A lot of people don’t take the word mindfulness very seriously. They may dismiss mindfulness exercises as being too hippie dippie, or perhaps, they think mindfulness is restricted to monks meditating on a mountaintop somewhere.
However, regular people like me are turning to mindfulness as a way to cope with all the stress life throws at us. In fact, mindfulness for kids is even being taught in schools because of the proven benefits it has on our children.
This article will give you a brief introduction into mindfulness, and why everyone could benefit from being more mindful. At the end, I will include several simple mindfulness exercises that you can do alone, or with your kids and students.
New To Mindfulness?
If you are new to mindfulness and want to learn more, check out this article: “Mindfulness For Beginners: How Mindfulness Helps Us Flourish.”
You may also be interested in listening to episode 05 of my podcast where I interview mindfulness expert Dr. Christopher Willard. We take a deep dive into mindfulness for families.
What Is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness Exercises Do Stem From Religion
It is true that mindfulness gets its roots from ancient Eastern religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism, and many people practice mindfulness exercises as part of their spiritual or religious practice.
However, mindfulness isn’t exclusively a religious practice. It’s simply a strategy to calm our racing thoughts and emotions by checking in with ourselves and the world around us.
Dr. Christopher Willard, author, Harvard educator, and psychotherapist defines mindfulness as,“paying attention to the present moment with acceptance and non judgement”.
Mindfulness is “paying attention to the present moment with acceptance and non judgement.- Dr. Christopher Willard
It’s Not About Being Zen
Being mindful does not necessarily mean that you have to be completely zen about what is happening to you at that moment. We are human, and we experience emotion. Things happen that make us happy, and things happen that stress us out or make us angry.
Being mindful isn’t about viewing the world as peaches in rainbows. It’s about noticing how we are feeling, what we are thinking, and then accepting it whether good or bad.
Mindfulness gives us clarity and perspective, which allows us to make better decisions and find peace in any situation. As one mindfulness expert puts it, ‘we are mindful so that we can know what to do next.”
3 Simple Everyday Mindfulness Exercises For Parents, Teachers, and Other Grown Ups:
How To Check In
Mindfulness is about checking in with ourselves, and the easiest way to do that is through our senses. Take a few moments several times a day, and just notice some of the things you see, hear, or feel. What are the thoughts you have in your mind right now?
One of the ways, I like to check in with myself is to ask myself, how do I know I am doing what I am doing?
For instance, I am sitting at a coffee shop typing this article. How do I know? I feel my fingertips hitting the keyboard, and my back beginning to ache. I feel the cold air blowing down on me. The people around me our engaged in conversation, and I can smell the aroma of freshly burnt bread.
You can do this exercise whenever you’re doing normal activities like cooking, eating, or driving. Your morning coffee is a great way to check in with the moment.
For us parents, the morning time is often crazy, so before the chaos begins, take just a few moments to drink your coffee mindfully. Feel the warmth of the mug in your hands. Take the time to enjoy the smell of the coffee with a few deep breaths. What kinds of things are on your mind right now? Notice where your thoughts wander and where they lead you, but then bring it back to the coffee or whatever your anchor is (tea, food, cooking, walking…
This is an example of a mindfulness meditation. Everytime your mind wanders from the coffee, pay attention to where your thoughts are going and bring them back to your anchor-the coffee.
You could also incorporate mindful social media. (because we all know how we can check out when we’re scrolling through our feeds). To practice mindful social media, stop scrolling and really read a friend’s post.
Ask yourself, how does this make me feel, or take time to leave a comment to the post before moving on to the next one. Just do this 2 or 3 times as you thumb your way down the newsfeed and you’ll find that it’s much more satisfying. You’ll probably find yourself getting off your phone sooner too.
The Benefits of Mindfulness
It is pretty exciting to see real research being done proving the benefits of this ancient practice. Studies have shown that regular mindfulness exercises can help us improve our response to stress and boost happiness.
Psychotherapists are now using mindfulness exercises to help patients with things like depression, anxiety, and addiction.
The famous quote from ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu goes like this:
“If you are depressed you are living in the past.
If you are anxious you are living in the future.
If you are at peace you are living in the present.”
Mindfulness grounds you in the here and now, and regular practice reduces the depression that comes with rehashing past experiences and alleviates the anxiety that comes with worrying about the future.
The benefits of mindfulness goes beyond the mental or emotional side. It can actually improve physical health too. Mindfulness can reduce your risk of heart attack, lower blood pressure, improve sleep, and may even help relieve chronic pain and gastrointestinal issues.
Mindfulness For Kids
Kids can experience these benefits too. Schools across the country are building mindfulness exercises into the curriculum because it improves attendance, grades, and test scores.
Children and teens who practice mindfulness tend to have better focus and less anxiety and depression. For more on mindfulness for kids, check out the book, “Growing Up Mindful”.
How Can Mindfulness Help All These Very Different Things
In my humble opinion, (remember, I’m Simply a Dad) I believe one reason mindfulness is so powerful is simply because it reduces our stress. If you understand what chronic stress does to our bodies, then it’s fairly easy to see that improving our ability to handle stress leads to better overall health too.
I have lived with a terrible response to stress for decades now, and my health has suffered because of it. This is what led me to discover mindfulness in the first place, and as I am becoming more mindful, the health issues I am dealing with are improving too.
Your Brain On Mindfulness
When regularly practiced, mindfulness exercises can improve brain function. Our prefrontal cortex (PFC) will actually grow with regular mindfulness exercises. The PFC is our thinking brain. It’s what allows us to focus, suppress impulses, self regulate, and see the possibilities that the future holds.
Low activity or small PFC is linked to ADD, depression, addiction, and schizophrenia.
The Lizard Brain
The amygdala is the part of our brain associated with survival. Often called the lizard or caveman brain, this region of the brain interprets threats either real or perceived. When we’re stressed or in a state of fight or flight, the amygdala is flaring, and the thinking brain (the PFC) is shut down.
We only think of our ourselves and interpret almost everything as a threat. When the lizard brain takes over, we cannot think of the future, be rational, or show compassion and empathy.
Long term or prolonged hyperactivity of the amygdala can shrink the PFC, and is associated with aggression and anxiety.
Stress And Mindfulness
As mindfulness helps our PFC grow, it also allows our amygdala to shrink or at least chill out allowing us to be free of the chronic fight or flight state. Now, you can clearly see how mindfulness improves our ability to handle stress and thus, our overall health and happiness too.
It does take time to realize these affects. You cannot do a couple mindfulness exercises once a month and expect to see these benefits. Just as the muscles in our body need regular exercise, so does the mind. What happens when we lift weights once or twice a month, nothing right? (except maybe a little soreness)
If we want our brains to grow, then we must regularly exercise them. There are literally hundreds and thousands of ways to practice mindfulness. The following mindfulness exercises are just a small sample of the ways you can start working out your brain.
These exercises are copied (with permission) from the book “Growing Up Mindful”. Dr. Christopher Willard has many more exercises in this book that show us how to practice mindfulness for kids and adults alike.
5 Simple Mindfulness Exercises
An ancient tree, strong yet flexible is the perfect metaphor for confidence and perseverance in the face of change or challenge. Use this mindfulness exercise for adults and kids who struggle with confidence or are fearful/anxious.
Start by standing with your feet about hip width apart, arms resting at your sides. Take a few deep breaths, perhaps shrug your shoulders, and allow your eyes to close gently.
Bring your awareness to your feet. Imagine that the soles of your feet have roots reaching deep into the earth. From your feet upward, feel a sense or growing and reaching up, like a beautiful, powerful, and ancient tree. With each breath, feel more strongly rooted in the earth, and at the same time, tall and strong.
Now bring to mind a tree. Pick any tree you like maybe from your experience or imagination, or maybe one from a movie or book. A tree that changes with the seasons will work best.
Like you, this tree stands tall wherever it is rooted. It just watches as the days pass, on some days growing up toward the bright sun in the blue sky, and at night, bathing in the light of the moon. Through it all, the tree stands solid as the world around it changes.
Bends But Never Breaks
The weather may change. Drenching rain and cracking thunderstorms may soak the tree and nourish its roots. Wind may whip and the branches may bend, but they never break.
On other days, the hot sun gives energy to the leaves and branches. Through it all, the tree remains standing, reaching confidently upward.
As days and nights pass, summertime turns to fall, and the days grow shorter. The temperature drops, but the tree stands. Leaves begin to dry, changing from bright green to yellow and deeper oranges and reds. Yet the roots go deep, and the branches still reach high. Harsh cold winds may blow, the tree may sway, and leaves may blow away, but the tree holds firm. Some part deep inside remains still and calm.
Eventually, the leaves let go of the tree, and the tree lets them go. The leaves blow away, and winter surrounds the tree. The drab landscape and gray skies do not move the tree. Winter storms batter the tree with ice and snow, and branches rustle in the wind, but never break.
Gradually winter fades. As days lengthen, blue skies return, and the first green buds return to the branches. The branches sway gently against the sky in the spring breeze, but the roots hold firm. The tree reaches high into the sky relaxing in the sunlight as the leaves return.
Like the tree, you can stand tall, rooted in the face of whatever arises. Some days may be bleak and gray. Others may appear stormy and overwhelming. And yet, like the tree you can remain still at your core, bending without breaking, growing deeper down and higher up with each day that passes.
Take a few more breaths down into your roots, feeling your confidence grow, and then gradually open your eyes and bring your awareness back into the room.
The Stone In The Lake
For kids and adults who feel uncentered or unbalanced, this can be a very grounding practice.
Sit or lie down in a comfortable position.
Bring your attention to your breath. Connect with the still point where the in-breath has paused just before it rises back up as the out-breath. Do this again for the next three breaths.
If your mind wanders off during the following instructions, just follow your breath back to the still point between the breaths.
Imagine A Lake
Now imagine a beautiful lake, preferably one in a climate with four seasons. A lake you’ve visited, seen in a photo, or just one you imagine will work fine.
(*Pause and allow the participants to find their image* Perhaps ask for a silent signal such as a raised hand once they’re ready. )
On the next breath, imagine that someone has tossed a pebble into the center of the lake. Follow the stone downward as you follow your breath downward, past the surface. Follow it down to where it rests and is held at by the soft bottom of the lake. There it can remain still, and undisturbed by the lake water and the world around it.
At The Surface
At the surface, the lake reflects the world around it. On a summer’s day, the lake may reflect blue skies and bright green trees, and echo with sounds of life. Hour by hour, the world and its’ reflections may look different, as the bright hues of sunset color the surface, giving way to the reflection of the stars and the moon above. And all the while, the stone remains deep below- still quiet, and undisturbed.
The days pass- some bringing blues skies, some clouds and stomrs. The surface of the lake may ripple as rain beats down, or the wind may cause swells on the surface. Yet below the surface there is stillness.
The days shorten as summer fades and fall begnis. The reflection of green trees turns to gold, oranges, scarlet as the leaves begin to turn and the air grows colder. And yet, underneath, the stone remains still.
Even as the occasional autumn leaf drifts down to the bottom of the lake next to the stone, it remains unmoved, resting on the bottom.
Winter Sets In
The trees eventually become bare, and the sky whitens as winter sets in. Ice sheets form, snow falls. The surface of the lake turns to ice, and the ice is buried in snow. Foggy days or snowy blizzards make the lake hard to see. And yet the stone on the sandy bottom remains in its place.
As winter fades, the snow and ice melt. The cold water seeps down to the stone, but does not disturb its rest.
Trees begin to blossom and birds come back. Signs of life and color return with springtime. Through it all the stone remains still.
We Are Like The Lake
We are like the lake. The world around us changes, our own surface changes, and even our outward appearance changes. But we always have the stillness, like stone, resting within. The world may touch us, just as the cold water or leaf touches the stone, but it need not move us.
You can always connect with this stillness below the surface by touching to with the bottom of your in-breath, by feeling your feet connecting with the ground, or even by touching a stone in your pocket.
As you bring awareness back to the world around you, maintain your connection to the stillness within. And know, you can always return to it.
Many of the best mindfulness exercises are done not in stillness but in movement. Walking is a movement we do every day. By bringing deliberate attention to the experience of walking, we can transform this mundane daily activity into an effective practice for everyone.
Getting outside in nature can make this basic walking meditation even better.
The basic walking meditation is simply to notice yourself walking, making your body sensations the anchor of the meditation. As you walk, check in with your senses:
What do you see, smell, or hear.
Notice the sensation of your feet hitting the ground or the movement of your muscles.
What sounds do you hear? Are they close or far away?
I did this walking meditation and realized I needed new shoes. As I was walking, I focused on my feet hitting the ground and how it felt. Turns out, the inside of my shoes were quite worn, and I wasn’t walking properly because of it. The things you don’t notice when you are not paying attention to the here and now.
Adapting the walking meditation for kids
It may be helpful to have kids run around a bit before starting on a mindful walk. For some kids, especially younger ones, they may have trouble understanding the point of a mindful walk. An easy way to focus their attention is to have them count in rhythm with their steps. If they lose count, the return back to one making sure they do so with kindness and self acceptance.
This is a video explaining a walking meditation that may give you a better idea.
“Walk This Way”
You can also do variations or transform the basic walking meditation into a game:
Have the kids walk like they are:
- on slippery ice
- on hot sand or lava
- balancing a bucket of ice water on their head
- in low gravity
- like a lion, penguin, or other animal
- trying to be completely silent
Use your imagination to create a story to engage the kids. Why are they walking silently? Perhaps they are a group of spies, or maybe they are walking across a frozen lake with thin ice to find a treasure.
Ice Ice Baby
This can be a fun group activity. Teachers or parents with multiple kids can do them with their students or families. Of course, you could do this one on one with a child too.
We use ice cubes to explore the impermanence of mental and physical discomfort and our emotional response to it. The supplies needed are: cups, ice cubes, and napkins or towels.
Hand each participant a paper towel and a cup containing an ice cube. While you’re passing out the ice, invite them to notice the physical and emotional aspects of both waiting and curiosity.
Once everyone has an ice cube, explain that everyone will hold the ice in their hand for one minute. Then, ask them for their 1st reaction to hearing what is about to happen. Excitement? Fear? Laughter?
Instruct everyone to hold their ice cube in one hand. Tell them to just notice the sensation of holding the ice: What do you notice physically in your hand as you focus on the sensation?
Where does your mind tend to go? What emotions are you feeling? What urges are you noticing? What do you want to do, and how do you deal with that urge?
After One Minute
After one minute, or when the ice has melted, signal the end of the session and allow everyone to clean up. Then, ask for responses to the activity.
At the end, discussion questions can be used to pull out different insights, depending on the objective of the exercise. The following questions explore the ways we respond to discomfort and dislike:
How did you feel? Frustrated, excited, annoyed? What happened if you focused on the sensation, or if you focused on something else?
What were the urges? Did you want to laugh, drop the ice, or distract yourself?
How did you get through the discomfort? Did you ignore it or focus on something else?
What did you notice about how you deal with discomfort or dislike?
Would you feel or act differently if you were alone or around different people?
Was is harder or easier to hold the ice when you knew it would only be one minute? How would your feeling change if I told it you to hold it as long as possible?
The central lessons that usually emerge include recognizing and tolerating feelings and urges and seeing them as impermanent as well as recognizing reactions to discomfort. This mindfulness exercise for kids offers lessons in impermanence, as whatever we do, the ice cube will eventually melt away.
Surfing The Soundscape:
Remember, that our senses are always grounded in the present, so bringing awareness to things we see, hear, taste, touch, or smell can be a great way to teach kids (and us adults) how to be present and mindful.
This mindfulness exercise can be made longer or shorter simply by changing the number of cues you include. It may help to turn off any machines that make white noise or to crack a window.
With novices, younger kids, or those with short attention spans, try five or 10 seconds, or 3-5 breaths between cues. With older kids or longer attention spans, try 25-30 seconds.
Take a few minutes to settle in and explore the soundscape around you. With each sound that arrives, tune in to it and notice what the mind does. Perhaps, it begins to show a movie or tell a story, triggers a thought or emotion, or recalls a memory. Notice this happening, and then just return to listening.
You may tune into sounds above you…or sounds below you.
Sounds to the left or sounds to the right.
Notice sounds in front of you, and sounds behind you.
If the mind is carried off or wanders away with a sound, just gently return to listening.
Notice sounds that are near, and sounds that are far away. Sounds outside the building, and sounds inside the room.
Sounds of your own body-maybe even sounds like your thoughts, inside your own body.
Shift To More Specific Sounds
From here, you can have the participants shift to noticing different kinds of sounds.
Now, let’s explore different types of sounds we’re hearing.
Notice what it’s like to experience pleasant sounds and how the mind responds to them.
What is it like to experience unpleasant sounds? How does the mind respond to them?
Notice sounds that are constant. Sounds that are changing.
Sounds that are regular and steady. And sounds that are random.
If the mind wanders away to follow a certain sound, just return to listening.
Ending This Mindfulness Exercise
Sounding a bell is a great way to end this meditation. Before you do, say something like, “As I ring the bell, follow the sound of the bell fading out as you tune in to your other senses. When you no longer hear the bell, wiggle your toes, and bring all your senses back into the room.
This meditation turns objects of distraction, sound, into the anchor of our attention. In the process, it transforms our relationship to the distraction and helps us see firsthand that what we resist persists.
Deeper Lessons Can Be Discussed
Many mindfulness exercises for kids can lead to deeper conversations. In this exercise/meditation, the deeper lesson could be how we can transform an object of frustration into objects of attention. For example, paying attention to sounds can offer insights into physical of emotional discomfort, how to listen to feelings of depression or anxiety, or how to understand what the mind does with unpleasant or frustrating experiences.
This meditation can also lead to conversations about emotional triggers. For instance, the sound of a ticking clock could be a stressor for someone worried about time or deadlines. When we do this practice carefully, we can help children learn to deal with whatever arises from their triggers, holding the space, so they can work through them.