Sometimes we can overthink what a mindfulness practice needs to be, and take it too seriously. In some ways, meditations can become overwhelming or another thing to tackle on our to-do list. But really, mindfulness in practice does not need to be complicated or rigid. There are plenty of ways to practice informal mindfulness.
In fact, it doesn’t even need to involve meditation. It can be the very simple process of actively noticing new things. This is how professor of psychology at Harvard University Ellen Langer describes mindfulness. Langer began research in this space decades ago – long before mindfulness was trendy, cool, or on the cover of Time magazine. She claims, “By actively attending [and] noticing new things … the familiar becomes interesting again and we become more aware of the inherent uncertainty, and that promotes even more mindfulness.”
And she’s right – try it for a day and you’ll notice that when you actively notice new things, it puts you smack in the middle of the present moment and makes you more sensitive to context, which makes you more mindful. You discover so much more about yourself, others, and the world around you when you are intentional about this process of actively noticing new things, as opposed to moving on auto-pilot, mindlessly, which is how we often spend our time.
In fact, Langer, who is sometimes referred to as “The Mother of Mindfulness,” doesn’t even meditate. She said, “I did research on meditation 20, 30 years ago. No, this is a different way of getting, basically, to the same place. Meditation is a tool that sets you up for post-meditative mindfulness. My approach is, in some ways, more direct.” Langer invites you to get curious about all of the familiar and unfamiliar things you come across in life to practice mindfulness.
Make no assumption; this practice is not easy in the fast-paced lives we lead. As humans, most of us are mindless most of the time. It’s not our fault, most of us have been trained to be mindless instead of mindful for most of our lives. The problem is that we are unaware when we are in a mindless mode, and this lack of awareness makes it difficult to self-correct.
But there is a way to bring a mindful watch to everything you do; it just requires attention and focus, and the payoff is huge. In her years or research, Langer found mindlessness resulted in stress and burnout, while mindfulness resulted in creativity, productivity, attention, and stronger health. And we are always either in the mode of being mindless or being mindful – you can’t be both at the same time. Which one will you choose?
Here is one way to practice mindfulness in the way Langer describes it, as the simple process of actively noticing new things.
Simple Practice: Tune Into Your Senses
This practice is meant to help you warm up your senses by tuning into one sense at a time: sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste. Have the goal of being curious and learning new things about the space you’re in. This exercise will only take you two or three minutes.
- Take a comfortable seat and close your eyes. Take a few deep breaths in and out through your nose.
- Can you notice 3 separate sounds that you didn’t notice before?
- Shift your attention to the sense of smell. Inhale and see if you can notice 3 distinct smells you hadn’t noticed before.
- Now shift your attention to your sense of touch. Can you notice 3 things that you can feel that you didn’t notice before? Perhaps the air on your face, the clothes on your body…
- And now notice the taste in your mouth. What are 3 tastes you can notice? Check in with the lips, the area around the lips, and each part of your mouth – taste buds in different areas of the mouth experience taste differently.
- Now silently open your eyes and notice 3 things you hadn’t seen before now. Quietly with focused attention, identifying something new you haven’t noticed before.
- Is there anything else you can notice about where you are? Spend another moment paying attention to the sounds, sights, and energy all around you.
When you focus your attention in this way, it engages you and enlivens your senses. You can try elements of this exercise – actively notice new things – whether you are eating, driving, showering, in a meeting, or anywhere in life.
Learn more about Ellen Langer and read the 25th Anniversary Edition of her book, Mindfulness. Also, listen to Krista Tippet interviewing Ellen Langer on her podcast On Being: Science of Mindlessness and Mindfulness.