The mindfulness exercises in this article offer various techniques and tools to help you approach the tough days with awareness, compassion, and softness.
Difficult, painful, or challenging experiences often take us out of mindfulness, and we all experience anxiety, frustration, sadness, and anger. In these moments, you have an opportunity to respond however you choose. By tending to your painful emotions with mindfulness, you learn new ways to work with them instead of pushing them away or fighting them. Over time, you’ll grow less reactive and better able to meet the hard times with care and awareness.
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Mindfulness Exercise #1: Calming the Body
TIME: 15 Minutes
When the mind grows agitated, the body often follows suit. luckily, the relationship between mind and body is a two-way street. As you calm the body, the mind will likewise relax. This mindfulness exercise is a powerful way to encourage the body to relax, and anyone can do it.
- Pick a position in which to do this exercise. You can do this exercise sitting, standing, or lying down. It can be done anywhere or anytime you need to calm down.
- Allow the eyes to close. Tune in to the sensation of breathing at the nostrils. It may help to take some deep breaths to arrive at your present time experience.
- Begin with the left arm. As you breathe in, picture the arm filling with the energy of the breath. As you breathe out, imagine pushing the breath energy out through your fingertips. Tune in to the left arm as you do this, keeping both the physical body and the visualization in your awareness. When the mind wanders off into thought, gently bring it back to the breath.
- After two or three minutes, switch to the right arm. Breathe in, filling the arm with the breath energy. Exhale and release the energy through the right fingertips. Continue with the right arm for a few minutes.
- Now, shift your awareness to the torso. Visualize filling the entire chest and abdomen with breath energy as you inhale. Push the breath down, out through the bottom of the spine and tailbone, as you exhale.
- After a few minutes, continue with each of the legs. Start with the left leg for a couple of minutes, pushing the breath out through the foot. Switch to the right leg, continuing the same practice for two or three more minutes.
- In the end, try to bring it all together. Breathe in and fill your entire body with the breath. Imagine the body being filled with the energy of the breath from head to toe. Exhaling, let the breath out through the fingertips, the base of the spine, and the feet.
Mindfulness Exercise #2: Dealing with Negativity
TIME: 10 Minutes
No matter how much you try to think positive thoughts and be optimistic about the future, unpleasant thoughts will still arise. You cannot avoid them, and there is no use in pretending they aren’t present. Your mindfulness practice can help you approach these thoughts with curiosity. As you build an understanding of your unpleasant thinking patterns, they will no longer hook you in so strongly. You can learn to allow them to be present without letting them consume you.
This mindfulness exercise is a practice in letting thoughts go so that you are better able to do it when negative thoughts arise.
- Close the eyes and tune in to the points of contact in the body. Feel yourself grounded and stable as you sit. Breathe deeply, feeling the body supported by the chair or cushion.
- Pay attention to the experience in your mind. Notice any thoughts as they arise, and try to identify any emotions that go with them. Pay special attention to negative thoughts, and note what you’re feeling or thinking. Try to avoid the word negative, and instead identify each thought as sadly, unpleasant, irritating, painful, or otherwise.
- Continue for five minutes, noting any thoughts and their accompanying feelings.
- Make impermanence the focus of this practice. See each thought and acknowledge it as it passes. Continue to note what you’re thinking about and how it feels, using noting phrases like “Coming, going” or “Arising, passing,” if you choose.
- After five minutes, return to the body for a few deep breaths. Remind yourself that thoughts come and go, and you have a choice in whether or not you believe each one.
LETTING GO OF JUDGMENT: You may notice the title of this exercise includes the word negativity, but the practice itself can include any thoughts, regardless of their tone. When you identify thoughts as negative, you immediately invite judgment and resistance to them. Instead, try noticing the feeling tone of each thought, which is often unpleasant.
This mindfulness exercise can help discourage judgments from arising about the mind.
Mindfulness Exercise #3: Stopping Rumination
TIME: 15 Minutes
A rumination is a powerful form of deluded thinking. You think about the past obsessively, even though you cannot change what happened. You stew in your resentments, replay conversations, beat yourself up, and relive an event over and over. It happens to all of us, and it can be quite painful.
Mindfulness practice helps you see those patterns, respond to them with patient understanding, and begin to detach yourself from their power. Ruminating often shows up as “background noise”—a constant stream of obsessive negativity shadowing you throughout the day.
This mindfulness exercise will help you call that inner voice into the light, dissect it, and, hopefully, diffuse some of its holds over you.
- Close the eyes and allow the body to relax. Use the breath to help encourage ease in the body. With each exhale, soften the muscles of the body a bit more. You may bring special attention to the abdomen, shoulders, and jaw.
- Look at the thoughts going through the mind. If you have been ruminating about something specific, acknowledge the event or situation about which you are thinking.
- Turn this over in the mind, examining it from a place of curiosity and interest.
- Begin cultivating equanimity, the state of balance, and nonattachment amid charged emotions. Ask yourself if you can change this situation in the past. Offer some phrases of equanimity and compassion:
I cannot change the past.
May I be at ease with the mind?
May I care about this difficulty?
5. After a few minutes of this, turn your attention toward the present. Although you cannot control the past, you do have power over your actions right now. Replace the rumination with the recognition that you can choose to act in ways that encourage happiness. Offer these phrases silently in your head:
May I act with wisdom?
May I respond with compassion?
And, may I move forward?
6. Continue the phrases for five minutes or so. When the rumination recurs, return to the phrases and your intention to move forward.
7. After finishing your period of practice, carry these phrases with you. Whenever the mind falls into the pattern of thinking about the past, offer a phrase of equanimity or wise action.
Mindfulness Exercise #4: Releasing the Pressure Valve
TIME: 10 Minutes
some emotions carry especially strong energy. The mind becomes highly active, and the body grows tense. This often happens when you are angry, anxious, or overwhelmed. In these moments, you can benefit from “letting off some steam.” You can use this mindfulness exercise to relieve pressure at the moment and bring some softness to your experience.
- Begin by closing the eyes and tuning in to the breath. Fill the chest and empty it smoothly and slowly. Take a few deep breaths like this, resting your attention on the rise and fall of the chest.
- Recognize what you are feeling. To not own it completely or allow it to consume you, try to give it a name that evokes a little love. For example, if you’re feeling angry, you may notice that “Angry Buddha” is present. Or you can give it a name like “Little Johnny.” This will help you separate yourself from the emotion while also encouraging you to deal with it from a place of sweetness.
- See if you can find a location in the body where the emotion is present. You may feel tightness in the chest, a pit in the stomach, or tension in the shoulders. Instead of trying to rid yourself of that feeling, make space for it. Picture the emotion as a dense ball in this spot and allow it to spread out and make its way through the entire body. Keep some awareness on the breath to help stabilize you during this practice.
- Finally, breathe in the essence of the emotion, and exhale its energy out. You may picture yourself allowing the emotion to gently dissipate as you breathe. Don’t try to push the feelings away; rather, gently allow them to continue. You may even try saying goodbye to Angry Buddha or Little Johnny.
Mindfulness Exercise #5: What Is This Emotion?
TIME: 10 Minutes
This exercise is an adaptation of some of the body-scanning practices in this article as well as the emotion-based exercises above. It is especially useful when you feel overwhelmed by emotion and unable to articulate what’s going on. You will need a pen and paper or a journal for this mindfulness exercise.
- Set aside 10 minutes for this practice. You can use this practice anytime during your day, but it is especially useful when you notice a strong emotion present. You might be experiencing anxiety and stress, or something pleasant, like joy or gratitude.
- With the eyes open, drop your awareness into the body. Acknowledge the points in the body where you can feel this emotion. For example, many people experience anxieties in the chest, stomach, and limbs. Anger or fear often arises in the stomach, causes tension in the shoulders, and results in a scrunched brow.
- Recognizing the emotional experience in the body, write what you feel. Jot down where you are feeling something and what it feels like. Continue alternating between observing the body and writing your observations down. Be as specific as you can.
- When you have covered the experience in the body, turn your awareness toward the mind. Look for both individual thoughts and overall mental states. A mental state may be something like anxiety, hope, or the craving to fix something. The individual thoughts may be about a person, an event, or a problem that needs solving. Again, write these down as you notice them.
- Finally, allow the eyes to close for a minute or two. Tune in to the sense of sight with closed eyes. Notice if the sight feels dark or light, if there is movement, or if the mind is visualizing something. There isn’t a correct answer. As you open your eyes and write your experience on paper, let go of any judgment.
- Read what you have written carefully and slowly. When you finish, see if you feel more clarity around your emotions.
Craving and Aversion
The mind habitually craves pleasant experiences and averts itself from unpleasant ones. In mindfulness practice, craving and aversion are seen as the two main causes of suffering. Notice when you find yourself craving more pleasant experiences or pushing away the unpleasant ones. You don’t need to change or fix anything. Notice when the mind falls into liking and disliking experiences or feelings, and include this in your notes as you write about your experience.
Mindfulness Exercise #6: Cooling the fire
TIME: 15 Minutes
Anger is an emotion that may consume you completely, causing you to act in ways that are harmful or unproductive. When anger arises, the mind can fall victim to harsh thoughts, judgments, and obsessions.
By creating space and responding to your anger with compassionate awareness, you can build resiliency and adjust your anger response. This mindfulness exercise offers a way to deal with anger when you’re right in the midst of it.
- When you notice anger, frustration, or irritation rising, allow the eyes to close. Know that you are feeling anger. Do not try to rid yourself of it, talk yourself out of it, or pretend it is not there.
- Breathe deeply into the abdomen. Feel the chest and stomach fill with air and exhale slowly. When you exhale, make an effort to empty the lungs. Breathe deeply for the first few minutes.
- Bring to mind the situation that is causing anger. When you are new to this practice, it is helpful to work with something that is mildly frustrating, as the feeling of full-on rage may be too overwhelming.
- As you tune in to the rising anger in the mind, allow yourself to feel what is happening in the body. Notice the sensations that indicate anger. You may feel tension in the shoulders, shallow breathing, a pit in the stomach, or several other changes in the body.
- Tend to each experience in the body with compassionate awareness. Recognize the tension by noting “Tension” and staying with the experience for a few breaths. Then open your awareness and see what else is occurring in the body.
- After 10 minutes of examining anger in the body, switch to awareness of the mind. Ask yourself what may be underneath the anger or causing it. There may be feelings of pain, betrayal, wanting to control something or some perceived lack of safety. If you cannot find something at first, patiently wait to see if anything comes up.
- When you do notice something underneath the anger, name it. If you find that you are hurt, note “Hurt.” Respond with a phrase of compassion, such as “May I learn to care about this pain.”
- When you finish this practice, take a break from the journal. Write what you noticed in the body, what you found underneath the anger, and how it felt to try to respond with compassion. As you continue to experience anger, you will find yourself able to see it with wisdom and patience.
Mindfulness Exercise #7: Smiling
TIME: 10 Minutes
Mindfulness practice means feeling how you feel. Instead of avoiding or shoving down pain, you accept it with care and attention. But that doesn’t mean you have to sit in pain, doing nothing. The simple practice of smiling can trigger joy in the mind and body, helping relieve some of this pain. In this mindfulness exercise, you will mindfully tune in to how it feels to bring a gentle smile across your face.
“Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile is the source of your joy.”
—THICH NHAT HANH
- Allow the eyes to close, and find a comfortable sitting posture. If you can, keep the spine straight to invite energy and alertness into the mind and body.
- Begin by bringing your attention to the sensations of the body breathing. Start with the abdomen, tuning in to the rising and falling. Let the body breathe itself; you don’t need to breathe in any certain way.
- After two minutes, move your attention to the chest. Feel the expansion and contraction here as the body continues to breathe. When you notice that the mind has wandered, simply bring the chest back into your awareness. Allow two more minutes to pass.
- Now move your attention up to the nostrils. You may feel the breath at the tip or base of the nose or on the upper lip. Pay attention to the subtle sensation of breathing here.
- Open your awareness up slightly to scan the face. From the forehead down to the chin, notice what you can physically feel. Tune in to the eyes, the mouth, the jaw, the cheeks, and anything else that grabs your attention.
- Finally, allow yourself to softly smile. You may try thinking of something that brings you joy as a form of encouragement. As you smile, notice how the face and the breath feel. Tune in to any changes in the breath, the muscles in the face, and any feelings that arise.
- You may try letting the smile go and bringing it back several times, tuning in each time to the experience in the body as you do so.
- When you complete the practice and allow the eyes to open, sustain the smile for a moment. Let the smile fade slowly on its own.
Mindfulness Exercise #8: Finger Breathing
TIME: 5 Minutes
This practice was introduced to me by my wife, Elizabeth. As an associate marriage and family therapist, she incorporates mindfulness into her work with teenagers and young adults. Although she uses this exercise with young people, I find it to be useful with people of all ages. This mindfulness technique is excellent for grounding, centering, and calming the mind.
- Incorporate this practice whenever you wish for a few moments of mindfulness. You can be driving, sitting, standing, or walking.
- Begin with the thumb at the base of the pinky finger on the same hand. With the inhale, gently move the thumb up to the tip of the pinky.
- Pause briefly between the inhale and the exhale, and softly press the tips of the thumb and pinky together.
- With the exhale, move the thumb gently back down the finger.
- Continue this practice with the other fingers. When you reach the index finger, move back down to the pinky.
- You can do this as many times as you like. Use one hand or both hands, or alternate. As you move through the fingers and breathe, rest your awareness on the synchronization of the breath and the movement in the hands.
Mindfulness Exercise #9: Extending the Exhale
TIME: 10 Minutes
This exercise also comes from Elizabeth. The way the body breathes can tell you a lot about what you are experiencing. When you’re anxious or angry, you may find the breath to be shallow and rapid. When you are resting, the breath slows down and is often deeper.
The relationship between the breath, the body, and the mind go both ways. By breathing more deeply, you are telling the nervous system you are safe. This mindfulness exercise engages the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for feelings of safety, relaxation, and ease.
- You can use this practice anytime. It works well when you are experiencing anxiety, anger, or any other emotion that increases the heart rate.
- Bring the breath into your awareness. You can choose one place in the body on which to focus. The abdomen and chest work well for this exercise.
- For the first minute or so, breathe in for three seconds and breathe out for four. Do your best to count the seconds in your head.
- Make the breath a bit longer by inhaling to a count of four and exhaling to a count of five.
- After a minute or two, continue to lengthen the breath. Breathe in for five seconds and breathe out for seven seconds. Keep your attention on the sensation in the body as you breathe.
- As the minutes pass, lengthen your inhales and exhale as much as you’re able. Don’t strain, but encourage yourself to breathe more deeply. Remember that the exhale should be longer than the inhale.
- After 10 minutes, let go of the counting and take a few deep breaths at your own pace. Return to your day without returning to shallow breathing right away.
Mindfulness Exercise #10: Caring for the difficulty
TIME: 10 Minutes
When we are faced with a difficult emotion, we often seek ways to change how we feel, trying to “outthink” the emotional experience or putting our attention elsewhere.
Attending to these moments with mindfulness requires some patience and compassion. By caring for the painful experience, you can allow yourself to feel it and see it with clarity. This mindfulness exercise will help you practice being with the difficulty rather than pushing it away.
- Start this practice when you are experiencing something difficult. It can be an emotional experience, such as anger; a mental experience, like racing thoughts; an external experience, like a stressful workday; or any other difficulty you face during your day.
- When you notice that you’re having a difficult moment, bring your awareness into the experience. Instead of pushing it away or resisting, turn toward it.
- Place your hand over your heart. This stimulates the vagus nerve, activating the parasympathetic nervous system.
- Recognizing the pain and keeping your hand on your heart, offer yourself a few phrases. These phrases help you recognize the difficulty, turn toward it, and respond with compassion:
This is a moment of pain [or discomfort, difficulty, etc.]
I cannot avoid all pain in life.
I care about this suffering.
5. Repeat these phrases to yourself to care for the difficulty. If the mind tries to fix the pain or solve the problem, just return to the phrases and self-compassion.
6. After 10 minutes, let go of the phrases and remove the hand from the chest. The difficulty may not be gone, but remember the phrases are always accessible throughout your day.
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