For many, the mention of meditation and mindfulness practice conjures up images of long periods of complete physical stillness alongside a tranquil mind. It is an image that is enough to have many people turning away from these sorts of practice before even testing their waters.
While advanced meditators do quite often sit nearly motionless for lengthy periods of time, becoming caught up in any preconceived notion of how long one “should” meditate for detracts from the real potential of any mindfulness practice.
Since mindfulness is solely about moment-to-moment awareness, with no reference to how long this awareness is held, the length of time we practice for during any given session is of lesser importance than the simple act of showing up. What matters in mindfulness practice is consistency, rather than duration.
Beginning the journey into mindfulness by exploring short practices (or, by expanding a well-developed practice by incorporating additional mini mindfulness sessions) is just as worthy an endeavour as longer practices are.
Even though longer mindfulness meditations do provide more time for insights to arise and deeper levels of inner tranquility to be reached, the purpose of mindfulness is not to “get” anywhere. Because of that, short meditations can be just as powerful as longer practices since deep awareness can be reached in any given moment. It is not necessary to sit for one hour in order to reach some “other” state. Mindfulness practice is all about being right here, and time is not a factor when we delve into the present moment.
Short practices offer considerable benefits for beginners and advanced students alike. In contrast to longer practices, short meditations can:
For most of us in this modern age, life gets busy. Committing to 20-minutes of mindfulness meditation or more per day feels unreachable to many. Though there is usually more time we can set aside in a day than we think, short practices help us to commit more intently to whatever mindfulness exercises we wish to explore. This commitment improves our consistency, and in the end, short, consistent practices have the capacity to shift us more deeply than longer, sporadic practices.
Once we start to understand that mindfulness and meditation does not have to resemble complete physical stillness for any lengthy period of time (though it can), we start to open ourselves up to more approachable mindfulness practices that are just as valid.
Our understanding of mindfulness begins to broaden as we come to realize that this practice can be a simple act of taking five minutes “out” when we feel emotions beginning to rise or when we feel the breath becoming heavy in the chest. This compassionate, non-judgmental view is the foundation of mindfulness.
As we start to practice mindfulness for even short periods of time, we gain a more intuitive understanding of what it means to be mindful. Preconceived notions about who mindfulness is for begin to lessen as we open up to a more human understanding of how mindfulness can impact each of us. This, too, helps to reaffirm the compassionate, non-judgmental framework that mindfulness practice is based upon.
As we get more accustomed to these short practices, we start to realize how we can incorporate them into our daily lives in just about any situation. Even if we have only 60 seconds before giving a speech or having a difficult conversation, short practices warm us up to the knowledge that even just a few deep breath cycles or similar mindfulness practice is enough to draw us away from an anxious mind and back into the peace of the present moment.
Research has shown that short meditation practices (typically defined as 15-minute sessions) have many of the same benefits as longer practices. Various studies have found that even short practices can help to improve sleep, boost heart health, aid gastrointestinal upset, lower anxiety, improve memory, and reduce stress.
Short meditations are the perfect starting point for developing a deeper meditation or mindfulness practice. Whether using free online resources or exploring meditation with one’s own capacity for inner silence, short meditations go a long way.
In even just five minutes, we can guide ourselves into a deep exploration of the present moment. There are a variety of online resources to help facilitate this process, or we can practice the following techniques at any point during the day. All that is required is an openness to the present moment and just a handful of minutes.
The breath is one of the most common anchors used in mindfulness practices and meditation. By drawing our awareness to the movement of this life force as it enters and exits the physical body, we begin to release the mind and sink more deeply into the present moment. When we are caught up in the mind, the breath tends to move only shallowly into the chest. When we breathe this way, both body and mind enter into a state we often call our ‘fight-or-flight’ response. The body begins to secrete more stress hormones and we start to experience anxiety and stress throughout our entire being.
The counter state to this is often called our ‘rest and digest’ mechanism. This half of the autonomic nervous system is responsible for feelings of peace and calm, and can be activated by breathing deeply into the belly.
To practice belly breathing, come to a comfortable seated position and take a few moments to simply observe the breath exactly as it is without trying to change it in anyway. After one to two minutes of this non-judgmental observation, draw your awareness to the stomach. Observe how the breath begins to naturally flow further into the lungs, causing the stomach to rise and fall with each cycle. Release any constriction in the belly as you continue to breathe deeply.
Continue to observe this natural rhythm. Whenever the mind wanders, simply use your breath as an anchor to guide you back into the present moment. Continue this mindful awareness of your breath for five minutes.
Another simple mindfulness technique that can be practiced in a matter of minutes is a simple scan of all bodily senses. Begin by coming into a comfortable lying down or seated position and close your eyes. First, tune into your physical body by noting your sense of touch. Notice all areas where the body is in contact with the physical earth. Spend 30 to 60 seconds noticing whatever physical sensations arise before switching focus and opening to your sense of hearing. Shift your attention to the sounds around you as you allow both subtle and not-so-subtle vibrations to filter through your ears and then dissipate as swiftly as they came.
Continue the same process of open observation with your sense of smell and then your sense of taste. Do you notice any aromas in the air around you? Are there any observable tastes in your mouth in this moment? Spend 30 to 60 seconds on each of these senses and then, once you are ready, very slowly open your eyes, observing the gentle transition between darkness to light as your eyes just barely crack open. Once you have fully opened your eyes, take some time to notice the environment around, observing everything in your field of vision without labelling or judging. Practice your capacity to simply notice without becoming lost in thought, memory, or story.
Taking a few moments to observe your inner landscape mindfully when emotions arise is a practical application of mindfulness that can help us to balance and regulate challenging emotions. Whether you are on your own or engaged in conflict with a partner or loved one, practice taking a step away from the situation mindfully to dive more deeply into whatever is moving through you.
Close your eyes and come to a comfortable seated position with your back straight and shoulders relaxed. Scan the body by simply becoming more aware of any sensations that might be observable. Notice the thoughts that arise alongside the emotion and see if you can release them before they carry you off into stories about right- or wrongdoing. Open up to the emotion you are experiencing with a sense of curiosity and from a place of compassion. Spend five minutes or so consciously allowing this experience to be exactly as it is as you open yourself up to these feelings in a new way.
It cannot be overstated that there are no rules as to how long your meditation or mindfulness practice should be. Start small, choosing a length of time you can comfortably commit to on a daily basis. Consistency is far more impactful than duration. Start where you are and allow your practice to evolve naturally.
Set a goal for yourself to help solidify your practice as a routine or ritual. For instance, commit to 5 minutes of mindful practice every morning for 30 days in a row. Plan for days when life gets in the way by putting some “alternative” terms in place. For instance, if you miss a day for whatever reason, the personal intention you set for yourself might state that if you miss a day, you will meditate or practice for 10 minutes the following day. This will help you to get back on track if you skip a beat while also helping to promote self-compassion and unconditional acceptance for whatever your personal journey looks like.
Preconceived notions about what mindfulness is supposed to look like can be pretty sticky. It is not uncommon that when we begin building our mindfulness practice, the mind intervenes with ‘should’s and ‘should not’s. Be aware of the potential for this type of self-talk and kindly guide these thoughts down to the heart space if or when they arise. Maintaining self-compassion is a cornerstone of mindfulness practice.
The face of mindfulness practice varies from person to person, but it all boils down to the same thing: presence. We can practice bringing greater presence into our daily lives by making even mini meditations and mindfulness practices a priority. Never underestimate the power of small actions; they have the power to change the way we operate in this world. In the words of Aeschylus:
“From a small seed a mighty trunk may grow.”