In the midst of the latest COVID-19 surge, I’d like to propose a controversial notion: The present moment is the best place to be.
While many of us are experiencing a version of personal hell that we’d love to instantaneously escape — a breakthrough infection, dodging maskless shoppers at the grocery store, being stuck online yet again, or that exhausting feeling of pandemic déjà vu — staying in the present moment can offer immense benefits when we use mindfulness to find stillness in the midst of chaos.
But how is feeling calm possible when we’re besieged by digital notifications, a crushing news cycle, an unrelenting workload, and anxiousness or sadness? While all of that is indeed overwhelming, mindfulness can gently interrupt the inertia of our feelings and thoughts. It creates space for us to recognize a racing heartbeat, worried mind, or obsessive thinking about the future, and extend kindness and compassion to ourselves. While mindfulness is no panacea for everything that ails us, and certainly no substitute for fixing broken economic systems that subject so many to hardship, it can help us feel more at ease regardless of what’s happening around us.
“It prevents us from getting lost in these spirals of thinking that can lead to more anxiety,” says Diana Winston, director of mindfulness education at the University of California Los Angeles’ Mindful Awareness Research Center. “We’re trying to train our minds to have a little bit more stability.”
People are often drawn to the promise of mindfulness but don’t know where to begin. While mindfulness apps can be helpful, you don’t need to buy or subscribe to a digital product to explore the practice. When I asked Winston to share her top mindfulness exercises for beginners, she provided me with this list:
1. Mindfulness meditation
Typically, the baseline for learning mindfulness is a meditation practice, says Winston, who is also the author of The Little Book of Being: Practices and Guidance for Uncovering Your Natural Awareness. Since mindfulness is a skill to develop over time, meditation offers a helpful routine and structure to do that.
Winston says the simplest way to start is by setting aside five minutes in a space with few or no disturbances. You can sit on a couch or chair, close your eyes if you like, and take a moment to connect with yourself by noticing your breathing. Do you feel it most in your abdomen, nose, or chest? Follow and sustain your attention on that sensation.
Each time a thought or observation diverts your attention, observe it with curiosity and openness, then return to the sensation of the breath. If following the breath is physically awkward or uncomfortable, try listening to the sounds around you as they come and go. Track the noise of a fan or airplane, for example. The same principle applies: If your attention wanders, bring it right back to the sound.
“Our thoughts can be really interesting,” says Winston, but it’s also important to cultivate an awareness of when thinking causes more psychological or emotional pain because it’s obsessive or counterproductive to relaxation.
2. Walking meditation
If seated meditation is not your thing — don’t worry, you’re not alone — Winston says you can try walking meditation. Start by picking a space in your home or outside. Then walk 10 feet and turn around. During this time, pay close attention to the changing sensations in your feet and legs. Slow down, feel every step, try to notice even tiny muscle movements. When your attention is inevitably drawn to something else, come back to those sensations. Though going for a longer walk presents more distractions, you can apply the same approach of returning to physical sensations once the mind has wandered.
Winston notes that mindfulness meditation doesn’t work for everyone. Some people experience intolerable anxiety or don’t experience the associated benefits. If that’s the case, she recommends other habits or activities that reduce distraction while helping cultivate more appreciation for and connection with the present moment. That might be a walk in nature, going for a run, or playing music.
“Where are your spaces that bring in the spirit of mindfulness…and take you out of your worries and concerns?” she says.
3. Practice STOP (Stop, take a breath, observe, proceed)
Winston uses the acronym STOP to describe a “mini-mindfulness” exercise in which you stop what you’re doing, take a breath, observe what you’re feeling, then proceed with your activity. This can be done in as little as 10 seconds, after a work meeting, following a toddler’s meltdown, in the midst of online shopping, or while navigating crowded aisles at the grocery store. The point is to notice what’s happening in your body and mind at that moment. Noticing physical cues of stress or even contentment, like an elevated heart rate or a relaxed posture, can help you develop more awareness.
4. Feel your feet on the ground
This exercise really is as simple as noticing how your feet feel on the ground. “When we’re lost in these thoughts and distractions and fears and worries, we’re lost in our heads, and we forget we have a body,” says Winston. She recommends feeling the support of the ground to enhance the connection between your mind and your body, which in turn improves your sense of awareness in the present moment.
5. Pair mindfulness with a repetitive activity
When mindfulness is a new habit, or during periods of intense stress, it’s easy to go the whole day without practicing it. That’s why Winston recommends picking a repetitive daily activity and making it a brief mindfulness exercise. That could be an activity like changing a baby’s diaper, opening the front door, or turning a car key in the ignition. Feel the connection of your hand as it turns the key and observe the accompanying sensation. Whatever you choose, pay close attention to the activity. That momentary break can bring you back into the present moment, rather than mentally checking off a to-do list or anticipating what will happen later in the day.
“It does add up, the little moments add up,” says Winston.
What if staying in the present moment is really hard?
Sometimes the present moment is terrible. Maybe you or someone you love is ill. Or perhaps you received heartbreaking news. You could be justifiably angry and need to express that. Mindfulness isn’t about pretending we’re not hurting.
On the contrary, mindfulness can help us acknowledge when we’re deep in suffering. Instead of letting impulse determine our actions, mindfulness creates a space to see challenges for what they are. In those moments, we can turn to radical acceptance, which the psychologist and meditation teacher Tara Brach describes as the courage to face and accept our reality, as it is now. We don’t condone that reality or remain passive about it, but we extend compassion to ourselves.
“The more mindful we are, the more we will start to show up for our lives.”
Winston says simple physical gestures, like putting a hand to your heart, may help, along with language like: “It’s OK, I’ll get through this.” But if that’s too sentimental for you, imagine that a loved one is sending you kindness or that your dog or cat is cuddling up next to you (if they aren’t already).
“Having some kindness for yourself in the midst of it is very key,” says Winston.
You also can — and will — resist mindfulness when you need it most. (See my own confession here.) There’s no need to punish yourself for missing opportunities to practice mindfulness. The practice isn’t about perfection.
“The more mindful we are, the more we will start to show up for our lives,” says Winston. ‘We’ll feel more gratitude and appreciation, and we’ll have these moments of peace instead of chaos and fear.”