Mindfulness has become a kind of buzzword lately. I hear people talking about mindful this and mindfulness that. It's kind of the kabbalah bracelet of the 2020s. Everybody's doing it. But actually, everyone's not doing it or they're trying to do it but coming up short.
So first thing's first. Let's talk about what mindfulness even is. Then we'll dig into how we can incorporate mindfulness activities into our daily routines.
Mindfulness (What Is It?)
Mindfulness started being mindfulness in the 1970s when teachers like Thich Nhat Hahn started introducing Buddhist and and Hindu principles to a Western audience.
Mindfulness is a gentle moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, sensations, and environment.
Buddhist and Hindu traditions both emphasize and encourage this kind of self-reflection and awareness. But it wasn't until teachers like Thich Nhat Hahn popularized these ideas in the West that mindfulness began transforming into the self-help idea it is today.
When scientific studies confirmed that mindfulness has positive impacts on depression, anxiety, and chronic pain, its popularity really took off. Most of these studies are on a type of mindfulness called mindfulness meditation, which is still the most traditional route for you to experience some of its benefits.
Traditional Mindfulness Activities
There are many types of meditation, but the common idea in most is that you find a place to quiet your mind and monitor your thoughts. Some people think that meditation is trying to force yourself not to have thoughts and to allow your mind to go blank, but in reality, it's more about monitoring your thoughts without judgment and just letting them pass. As you practice mindful meditation, you will become more and more able to let your thoughts pass, and eventually, you'll have less and less unwanted thoughts.
One key to most mindfulness practices is to relax the body and focus on your breathing. Another element is monitoring your bodily sensations and allowing them to pass, similar to how you monitor and let thoughts pass.
I like to visualize my thoughts and bodily sensations as clouds. So instead of getting frustrated that I'm overthinking or having too many unwanted thoughts, I just watch them like clouds rolling by--no judgment, no frustration, no big deal.
I'm also a big fan of meditation apps. These apps guide you through breathing and monitoring your thoughts, and they help you track how often you're meditating and let you know when it's time to end your session.
They're not paying me any money, but I personally use headspace and have had more success with maintaining my meditation practice when I'm using their app.
Yoga also incorporates mindfulness. It's a great way to become more aware of your bodily sensations as you increase flexibility. Yoga also includes breathing exercises and a focus on becoming more aware and in control of your thoughts, which, as I've stated, are key components of mindfulness.
Other Fun Ways to Practice Mindfulness
But meditation and yoga don't have a monopoly on mindfulness. There's another way.
In 2013, I published the academic book Theatrical Improvisation, Consciousness, and Cognition. This book was the first academic book to connect theatrical improvisation and cognitive neuroscience/psychology. The main takeaway of my research was the improv helps shift our focus, and this shift helps us be more mindful and less in our heads. Unfortunately, I was not experiencing any of these benefits when I stepped off the improv stage.
When I'm really in my head and I'm overthinking, I don't notice anything...If I just shift and figure out a way to notice things around me, I can't overthink. You can't do the two things at once, and that's the main...thesis for the whole book. If we can find fun ways to shift our focus, we can snap out of these bad habits like overthinking or negativity.
So I made it my life's mission to take everything I knew about improv and transfer it to our everyday lives. I created games and exercises that you can do throughout your daily routine to become more mindful, less stressed, and more positive and collaborative.
You can find 120 of these improv-inspired exercises in my new book Play Your Way Sane: 120 Improv-Inspired Exercises to Help You Calm Down, Stop Spiraling, and Embrace Uncertainty. But here are the cliff's notes for how to use games to become more mindful--more aware of your thoughts, feelings, sensations, and environment.
One way to practice mindfulness when you're off the yoga mat or meditation cushion is to make it a game. My background is as an improv researcher, so I mainly pull from improv exercises when I'm developing mindfulness games.
These mindfulness games have the added bonus of being fun. For example, instead of take a break and meditating, I can become more mindful by pointing to object I walk past and then shouting out what they are, "Tree, house, grass, road!" By making mindfulness less somber and serious, I'm much more likely to do it much more often.
Mindfulness games are also creative. One example is an extension of the above exercise, but instead of calling things the correct name, you call them the wrong name. Let's say I see a tree, house, yard, and road. I might shout out, "Hat, yarn, ball, coat!" The idea isn't to be clever or funny. It's just to get your brain focused on what's going on around you. The wrong name shouting helps your brain reset. We think so literally so often, it's nice to have a bit of a break. Plus, it's a great creativity booster.
I love being able to play mindfulness games as I go about my day.
Play Throughout Your Day
The other great thing about mindfulness exercises and games is that you can play them all day long.
Let's go through a day in the life to see how you might use mindfulness exercises and games to get and stay more mindful throughout your day.
Wake Up with an Affirmation
Do you remember that SNL sketch "Daily Affirmations with Stuart Smalley?" That means you're my generation or older and therefore my people, but it also means you know what it is to pump yourself up each morning.
Tune into your self-talk first thing in the morning and then make sure you flip the script to a more positive tone by telling yourself all the things that make you rock.
Turn Your Commute into a Nature Hike
Instead of turning on your walkman (this is a joke...I know they've since invented the discman) and keeping your head down on your way to work, why not get more mindful by turning it into a nature hike? Pretend you're a park ranger or great explorer and look all around at the magic of your environment.
A simple change in perception can go a long way in helping you become more aware of your surroundings and your relationship to them.
Say Yes at Your Morning Meeting
Instead of starting your workday with conflict, make saying yes a mindfulness game. Go along with people's ideas and try to make them better instead of always poo pooing everything.
Monitoring when you say yes and why you say no are great mindfulness tools. You need to know what your gut reactions are before you can start working to improve them.
Shut Your Talk Hole and Listen
Instead of interrupting people and only half listening, try shutting up. Turn listening into a mindfulness game by playing what I call Breathing Not Bantering. All you have to do is breathe after someone says something to you. Like a full on inhale and exhale.
We tend to cut people off and finish their sentences, which is...not great listening. So make it your job to become more mindful of your listening.
Call It Like You Sees It on the Drive Home
Now that your headed home from work, you could just pop those headphones back in and shut out the world with the soothing sounds of your walkman. Or you could choose mindfulness once again.
I play a game I call Call It Like You Sees It when I want to stop overthinking and become more mindful of my surroundings. All you have to so is point to things and call them whatever they are. If you see a tree, a car, and a sign, point to them and say, "Tree, car, sign." That's it. That's the whole game.
This will stop you from zoning out and help get your mind back to the here and now.
Even Falling Asleep Can Be a Mindfulness Game
Now let's say you're trying to fall asleep, but your mind is racing. Instead of fighting with yourself about how you need to go to sleep...like right now, just play a mindfulness game I call Nope, Try Something Else.
This game follows the same principles as meditation. When you think something you don't want to be thinking (let's say "I need to go to sleep right now!"), just tell yourself you have to try out a new thought. Then a new thought will pop in your head, so repeat, "Nope, trying something else." You just keep saying nope to your thoughts and letting a new one pop into your head.
It's the same idea as meditation. We're not struggling with our thoughts or judging ourselves for having them. We're thinking. We're saying no to the thought, and then we're seeing which new thought comes next.
Mindfulness is about curiosity. Be fascinated with what you're thinking, feeling, and experiencing.
Challenge Yourself to be Mindful
Another way to practice mindfulness throughout your day is to turn it into a challenge. I've created a Mindfulness Challenge that you can try, but basically you just list a handful of mindfulness exercises and do each one for a set number of days. After a few weeks of this, I noticed that I was much more centered and in the moment, and it truly only took a few minutes a day.
You could use this same challenge-strategy with traditional meditation or yoga. By turning it into a challenge, you raise the stakes and make it more likely you'll stick with it and see it through to the end.
Make It Your One and Only Resolution
Mindfulness matters. If we were all more mindful, there would certainly be less conflict and heartache in the world. So you may want to think about making mindfulness your one and only New Year's resolution. The benefit of becoming aware of your thoughts and feelings is that this will then allow you to add other positive habits to your life...because you'll be more aware of when you're feeling good and why. Then you'll want to do more things to keep feeling better and better. Mindfulness is a keystone habit, which just means a big habit that leads to other positive habits.
- Check out some games to try if you're considering mindfulness as your resolution.
Final Thoughts on Mindfulness
If mindfulness is being aware of your thoughts, feelings, sensations, and environment, there's no reason we have to only practice it on the yoga mat or the meditation pillow.
If we get creative, there are tons of opportunities to practice mindfulness all day long. My preference is to turn it into a game because it keeps me coming back for more. I also love that mindfulness games don't take an hour. I can play a quick game here for a few minutes and another there for a minute. I also love how games make mindfulness less serious and new age. I'm not super serious or new age, so when I turn mindfulness into a game, I feel like I'm reclaiming it somehow--doing it my way, a way that feels more authentic and fun.
But no matter how you're practicing it, the point remains: mindfulness is like a superpower. When you're aware of your thoughts, feelings, sensations, and environment, you're much more likely to be able to maneuver through that environment in a positive and productive way. I mean, the first step is always knowing what you're dealing with, and mindfulness is the path to become aware of exactly that.