Meditation is a simple, effortless process for some—but can feel like a daunting challenge for others. With the well-touted physical and emotional benefits of meditation, it’s a shame that so many people are daunted by it.
The good news is that there are many ways to cultivate mindfulness that don’t involve a formal, seated meditation practice. If you’re someone who is longing for the benefits, but can’t get over the hump of beginning a practice, start with some alternative activities. While the proven benefits have been researched and studied with a more formal seated meditation practice, it doesn’t mean that focusing your attention in other ways can’t help you relax your body and clear your mind.
Here are some non-traditional ideas to practice mindfulness.
Playing music has always been my go-to creative outlet. I play guitar and sing, but over the years I’ve dabbled with many different instruments and they’ve all offered me elements of mindfulness. I would say that if you aren’t serious or talented with an instrument, it would serve you even better as a mindfulness exercise, because you have no objective to improve. Your only goal is to play.
If you already play an instrument, you know what to do: just spend some time with it and zone everything else out. Make this a session in mindfulness, rather than in getting good at a song or writing something new that others would enjoy. In other words, don’t try to perfect your Canon in D, but rather play something you already know and don’t have to think about, or just mess around with simple scales and progressions.
If you don’t already play an instrument, pick up one of these instruments that require little to no knowledge to begin messing around:
- Hand drum or Djembe
- Singing Bowl
- Your voice. (There’s a reason why singing in the shower is so fun — it feels good.)
My personal favorite instrument that requires zero talent is the Kalimba, an African instrument typically made out of a coconut shell and 5-8 metal keys. It becomes meditative and there is no way you can make a mistake. Ukuleles are also fun instruments to pick up even if you have no experience with music. They only have four strings, and the strings tend to be softer since they’re nylon, and so easier on your fingers. Learn a couple of strumming patterns and a few chords and you’ll be well on your way to enjoying the mini string instrument.
Remember, the purpose isn’t to wow an audience — it’s to focus your attention on creating rhythm, melody, and sound.
Go for a Hike
Nature and exercise are both prescriptions for improved health and well-being. Henry David Thoreau made a good point when he said, “I took a walk in the woods and came out taller than the trees.” It’s because nature feels good. It nourishes the body, mind, and spirit. Combine them and what you get is time well spent. Countless poems have been written and studies have been published about the benefits of nature and the sheer awe and magic that it can offer.
Find a hike near you. Try searching AllTrails to find a new route. As you hike, bring awareness to your breath as you move. Notice the sensations in your body, observe how your heart rate increases on the hills, and watch your calves engage as you descend.
Notice every detail of your surroundings: the colors, the plants and fauna, any animals you pass, the rhythm and pace of your movements, and your feet as they hit the ground in a cyclical manner.
Take it all in without distraction.
Watch a Sunset
For me, there is not a more present feeling than watching the sun say goodbye for the day. Aside from its natural beauty, the sunset is also a brilliant reminder that each and every day offers us a new end and a new beginning.
Get lost in the vibrant colors and spirit of the sunset, and take Mother Nature’s advice that the rest of your to-do list can wait until morning.
Work in the Garden
While it would be easy to blast music while you plant your petunias, try to cultivate a quiet, mindful state of being as you work in the garden. My mom doesn’t meditate, but she is constantly pulling weeds, strategizing on the best seasonal vegetable to plant, and nurturing her eggplant, Swiss chard, and cilantro. This is her mindfulness practice.
If you can keep the music off and your mind focused on paying attention to what you’re doing in the garden — the sensations of your hands in the dirt, the breeze across your face, the smell of the incoming basil, and your breath as you move, you can turn your gardening session into a mindfulness practice.
Put on some trans or ambient music without words, close your eyes, and allow your body to move freely.
Try using an open space like the yard, living room, or basement, and dance like no one’s watching because, well, no one’s watching. And it feels good.
Many people find their way to meditation and mindfulness through yoga because it’s easier to focus on the physical body first, and use that focus to tame your monkey mind. Plus, it can be a great way to get some exercise, stretch your body, and break a sweat.
Allow your body and breath to lead your mind as you move from pose to pose.
Build a Campfire
Head to the beach, a park, a campground, or buy a backyard fire pit to build your fire. Once built, take a seat close to the fire (but not dangerously close,) and begin to watch the flames and observe the fire through all of your senses.
- Watch: As you stare into the fire, observe the colors, movement, direction, and dance of the flames.
- Listen: Notice the crackling wood, the roaring flames, and the wind interacting with your fire.
- Feel: Sense the heat on your face, your arms, and your chest. Notice that the body parts closest to the fire (often your knees, nose, and hands) are the warmest. If it’s cold out, notice the contrast of your backside and front, as the fire heats you up from front to back.
Allow the whole experience to draw you in as you tune into your senses and away from your lingering thoughts.
There’s a new craze in the world of mindfulness called coloring for adults. They market themselves as providing hours of relaxation, stress relief, creative expression, and a mindful state of being. Plus, they sound fun. While I haven’t tried it yet, I just ordered this adult coloring book and look forward to its arrival.
Baking requires focus. You have to follow the directions to a T, otherwise you could end up with a hard, burnt, inedible object when your family is eagerly awaiting banana bread.
Choose a recipe that you’ve never tried before and one you may consider complicated, make sure your ingredients are out on the kitchen table, (and make sure you have them ALL, otherwise your exercise in mindful baking could quickly turn frazzled,) and begin.
As you follow the steps, pay attention to your breath and the task at-hand. When you mix the batter, turn the spoon or whisk slowly and mindfully, taking in the smells and changes in texture along the way. As you spread the batter into the pan, take extra care in making sure it’s even and smooth.
When your treat is ready, follow the steps at the end of this post to eat mindfully, enjoying every morsel of your masterpiece.
Write a Note
Choose someone in your life you appreciate and write them a handwritten note. Perhaps it’s to thank them for something they did, the type of person they are, or maybe it’s for no reason at all except to tell them the things you admire about them.
Before you begin writing, close your eyes and picture an image of this person in the center of your mind. Take a few breaths. Notice what feelings come up when you have this person at the center of your mind.
Now jot down a list of 5-10 things about this person — adjectives that highlight their talents, words that describe how they make you feel or how they’ve helped you, or anything else that would make them feel good.
Now write them a note using your list as fuel. If you want to get extra fancy, you can include a small gift of gratitude and hand deliver it. Otherwise, you can send it in the mail. Cultivating awareness and gratitude can be helpful tools in supporting your mindfulness practice. Plus, it will doubtlessly make the day of this special person in your life.