THE BLOG

If You Have a Busy Mind and Can't Meditate, Try This

01/17/2014 02:40 pm ET | Updated Mar 19, 2014

I wish I had a quiet mind. But in general, I don't.

Sometimes, my mind feels like an enormous noisy hall filled with thousands of busy bouncing balls. Urgent tasks lurk inside each ball, and I'm worried about which ones need my attention first. As I try to figure out which ball to grab first, parachutes descend upon me. They're packed with shameful memories of things I wish I'd done differently. Surrounding me are angry friends, family members, and teachers, wagging fingers at me, criticizing me for not moving faster and more successfully in life.

Nasty, right?

"I want to become more mindful and present." I told my friends who have high-pressure jobs and yet manage to stay truly cool and tranquil. I pleaded for their guidance: "How can I deal with my incredibly busy mind?"

"Meditate." That was the remedy I kept hearing.

For years, I tried different forms of meditation to dial down the volume and intensity of my mind chatter. I stared at candles, hoping to melt into the image and dissolve my mental mess. I'd count my breaths, but become easily distracted, rarely getting beyond 25 before a pesky thought popped in. I watched my thoughts as they crossed the screen in my mind, labeling them: "To do." "Future event." "Worry." "Memory." I felt the urge to buy a caseload of labels.

These techniques helped me to turn down the volume of my thoughts a little bit. But not enough.

Traditional meditation is not the only way to become more mindful and mellow.

I stumbled on a practice that gave me tranquility -- a surprising alternative to traditional meditation -- when I began my Ph.D. program in mind/body psychology,

My clinical training included a practice called sensory awareness. The intention is to become deeply aware of our internal, moment-to-moment body sensations. A facilitator would invite us to notice what we felt in our bodies while doing different activities, such as walking, sitting or eating.

The first weekend of classes, my 13 classmates and I visited a beach near Santa Barbara. We sat on a picnic bench with our backs to the ocean and focused our attention inward, to our bodies -- noticing our inner landscape. We sensed the temperature, tension, texture, movement and energy we experienced as we listened to the waves.

Our teacher, Judyth, asked us questions like: "When your ears take in the sound, notice what other parts of your body respond. For example, pay attention to your chest. Can you feel any vibration or warmth there?" Or as we sat in the sun, she'd ask, "Where on your body do you feel the warmth? Where do you stop feeling the warmth? The transition from warmth to not warmth -- what is that like?"

During these sensing experiences, my mind kept poking me, "Why aren't we looking at the water? It's a gorgeous day, and it's been eons since we've been to the beach. Let's blow off this stupid exercise."

Fortunately, my frustration shifted when Judyth, asked, "What happens if you synchronize your breathing to the sound of the ocean?" My mind loved the novel suggestion. My breathing slowed down. I felt peacefully in sync with the ocean, instead of being upset to feel separated with my back to the water. I moved from snickering at the assignment to feeling surprisingly tranquil, yet alert.

Over time, I noticed that when I turned my focus to my immediate sensations, my mind stopped worrying about the past or future, and I felt really present in the moment. The mind chatter went on hold when I deliberately approached with my sensory awareness practice with curiosity and wonder.

I soon looked forward to every invitation to non-judgmentally experience my sensations. I reveled in tasting a fragrant tangerine and noticing the texture of each segment in my mouth. I'd take walks on sand dunes and discover that my legs were not the only of my body keeping me upright. I reveled in applying moisturizer to my face as I slowed down enough to enjoy the warmth and pleasure of moving the oozy liquid around my cheeks in little circles with featherlight contact from my fingertips.

Simple ways you can become mindful, now.

Right now, I invite you to try out these three sensational ways to get present for yourself. With a curious mind, draw your attention to what you physically sense, from the inside out, below your neck. Leaving aside judgment, evaluation, or interpretation.

  1. Take a few moments to notice how your breath rises and falls in your chest and belly. Where do you feel the breath? What's the temperature in your nose, throat, chest? Where is there pressure as you breath? Where is there ease?
  2. Bring your fingertips to your face, and with very light touch, slowly make tiny circles on your cheeks, on your forehead, on your chin. Use as little pressure as possible. How do the different areas of your face feel with this contact? What subtle or large sensations do you experience in your fingertips as they glide along your face?
  3. Slowly move your tongue around your mouth, especially at the roof, and get curious about how various spots feel with the contact. Do any positions make you feel a tickling sensation? What contact spots most wake up your mouth?
How do you feel?

So as you do these simple explorations, do you feel a bit more awake, energized, alert, and clearheaded? If so, you've discovered what research is confirming: That focusing your attention on your sensations is a simple way to dial down the mental chatter. If you're not feeling very much, please be patient with yourself. Many people are cut off from their bodies, and need the time to get back in touch with our senses.

To be deeply present and mindful, you can simply tune in to the sensations you are experiencing in any given moment. You can go through life mindlessly, on autopilot, without sensing your body. Or you can mindfully open up your sensory awareness. Then your mind can instantly bring you into the present as you notice whatever your senses are calling out.

So, if I've awakened you, even a little bit, to the power of your embodied mindfulness, well, that's sensational. Cultivate your body's wisdom by tuning in to your sensations, and you'll help tame your mind. That's one way to empty your mind of extraneous past and future wanderings and refocus it on the ever-unfolding present moment experience. The present is where all the possibilities unfold. Be in that sensational place by being in touch with your sensations.