensations of an anxiety or panic attack. Listening to a slow tempo song helps me retime my breathing similar to what some runners do when they run to music at a complementary tempo. A friend of mine suggested a great song to listen to called ‘Life and Death’ by Michael Giacchino from the TV Show LOST. You can take a deep breath in and out following along with the swelling string section underlying the piano. Otherwise, I recommend slowly counting from 1 to 10 in your head for each inhale and exhale until your heart slows down or popping on a mindfulness meditation video on YouTube to calm your soul.
Mindfulness Practice #7: Take Action
After I recover from an anxiety or panic attack, I try to identify what the source of my anxiety was (if I can) and take any steps that are in my control to alleviate the source. Sometimes, anxiety arises from circumstances that are out of your control, like what is currently going on with COVID-19, but things you can control are self-care practices like taking a bubble bath or soothing showering and listening to calm music. Even mundane tasks like doing the dishes helps me sometimes.
Other times, anxiety arises from things that are in your control, but that you may not be able to identify the source of or the decision-making process surrounding it may feel too big to tackle right now. With these, practice the art of self-compassion by accepting where you are today. Know that things can and will unfold organically to resolve it.
Mindfulness Practice #8: You Are Not Your Anxiety
The biggest piece of the puzzle of anxiety for me was recognizing I was not my anxiety. What I mean by that is that the negative emotions and negative thoughts that plague your mind aren’t who you actually are. Sometimes the physical sensations are self-manifested too. For example, anxiety attacks are proven to cause dramatic, although temporary, spikes in blood pressure. Last year I sent myself to the ER because half my body went numb. After a full body scan, the doctor told me there wasn’t anything wrong with me. My anxiety had manifested body sensations similar to that of a stroke. The mind is a powerful entity if left unchecked. But like I said before, anxiety isn’t the villain of this story. It exists to point you in the direction of what no longer serves you. It is helping you find who you are underneath the noise. Now when my anxiety flares up, I try to be mindful by acknowledging what I’m feeling without perpetuating it by being harder on myself. That only fuels the fire. In these moments, try to send yourself loving-kindness knowing that this too shall pass.
What Are Some Mindfulness Practices For Students?
Mindfulness Practice #9: Go Outside
Going outside may seem obvious, but when I was in college I was so caught up in last minute assignments and late night to-do lists that I would forget to take care of myself. Even a simple 5 minute walk around the block is enough to alleviate the mountain of stress you are carrying on your shoulders. The paradox of it all is that when you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t retain information as well. So by putting in a few changes of scenery and mental breaks during your studies, you will actually do better on your exams. Even when you don’t have exams breathing down your neck, one thing I wish I could tell my college self would be to appreciate the campus. I never really looked around at my surroundings. I was so caught up in my head and going from point A to point B that I never appreciated the campus I walked through multiple times a day for four years.
One of my favorite personal anecdotes of how little we notice of the world around us when we are so in our heads or distracted with other stimuli was when I lived in Oakland working at a tech company in San Francisco as a video editor. One of my best friends (still to this day) called me up as she headed over to hang out and asked me a very simple question ‘is there any street parking in front of your building?’ My mind went still. For some reason, it was as if I couldn’t even picture what existed beyond the sidewalk of the apartment I walked in and out of every day for the past year. Having been put on the spot, I made an educated guess and said ‘no’ since the majority of the main street was occupied with meter parking. Little did I know, I actually had plenty of street parking. But I had been so in my head and without a car for a year, I never truly looked around my own street I lived on. Wake Up Call, Party of One. Practice being present even when your mind wants to be elsewhere.
Mindfulness Practice #10: Create a Safe Space
Whether it’s your dorm room or apartment, create a safe space you want to come back to. This isn’t just about cleanliness, but that will help too. A clean space prevents adding more clutter to an already busy mind. I never truly understood how important it is to have a separate space for work and personal time until I realized what I was doing was one of many symptoms of depression. I went through a phase where my bed was my dinner table, work station, and sleep station. Partially out of necessity, but also out of laziness. This has a huge effect on your mental health. Separate business from pleasure by having a desk (if you can) or nook away from your bed to focus on your school work. Laptops make it easy to work from anywhere, but laying in bed while working drains you without even being aware of it.
Mindful eating also contributes to more energy and better health. When time was limited by school work and stressful deadlines, I tended to pick up fast food and other prepared foods that weren’t suited to amplify my well-being. Being mindful with your eating and where you eat is a huge step towards a balanced everyday life.
What is Mindful Listening?
Mindful listening is the act of listening while trying to prevent your mind from drifting to all the possible things you could say in response to what is being said before it is even said at all. Try saying that ten times fast. We all have been there. You respond to your friend and they look at you with a puzzled expression. “That’s not what I said at all,” they say. When I’m not mindful with my listening, I often miss the point of what the other person is saying because I’m so caught up in my head. It’s like playing a game of telephone without even knowing you are participating. A lot of unnecessary problems can arise as a byproduct of not actively listening to the people in front of us.
Mindful listening comes from a state of inner stillness that allows the other person to fully formulate a sentence and then, only then, do you let yourself process how to respond. The funny thing is when I listen mindfully I’ve found that what I want to say pops in my head the moment it needs to. Whereas when I don’t, I tend to struggle to find my words. If you watch some of Eckhart Tolle’s (Spiritual Teacher / Author of Power of Now) lectures on YouTube, you will notice when someone asks him a question he takes his time answering. At first, one might think it’s because he is older and can’t find his words. But it’s quite the opposite. He has explained that the moment before he answers he has no idea what he is going to say, but he trusts that the right words will come. Trust yourself and your words will come the moment they are meant to.
Where can I find Free Mindfulness Exercises?
Everywhere you look! Mindfulness can be accessed at any point. My flatmate put it very simply yet eloquently the other day by saying when he’s walking he tries to remind himself to actively look at his surroundings because the same street looks different every single day.
More literally, a quick Google or Youtube search can provide you with a plethora of guided meditation sessions like Headspace app, Yoga flows, breathing techniques, journals, and other wonderful tools.
How Does Wakeful Travel Incorporate Mindfulness Practices Into The Mindful Travel Journal?
The Mindful Travel Journal provides many practices for mindfulness including, but not limited to, coloring therapy, travel tips, yoga poses, gratitude practices, reflective questions, and reminders for conscious living. When I was on my last solo trip through Sweden, I wish I had a journal to organize all my thoughts and remind myself to get out of my head and just look at what's around me.
A lot of time when we travel, we forget to just enjoy what we are seeing. The Mindful Travel Journal reminds you to be grateful for the change of scenery, but also to live the moment you are in as you are living it. Memories can be fleeting and distorted over time. One of the greatest gifts of a journal is to have a detailed record of what you experienced and what you learned along the way. The Mindful Travel Journal has multiple pages for multi-purpose writing and a specific section just for lessons you may encounter on your life path.
If you’d like to read more about mindfulness-based stress reduction and other zen lifestyle techniques, be sure to read our What is Mindfulness? post on the Wakeful Travel Blog and then look up the teachings of Jon Kabat-zinn and Thich. But remember, you don’t have to be a Buddhist monk to practice mindfulness. It’s really important to choose what feels right to you, not just what is trendy.
All of these lists are ultimately leading you to the same thing: Getting you out of your own way and finding your own truth. This will be different for everyone. That’s why what I’ve written is merely what has worked for me. It doesn’t mean it will work for you too. At the end of the day, trust what feels right to you. That’s what truly matters most.