So many people tell me how hard practicing Catholic mindfulness appears to be before getting started. I get it, it seems that you’re too busy, you don’t have enough time, you’ll take care of yourself later, after you’ve gotten everything else done. Some areas of self-care like getting exercise or reading a good book may actually require the extra time- but Catholic mindfulness does not. There are simple ways to incorporate more awareness and connection with the present moment into the very life you are already living. The amazing part about doing this is that you’ll find that you do have more time than you thought once you are actually being mindful. Here are five simple ways to bring mindfulness practice into your life- without needing more time to do it.
1. Meal Time
When you sit down to eat (and yes, you need to sit down to eat), decide to take the time to experience the meal with all of your senses. You approach your food with a sense of smell. Instead of the brief notion of “that smells good,” or “that smells bad,” giving it a label and moving on, explore the sensation of smell and see if you can notice different variations. This is the kind of curiosity you will approach your meal with using all of your senses. Then look at the food in front of you, appreciating the different textures and colors. Notice any thoughts that come into your mind as you are observing what your meal looks like, but without getting distracted from what you are looking at in this moment, turn your gaze back to the meal. Depending on the context of the meal, you can spend more or less time with this, but as you cut up your food notice the sounds it makes. The goal here is to simply observe with curiosity, paying attention to any of the things that spark your awareness through your five senses. Ultimately bringing the food into your mouth, let it linger briefly before chewing and swallowing, so that you can explore the variations of taste, temperature, and texture. Notice the sensations that arise to swallow, and what that feels like. Pause between bites to let the experience fully into your awareness.
2. Prayer Time (Or Weekly Mass)
Prayer time requires mental focus, at least to begin. When we are filled with mental clutter, prayer can be difficult, or even impossible. Begin a moment of prayer by turning your attention to the physical sensation of breath coming into your body and then exhaling. Notice the sensation of air passing over your lips or in your nostrils. Feel the breath fill your lungs and watch and feel as your chest rises and slowly falls. Directing your attention in this way to your breath in your body draws it away from the mental clutter typically distracting you. Then, with your attention gathered together, you can focus it on the prayer are intend to pray. This is a useful technique to practice many times throughout prayer (or any activity) to keep re-anchoring your mind in the present moment, which will give you greater control over your focus and therefore make any activity you engage in (including prayer) more effective.
3. Waiting In Line At The Grocery Store
Waiting in line anywhere provides a wonderful gift to exercise the focus muscle, which is like giving your brain a massage. Instead of letting mental clutter or frantic rumination eat up your precious time, you can let this forced pause on your day reconnect you to the present moment and God’s presence. Let the stalled movement as you hit the line be your “wake up call” to begin your practice. First, notice all the sounds- there are so many. See if you can feel the physical sensation of sound waves touching your ear drums as the cashier rings people out, or others around you talk to each other. Listen for the scuffling of feet underneath the louder layers of noise. Listen for the sound of your own movement as you inch forward. Then notice the faces of people around you. Are they young or old? Happy, frustrated, or sad? Anxious and in a rush, or lazy and complacent? Without judgment, simply open your awareness to what is being communicated to your brain from these data points of space and time around you.
4. Driving In The Car
There are so many things that can happen while sitting in the car that take us out of the present moment. We can be frustrated, bored, angry, or distracted. Instead, we can use this time as another gift for our minds and brains. When I sit in the car and grip the steering wheel, I let this be my first reminder to pay attention to what is in my physical space. I feel the steering wheel with full attention, and then my seat, my legs, and my feet on the floor and pedals. I look around and see everything around me. Take note of any thoughts or feelings you have inside of you as you begin your drive. As you progress, take note of any additional thoughts and feelings that arise while you are driving. No manner of thinking will change your circumstances, except to make you distracted, which can become a liability. If traffic builds, there’s nothing you can do by frantically worrying about being late somewhere. By paying attention to your steering wheel, you convince your brain that there’s no fire to put out- that you’re safe, and you don’t initiate your flight or fight system. In this “safety” mindset, you can actually think with more clarity and creativity. This is when you might realize there’s an alternate route, or you might think to pull over to let someone know you will be late. If someone cuts you off, your anger will do nothing to change the situation. Again return your focus to your physical surrounding.
5. Before Bed
Nighttime can be especially stimulating for many people, and often anxiety-provoking. The simple idea of bedtime can cause a fear reaction, which triggers the alertness of anxiety. This is an especially important time to focus on the present moment, through the five sense of physical sense. There are some practical tips to create a conducive atmosphere for sleeping such as turning off all ambient light (even small LEDs), keeping the room a bit cool, or using a sound machine. Even when these “sleep hygiene” aids are unavailable though, a 15 minute exercise of sitting up and paying attention to your body and breath, letting your mind gravitate back towards the present moment whenever it wanders off into thoughts, can work wonders. Your thoughts will come and go just like your heart beats- there’s no way to stop your mind from creating thought. Just like your heartbeat though, those thoughts can exist without your focus shining on them. Let them be there – even the disturbing ones – without judgement or criticism. Notice them like objects in the room, but then gently redirect your attention back to the sensation of the bed underneath you or the breath within you.
Bonus – When You First Wake Up
When you wake up in the morning, you have your first moment of awareness available to you. How do you wake up? Do you wake up like your day is an accident? Do you feel energized and ready to tackle the day? In mindfulness, it doesn’t matter. All that matters is awareness. Pay curious attention to the state of mind and feeling you have in that first moment. Give yourself the break of starting off your day without judgment. Even if you hit your snooze or woke up later than you wanted to. The worst thing to do is to start off the day ruminating while still lying in bed though. As soon as you catch yourself doing this, notice the feelings you have, notice the thoughts you have, then turn your attention to the feeling in your bed. Attend to the sensation of your legs, then your chest and back, and then your arms. Lift your arms and feel what that feels like. Sit up and see what that feels like. Without rushing ahead in your mind to “getting the day started,” simply let yourself feel your body in different positions. If you have time, sit on the floor next to your bed, changing your perspective a bit and paying attention to your body and breath there. You may be inclined to call to mind gratitude for your life, pray, or give yourself a pep talk for the day. Starting off with present minded awareness will be the best thing you can do for yourself.
If you’re interested in learning more, here’s a free Ebook I wrote about Catholic Mindfulness.