Mindfulness can be described as a kind of energy that helps us be aware of what is going in within us and around us or the practice of moment to moment observation of the present moment with a non-judgmental, non-discriminative mind. While the practice is simple and clear enough, there are numerous objects that we can observe and some difficulties may come up in the process of observation. The exercises below can help us learn the art and science of mindfulness practice. They guide us towards helpful directions to place our mindfulness – for example our breathing as well as the body, feelings, mind or objects of mind. They help us widen our mindfulness practice toolkit to be able to practice in a variety of situations. They provide a useful framework for growing our mindfulness practice over the long-run. Conveniently, the first four of sixteen exercises below are focused on developing awareness of the body (and breath), the second on awareness of our feelings, the third on awareness of our mind, and last on awareness of our mind-objects.
1. Recognizing in-breath and out-breath, “Breathing in, I am aware I am breathing in.” ”Breathing out, I am aware that I am breathing out.”
We can begin the practice by simply bringing our attention to our breathing. We can do so by for instance placing our attention at the tip of our nose, the area around the nostrils and upper lip, and noticing the air going in and the air going out, identifying in-breath as in-brath and out-breath as out-breath. We can watch the air going by the tip as it goes in and then out, like a guard making a note of everyone entering and leaving a building. We can also place our attention in the abdomen area, a couple of inches below the navel. This can be a particularly helpful to focus on to quieten our mind or to slow down our thinking. Of course it may be difficult to practice mindfulness of breathing for long. Distractions may come up. If they do we simply make a note of the distraction, smile to it and come back to observing our breathing. In each moment there are many things going on, by focusing on our breathing we direct our attention to a place of groundedness and solidity. In practicing this exercise please remember to not force the breathing in any way. In practicing with a non-judgmental mind, it essential to observe things as they are and that includes our breathing.
2. Following the breath, “Breathing in a long breath, I know I am breathing in a long breathe. Breathing out, I know I am breathing out a long breath.“
This will vary depending on what we notice about our breathing – our breath can be long, short, deep, easy, uneasy, etc. We simply notice the characteristics of our breath and as mentioned in the previous instruction we observe the in and out breath from the beginning to the end. Some helpful practices to build some concentration on following our breath are to count our breath. For example, as we breathe in we can say one, and as we breathe one. We continue in this way till we get to ten and then count back towards one. Every time we lose our attention we go back to one. Another counting practice is to count the length of in-breath and out-breath. For example, breathing in we may count till 2 and breathing out we may count till 4. We simply notice how long or short our breathing is without forcing it any way.
3. Awareness of body, “Breathing in, I am aware of my body. Breathing out, I smile to my body.”
We can begin with a general awareness of the body and then bring attention to different parts of our body or the different elements with which our body is composed of or the positions of our body – whether we are sitting, walking, lying down, washing dishes, etc and the process of change occurring in our body. For instance, we can be aware of and smile to our feet, calves, knees, thighs, hips, back, stomach, small intestines, large intestines, lungs, heart, liver, spleen, kidneys, bladder, your throat, face, head, hair and brain.
The practice of recognizing and smiling is critical. It is the heart of mindfulness practice, of non-judgmentally observing what is there in the present moment and not reacting to it. By practicing being aware of our body in this way we train ourselves to observe with mindfulness our feelings, mental formations, perceptions and consciousness.
4. Calming the body, “Breathing in, I am aware of my body. Breathing out, I calm the activities of my whole body and release any tension in my body.”
In the practicing the previous three exercise we can already perhaps begin to feel calmer. This thus follows naturally from the previous exercises. We can invite all the cells in our body to participate with this exercise or we can be as specific as we want. For example, we can say, “Breathing in, I am aware of my brain. Breathing out, I calm the activities of my brain.” There is also often a lot of tension accumulated in our body that we have not embraced or noticed. In calming the releasing the accumulated tension, we allow the healing process to begin.
5. Cultivating joy, Breathing in I am aware of the energy of joy. Breathing out, I smile to the energy of joy.”
The Buddha often advised his practitioners to cultivate some strength particularly energies of joy and happiness before exploring or being with difficult feelings and emotions. Exercise five and six are here to intentionally recognize the energies of joy and happiness already present in us or nourish these energies in us. Joy and happiness may have arisen from simply practicing the previous four exercises, or we may notice the presence of these energies from other sources. This exercise is to help actively build the reservoir of solidity and stability and happiness in us.
6. Cultivating happiness, “Breathing in, I am aware of the energy of happiness in me. Breathing out, I smile to the energy of happiness.”
7. Recognizing difficult feelings, Breathing in, I am aware of a feeling present in me (pleasant, unpleasant & neutral). Breathing out, I smile to the feeling present in me.”
With the previous two exercises we looked at some of the pleasant feelings in us. This exercise allows us to explore some unpleasant or feelings that may be also present in us. This exercise is similar to the third exercise in that we have an opportunity to become aware of and smile to the wide range of feelings present in us. We give attention to the feelings that we may have neglected or been scared to look at head on but we do so with great love and non-violence towards the feelings. We can become aware of the arising, duration and fading of all pleasant, unpleasant and neutral feelings. We can also look deeply into them if we are strong enough, observing the psychological, physiological and physical roots and the impacts of our feelings on our mind, health and so on. We simply recognize and smile.
8. Calming feelings, “Breathing in, I calm my feelings. Breathing out, I calm my feelings.”
Similar to the fourth exercise, with this exercise we can begin to calm or even release our feelings. With the previous exercise we practiced being with the feeling, accepting the feeling as it is with non-violence and love. With this exercise, after a period of being with the feeling we can begin to calm it and release it. Just as a mother calms a crying baby, we can also embrace our feelings, acknowledge their presence and gently calm them.
9. “Breathing in, I am aware of my mind. Breathing out, I am aware of my mind.”
We become aware of our mind. In the Sutra on Four Establishments of Mindfulness the Buddha recommends we practice in this way:
“When his mind is desiring, the practitioner is aware, ‘My mind is desiring.’
When is mind is not desiring, he is aware, ‘My mind is not desiring.’
When his mind is hating something, he is aware, ‘My mind is hating.’ When his mind is not hating, he is aware, ‘My mind is not hating.’
When his mind is in a state of ignorance, he is aware, ‘My mind is in a state of ignorance.’ When his mind is not in a state of ignorance, he is aware, ‘My mind is not in a state of ignorance.’
When his mind is tense, he is aware, ‘My mind is tense.’ When his mind is not tense, he is aware, ‘My mind is not tense.’
When his mind is distracted, he is aware, ‘My mind is distracted. When his mind is not distracted, he is aware, ‘My mind is not distracted.’
When his mind has a wider scope, he is aware, ‘My mind has widened in scope.’ When his mind has a narrow scope, he is aware, ‘My mind has become narrow in scope.’
When his mind is capable of reaching a higher state, he is aware, ‘My mind is capable of reaching a higher state.’ When his mind is not capable of reaching a higher sate, he is aware, ‘My mind is not capable of reaching a higher state.’
When his mind is composed, he is aware, ‘My mind is composed.’ When his mind is not composed, he is aware, ‘My mind is not composed.’
When his mind is free, he is aware, ‘My mind is free.’ When his mind is not free, he is aware, ‘My mind is not free.’ ”
10. “Breathing in, I make my mind happy. Breathing out, I make my mind happy.”
Here we have an opportunity to simply recall pleasant mind-states, again to nourish the ‘wholesome’ energies in us. This could include observing current conditions in your life that area already giving you happiness or happy memories.
11. “Breathing in, I skillfully concentrate my mind. Breathing out, I skillfully concentrate my mind.”
This exercise and then next are to help us look deeply into the nature of reality to help us better understand our difficulties. There are many aspects we can concentrate our mind on such as interbeing, non-self, impermanence and compassion. More on this here.
12. “Breathing in, I skillfully liberate my mind. Breathing out, I skillfully liberate my mind.”
13. “Breathing in, I observe objects of my mind. Breathing out, I observe the objects of my mind. “
We have opportunities here to look deeply into our different notions, perceptions and concepts including:
- Enlightened person
- Living being
- Life span
- Birth, death
- Being, non-being
- Coming, going
- Sameness, otherness (superior, inferior, equality)
14. “Breathing in, I observe my attachments and unwholesome desires. Breathing out, I observe the dangers of my attachments and unwholesome desires.”
15. “Breathing in, I observe the no-birth, no-death nature of objects of mind. Breathing out, I observe the no-birth, no-death nature of objects of mind.”
16. “Breathing in, I observe letting go. Breathing out, I observe letting go.”
Based on the Sutra on Full Awareness of Breathing an Sutra on Four Establishments of Mindfulness. For a more in depth guide please refer to the following texts:
Thich Nhat Hanh, Breathe! You are alive: Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing, (Berkeley, Calif.: Parallax Press, 1988).
Thich Nhat Hanh, Transformation & Healing: Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness, (Berkeley, Calif.: Parallax Press, 1990).