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Mindfulness is a term that often goes misunderstood. When we are new to meditation and mindfulness practices, we often mistake mindfulness to be something that we might eventually achieve after months, or even years, of training. However, mindfulness is not a state reserved for only the most advanced practitioners; it is an opportunity that continually presents itself in each unfolding moment. Mindfulness is simply the art of being aware, compassionately and openheartedly, in the face of whatever is present. It can be practiced by anyone, at anytime; there are no prerequisites required.
Mindfulness has been around for centuries, with roots in various traditions and religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism. Though it has been practiced for thousands of years, it is now touching modern day societies across the globe at a rapid rate. As our world becomes more interconnected, word is spreading about these ancient techniques – and at the right time. As our world becomes busier and busier, we have never been in such dire need of these teachings.
Mindfulness is the moment-to-moment awareness of whatever our direct experience is. Our direct experience includes all of our senses, both inner and outer. As such, it encompasses thoughts and feelings that crop up in the mind, visceral bodily sensations, and sensations stirred by the environment around us. Mindfulness is a deep sense of presence and of paying attention. It is non-judgmental, compassionate observation of the present moment reality.
While it is important to understand what mindfulness is, it is equally important to address all that this practice is not. There are a few myths about mindfulness that stand in the way of our fully understanding what this term refers to. As we begin to chip away at these misconceptions, we find ourselves moving closer to a deep awareness of what this practice really offers.
In the initiatory stages of mindfulness practice, we often hit our first barrier when we realize how hard it is to relax! We might have thought that mindfulness is a gateway to relaxation, but while we might naturally learn to relax into it, mindfulness is not an active practice of relaxation itself.
Many mindfulness meditations and practices include relaxation exercises to help the mind settle down and to enhance our ability to be with whatever is present in the moment; however, relaxation is not synonymous with mindfulness. When we practice mindfulness techniques we are simply called to observe whatever is present; in any moment this might be a sense of relaxation or it might be the complete opposite. All is welcome and all is held in compassionate awareness.
Mindfulness can be a form of meditation, but it does not have to be. It is an awareness that can be practiced in any moment, whether we are sitting down to meditate, walking the dog, eating a meal, or engaging in a difficult conversation.Similarly, not all meditations are mindfulness meditations. Meditation comes in many forms, from loving-kindness meditation to Osho dynamic meditation to breathing-centered meditations. Some forms might be considered mindfulness-based but not all of them are.
In truth, mindfulness asks us to do the opposite of stopping our thoughts; mindfulness asks us to allow them. Allowing our thoughts is not the same as condoning their content or becoming swept away by them; instead, we can witness them in their simplest form without becoming enamored by their stories.
The same goes for rising emotions and bodily sensations. There is nothing beneath the lens of mindfulness that needs to be actively stopped. Many thoughts, feelings, and sensations will naturally cease to exist as we practice mindfulness, but it does not happen by force.
Mindfulness is not about seeking or striving for anything. Yes, moments of contentment or bliss may arise while we practice mindfulness techniques, but this is not the aim. Through mindfulness practice we open at the heart to whatever is present – the good, the bad, and the ugly – and gently unfastens all of these labels. Everything is welcomed.
After unraveling the myth that says mindfulness is all about finding happiness, we might start to wonder what the point of it all is. It can seem confusing since most advanced mindfulness practitioners and teachers speak about inner harmony, balance, and peace. To bridge the apparent gap we might say that while the purpose of mindfulness is not to achieve infinite happiness and peace (or in other words, not to be anywhere other than exactly where one is), it is certainly a practice that can help us to uncover the blocks that keep us from a peaceful and harmonious relationship with the world both inside and out.
In the beginning stages of practice, we might find that mindfulness techniques lead us to:
The compounding benefits of mindfulness practice are infinite, starting from these initial inquiries and insights we begin opening up to. Once mindfulness practice becomes a more permanent fixture, the areas of our lives that can be positively influenced by this practice are endless.
Some of the benefits of mindfulness, no matter what stage of the journey one is in, include:
Mindfulness helps us to compassionately explore our entire being (mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical bodies included), offering us greater insight into the internal processes that are at work. As we get to know each of these bodies a little bit better, we gain insights and tools that we can then use to enhance our overall wellbeing. So mindfulness works not only directly but also indirectly, empowering and encouraging us to take charge of our wellbeing.
As we begin our inquiry into what it means to live mindfully, we will undoubtedly come across various techniques and practices to enhance our understanding. From guided meditations and talks to worksheets and other exercises, the resources for exploring this new way of relating to oneself and the world are endless.
The following techniques are three simple mindfulness techniques you can practice on your own. They only take a few minutes but can be practiced at length as you become more comfortable with maintaining focused attention. For each of these exercises, it can be helpful to set a timer for five to ten minutes or longer to mitigate the tendency to check the clock. Once you are ready, come to a comfortable seated position with your back straight and your shoulders relaxed. You may be seated in a chair, on a meditation bench, or cross-legged on the floor. Your hands can rest in your lap or on your thighs. Gaze forward and then gently close your eyes.
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