When actor and comedian Wali Collins was in first grade, his teacher, Miss Dunn, would lead the class in a group meditation–except that none of the 6-year-olds realized that’s what she was doing. Having everyone close their eyes, Miss Dunn would ask the class to tell her what they heard.
“Someone might say ‘I hear birds,’ and Miss Dunn would ask, ‘Can everyone hear the birds?’” says Collins. “The class would answer, ‘yes.’”
Other children would add what they heard, such as “the leaves in the trees moving from the wind,” and Collins says someone would always say, “I hear myself breathe.” Once everyone agreed that they could hear their own individual breath, she would have the class open their eyes and she would begin teaching.
“This woman was a genius; she made a game out of meditating,” says Collins. “She took a group of highly energized 6-year-olds to a relaxed place so that our minds were clear from distractions and we could soak up all that she wanted to teach us.”
Collins, who is a regular on Late Show With David Letterman, uses these techniques today before he performs: “I can still hear the calming words of Miss Dunn,” he says. “If you’re feeling crazed, this is the easiest way to relax and clear your mind from stress or unnecessary distractions.”
Miss Dunn might not have realized it, but she was teaching what Mike Brooks, an Austin, Texas-based psychologist, calls “meditation hacks.”
“We should all learn to stop and smell the roses,” he says. “Unfortunately, most of us aren’t present for most of the day. We’re thinking about what we need to do or what we should have done. But if we have one foot in the future and one in the past, we’re pissing on the present.”
Brooks, director of the Austin Psychology and Assessment Center, says our thoughts are like a river. When we’re thinking about what we need from the store, the river is calm, but when we’re having negative thoughts–worrying about a presentation, for example–the current becomes more turbulent.
Mindful people–those who live in the present–can step back and stay on the riverbank, watching their current of thoughts and not getting swept away by their content.
Meditation fosters mindfulness, but the practice seems difficult in today’s world of constant stimulation: “People think the goal of meditation is to empty the mind,” says Brooks. “It’s not about clearing the mind; it’s about focusing on one thing. When the mind wanders, the meditation isn’t a failure. Our brain is like a wayward puppy, out of control. Catching it and putting it back to the object of focus is the mediation.”
Brooks says meditating is like exercise; a full workout is preferred, but there is value in short bursts.
“Research shows that a total of 15 minutes of meditating each day for several weeks produces detectable, positive changes in the brain as well as corresponding reductions in stress, anxiety, and an enhanced sense of well-being,” says Brooks. “You can get the benefits of a formal meditation practice by weaving mini-meditations into your daily life.”
He offers six ways you can effortlessly incorporate meditation into your daily life:
While walking your dog, taking a hike, or simply getting the mail, focus your attention on one item, such as the sound of the cicadas, the feel of the ground beneath your feet, or the color of the tree. When the mind wanders, catch it and return to your original focus.
“Research has found that just being in nature reduces stress,” says Brooks. “We weren’t meant to sit in cubicles all day and when we disconnect from nature, we suffer a lot of stress.”
While stopped at a red light, turn off your radio and focus on deep breaths. When your mind wanders, go back to your breath.
“Breathing meditation is one of the easiest because it’s always with us and exists in the present moment,” says Brooks. “You can’t listen to yesterday’s breath.”
If you run or bike, leave your headphones at home and focus on the experience.
“Tune into a physical sensation, such as the ground beneath your feet, the wind in your hair, or the warmth of the sunlight,” says Brooks. “Choose one item and maintain your focus. Don’t jump mindlessly from one sensation to another.”
As you eat or drink, focus on the various flavors, textures, and sensations of the particular food or drink. Drinking a cup of tea or enjoying a piece of chocolate can be a form of meditation, says Brooks.
“Savor what you have in the moment,” he says.
While in line, observe your breath or surroundings. Use the time to do some inner observations. For example, are your muscles tense? Are you cold or hot?
“It is important that when you do the observations, you do them without judgment,” says Brooks. “If you’re in the supermarket checkout line, for example, avoid judging people for what they have in their shopping carts. Observe and notice without opinion.”
You can also incorporate mindfulness meditation into daily activities, says Brooks. For example, washing your hands, folding laundry, taking a shower, washing dishes, or brushing your teeth can serve as mini-meditations if you focus on the experience and stop your mind from wandering.
“Focusing on what’s happening now pulls us out of our river of thoughts,” says Brooks. “The benefit of meditation is that when something in the real world comes up, we’re much better at catching our thoughts instead of getting swept into their current.”