It is no secret that stress and anxiety can wreak havoc in our lives. And these days we are all feeling more stress than usual.
The good news is that you can actually train your brain toward greater well-being through mindfulness practice. Mindfulness practice is an action you can take to elicit the state of mindfulness. Mindfulness is 1) the state of consciously and deliberately noticing what you are attending to in the present moment instead of remaining on autopilot and, 2) doing so without attaching judgment.
Learning to cultivate your attention on purpose allows you to let go of negative rumination, which is a passive dwelling upon negative thoughts and emotions—a state nicknamed the wandering mind, which often is what leads to increased levels of stress and anxiety. The efficient part of mindfulness practice is that you can practice informally—you don’t need to be sitting somewhere specific to stay nonjudgmentally present to every sensation as it unfolds.
Learning to cultivate your attention on purpose allows you to let go of negative rumination.
Informal mindfulness practice means you can rest in mindful awareness at any time of day, no matter what you're doing. Best of all, you can incorporate practice into an already established routine. There is a Zen saying that “when you drink, just drink, and when you walk, just walk.” This is the art of integrating mindful awareness into any daily activity.
For example, brushing your teeth is something you do day after day. This repetition makes it a habitual act and, therefore, commonly done on autopilot, which also makes rumination more likely. This practice of mindful toothbrushing can help you start the day with awareness, and start your journey towards finding long-term mental calm.
Set a timer for five minutes just before you prepare to brush your teeth mindfully.
1. Ground your feet on the floor, and notice how it feels to be standing after a night of sleeping or after a long day of moving around. What does the floor feel like under your feet? If you are barefoot, does the floor feel cold or warm? Just notice.
2. Notice the experience of extending your arm toward your toothbrush. What hand do you naturally and instinctually use to grab it? How does it feel in your hand? Is it light or heavy?
3. Keep looking at the toothbrush as you hold it. What color is it? Is it clean, or is there dry toothpaste on it from previous brushing? What do the bristles look like? Just notice without judgment.
4. Now bring your attention to your mouth, teeth, and tongue. What do they feel like before brushing? Describe this to yourself.
5. Turn on the water to wet your brush. What does the water look like when it ricochets off the bristles? After you’ve noticed, turn off the water with awareness.
6. Take the tube of toothpaste, and squeeze out a pea-size amount onto the bristles. Replace the cap, and put the tube down gently. What does the toothpaste look like? What color is it? What does it smell like? Notice if the toothbrush feels heavier in your hand with the toothpaste.
7. Notice as you extend your arm toward your mouth to begin brushing. What muscles do you feel working?
8. First brush the outside of the bottom teeth, then the inside.
9. Then brush the outside of the upper teeth, then the inside.
10. If at any time during the exercise your mind wanders, just bring your attention back to the task at hand, without judging your thoughts.
11. Brush your tongue, if you’d like, with the same mindful awareness you gave to your teeth. Does brushing these different textures feel differently?
12. When you are done, turn on the water, extend your arm away from your mouth, and rinse your brush. Then rinse your mouth.
13. Maintain your awareness as you return your toothbrush to its holder.
14. Notice how you feel. Without any judgment or expectations, observe how your entire mouth feels from your teeth to your lips to your tongue. Does it feel fresh? Clean? Notice and savor by lingering momentarily on the feeling, if you’d like to.
15. Notice your feet again as they are grounded on the floor, and take a diaphragmatic inhale and exhale.
16. Validate your practice: Were you able to focus on brushing your teeth with mindful awareness? Just notice, without judgment. If not, where did your thoughts go? Try to observe with compassion.
This is a first step towards mindful living and a journey towards finding joy in the present moment.
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Jennifer R. Wolkin, PhD, is a licensed clinical neuropsychologist, writer, speaker, and mental health advocate. Her book Quick Calm: Easy Meditations to Short-Circuit Stress Using Mindfulness and Neuroscience is available now. Dr. Jen founded a private practice with an appreciation that our mind, body, spirit, and brain are intimately intertwined and impacted by one another. She draws heavily on tools such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), biofeedback training, mindfulness-based techniques, and often utilizes the healing potential of the expressive arts. She is currently pursuing her master’s degree in creative writing with a poetry focus. You can find her on Instagram @drjenpsych_