Could I have 30 seconds of your time? OK. Now try this: Sit or stand up straight in a comfortable position. Breathe in, breathe out. Pause. One more time, this time a little slower and deeper: Breathe in, breathe out.
Do you feel a bit less stressed? Probably so. That’s because you just did a mini-meditation.
No Time, No Desire to Meditate? No Problem!
When we think of meditation, we usually think of a formal meditation, in which the meditator sits quietly for a designated amount of time, say 20-40 minutes, focusing on the breath or another object of contemplation. In mindfulness meditation, when upsetting thoughts, sensations, or feelings interfere, as they always do, experienced meditators learn to notice them, let them pass by, and then return to paying attention to the breath.
Evidence for the benefits of mindfulness meditation continues to pile up. Numerous studies suggest that meditating can improve heart health and mental health, boost immune response, lower stress, decrease blood pressure, improve healthy aging of cells, and much more. In fact, a recent study indicated that meditation could be just as beneficial as a vacation, but with longer-lasting effects.
I don’t plan to give up vacations any time soon. But the more I read such studies, the more determined I become to establish a stronger meditation practice. I want those benefits! But then I remember that I don't really like long meditations. In fact, I’ve dropped in and dropped out of the meditation habit numerous times. Luckily, I’ve learned that I can reap many of the same benefits from mini-meditations and mindfulness practices as others do from lengthy meditation sessions. You, too, may find that mini-meditations fit smoothly into your daily life.
Mini-meditations, just like their longer cousins, do involve learning how to be mindful. Mindfulness pioneer Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as "paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” In addition, mindfulness “is an open, compassionate attitude toward your inner experience,” as Psychology Today blogger Melanie Greenberg writes in The Stress-Proof Brain.
No matter how busy you are, you have time for the mini-meditations below — each takes 30 seconds or less.
12 Mindful Mini-Meditations
1. Recognize the signs of your personal stress response. Is your mind racing? Is your heart rate elevated? Are your fists clenched? Train yourself to use stress as a cue that you need to put one or more of the actions below into effect. Just noticing your stress can help you feel better, once you realize that you have a choice of what to do about it.
2. Take one or more deep breaths. You just tried this, and it worked — and it works wherever you are, whether in your cubicle at work, at a family dinner, in your car, or waiting in line. Even one deep breath lets your body know that you are turning off the “fight-or-flight” response and turning on the “rest-and-restore” system. Deep, relaxing breaths also take the edge off anxiety, slowing the heart rate and lowering blood pressure. (For tips, click here.) The decision to take a few deep breaths is a powerful way to help yourself get back in control. All the mini-meditations below will be more effective with deliberate breathing.
3. Put your emotions into words. “Stressed.” “Anxious.” “Furious.” The fascinating experiment described here shows that labeling your emotions has an immediate calming effect. Why? Putting words to feelings shifts some of your brain activity from the emotional areas to the thinking areas of your brain.
4. Open your eyes. During your mini-meditation, you can keep your eyes open. I had no idea that eyes-open meditation was even possible, let alone desirable. But Pema Chodron, in her book How to Meditate, gives instructions for mindfulness meditation that includes this tip:
"Open the eyes, because it furthers this idea of wakefulness. We are not meditating in hopes of going further into sleep, so to speak...This isn’t a transcendental type of meditation where you’re trying to go into special states of consciousness. Rather, we meditate to become completely open to life. So keeping the eyes open actually demonstrates this intention to stay with the present. It is a gesture of openness."
You may find that opening your eyes helps you open your mind. One further advantage: No one needs to know that you are secretly meditating.
5. Choose one activity to do with mindful attention. You can do any activity mindfully: Walking in nature, talking with a spouse or child, taking a shower, even sitting in a meeting — these activities can be done with deliberate intent to focus on the present moment. Start with 30 seconds of mindful attention and go from there.
6. Offer yourself some mindful self-compassion. If you notice that your mind is conjuring up scenarios that make you anxious or angry, give yourself some reassuring words. A little self-compassion goes a long way to calm an agitated spirit. “May I be kind to myself in this difficult moment” is an example of self-talk that is short and soothing.
7. Accept your thoughts as “just thoughts.” As you go through your day, you may notice that your mind often creates disturbing mental stories and scenarios. That's because, to quote Zen practitioner Jack Kornfield, “The mind has no shame.” When these odd or upsetting thoughts come up, neutralize them by telling yourself, “Just thoughts.” Then take a deep breath to counter any stress that your mental chatter may have caused and re-focus on the present moment.
8. Practice watching your thoughts pass by, as if you were watching a parade. By witnessing your thoughts and emotions, you can discover a lot about yourself — your preoccupations, needs, worries, and values, among others. Some themes will emerge over and over. You will also begin to notice that your emotions and thoughts change and dissolve over time. “This too shall pass” is a motto that accurately describes the flow of our mental activity. You don’t actually have to join the parade of thoughts; you can choose what to notice. Take what Greenberg calls “an observing stance.”
9. Smile a little bit. If you’ve ever noticed statues of the meditating Buddha, you may wonder why there is a half-smile on his face. Why is the Buddha smiling? A smile can magically relax your mind and body. (The smile has an amazing number of superpowers, as I point out here.)
10. Practice the “Notice 5 Things” exercise. If you want to tune in to your surroundings, decide to notice five interesting things you can see, hear, feel, or smell. This simple exercise will enliven any routine activity, such as a walk, by inviting you to notice what is unique, new, or previously unseen. It’s literally an eye-opener.
11. Recite a calming motto, mantra, or prayer. Write down a few perspective-giving sayings, tape them up, and read them to yourself when needed. "The Serenity Prayer" works for many people. You might also think of something a parent, friend, or colleague told you that brought you calm and reassurance.
12. Focus on gratitude. Stop your stress by taking 30 seconds to focus on a few things for which you are grateful. Noticing the positive things in your life, paired with a few deep breaths, is the perfect recipe for a calmer mind and body.
What works for you?
Some of these 12 mini-meditations require practice and persistence. But the rewards are great — less stress, more awareness of the present moment, and less self-caused mental suffering. So if you can’t, or don't want to, carve out time for formal meditation, try one of the mini-meditations above or create your own. Experiment and figure out what helps you.
If you have found a mini-meditation that works for you, please share in the comments.
Chodron, Pema (2013). How to Meditate, Boulder: Sounds True.
Greenberg, Melanie (2016). The Stress-Proof Brain, Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.
“The mind has no shame.” Quoted in Bernhard, T. (2010). How to Be Sick, Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications.
Tello, M. “Regular Meditation More Beneficial Than Vacation,” Harvard Health Blog
Harvard Family Health Guide, “Relaxation techniques: Breath control helps quell errant stress response.”
Notice Five Things. Meyers, L. “Cultivating a practice of mindfulness.” In Counseling Today, Jan 2017, Vol. 59, Number 7.
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© Meg Selig, 2017