Turning Straw Into Gold

Life through a Buddhist lens

Five Minutes of Mindfulness Magic

Here's a sure-fire way to overcome boredom and restlessness.

I once read that the most common movie line is, "Let's get outta here." That describes exactly how I felt a few weeks ago as I sat in the lounge chair in my backyard. I was suddenly overcome with restlessness and felt too distracted to focus on anything. But I didn't have the option to "get outta here." 

As the restlessness turned to irritation, I thought maybe I should try to meditate, but the setting wasn't right. So I made up a practice on the spot. It worked so well that I've been doing it every day. I offer it to you as five minutes of mindfulness magic. Try it the next time you get that "gotta get outta here" feeling.

The basic practice is to move your attention from one sensory input to the next, taking 15 breaths during each part of the exercise. You can take more or fewer breaths—15 felt right to me. (If you don't have the use of one of the senses I cover here, just substitute it for another—e.g., the sense of smell.) Breathe from your abdomen and, on the out-breath, silently count the number of the breath you're on. You can try this anywhere because, to others, you're just sitting or standing in an ordinary way. I've done it as a passenger in a car, in a doctor's waiting room, and lying on my bed. Here's the exercise:

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1. Rest your attention on everything you see. You can hold your head still or gently move it to look around. Take the world in with your eyes. At first, you'll notice obvious things (for me, it was the oleander bushes and the fig tree in our yard). Soon, you'll begin to notice details you didn't realize were there (the slight movement of the leaves in the breeze, tiny bugs floating in air). If your mind wanders off into thoughts, when you notice it's happened, return to taking in all that you see—shapes, colors, movements. 

2. Now do the same with hearing. You can close your eyes if you're in a place where that would be appropriate. Take in all that you hear. When I did this in my yard, I was amazed at what I was hearing by the time I got to the 15th breath. I never realized there were so many sounds in what is considered to be a very quiet neighborhood! The Buddha said, "In hearing, only hearing." That's the essence of this part of the exercise.

3. With your eyes opened or closed, move to bodily sensations. The first thing I noticed was the sensation of air coming in and going out of my nostrils. Then I became aware of the strong heart palpitations that I live with everyday due to my illness. Then I felt the sensation of my jaw being clenched, so I relaxed it (that felt good). Then I felt pain in my shoulders. Instead of recoiling from the sensation, I relaxed into it, making sure I wasn't tightening secondary muscles around the point of pain. I just sat with the discomfort without adding stressful thoughts to it about how long it would last or what the sensation might mean.  

Then I moved on to the sensation in my body at each spot where it touched the lounger and the sensation of my hands resting on my thighs. Suddenly I realized I could feel the slightest breeze on my face, something I was completely unaware of before I started this exercise. This was getting interesting! Even a tiny itch in my eye had its charm.

4. Now, open your eyes if they've been closed and, for 15 breaths, take it all in: sights, sounds, bodily sensations, any tastes in your mouth or odors you might smell, any thoughts or emotions arising in the mind. I found that the previous three exercises prepared me for being fully present with all my experience.

When I was done with this four-part exercise, I checked out how I was doing. Was I still irritated? No. Was I still restless? No. Was I still distracted? No. Did I still want to "get outta here"? No!

In fact, I felt simultaneously relaxed and invigorated. I hope you'll try this. I timed the exercise which is why I call it "Five Minutes of Mindfulness Magic."

Note: "Five-Minute Mindfulness" is expanded on in Chapter 9 of my book, How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow

You might also enjoy my Psychology Today piece: 6 Benefits of Practicing Mindfulness Outside of Meditation.

© 2011 Toni Bernhard www.tonibernhard.com

Thank you for reading my work. My most recent book is titled How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow.

I'm also the author of the award-winning How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and their Caregivers

Using the envelope icon, you can email this piece to others. You can also subscribe to my blog (see the choices below my picture). I’m active on FacebookPinterest, and (to a lesser extent) Twitter.

Toni Bernhard, J.D., is a former law professor at University of California at Davis. She wrote the award-winning How to Be Sick and, recently, How to Wake Up.

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