Mindfulness is one of the few things that is simultaneously trendy (we declared 2014 "the year of mindful living") and a centuries-old technique, helping with everything from lowering stress to improving job performance.
At its core, mindfulness is a very simple practice of cultivating awareness of the present moment without judgement. But knowing how to get started and when you're supposed to cram it in can seem downright daunting.
Fortunately, it's a lot easier than you think. Here are seven simple ways to get started:
Often, when confronted with a stressful moment, humans' natural response is to inhale and exhale without necessarily realizing it. "A mom who is stressed out making breakfast for her kids, trying to get them ready and they're fighting ... that's a bit of a stressful moment that a lot of people encounter," explains Michael Craft, business and program development strategist with the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies. "Without even thinking, she'll sigh -- and that's mindfulness."
"The goal is to be aware of it," Craft says -- and ideally, to string together a few deep breaths. "[But] even that mom who is maybe not thinking 'I'm doing a meditative breath right now,' at some level, she's aware of her breath."
2. Try calligraphy. Or gardening. Or playing music.
The art of calligraphy is a noted mindfulness practice, Craft says -- so much so that calligraphers typically learn about mindfulness practices before they learn how to form the letters, because they need to work in a state of complete awareness.
If calligraphy's not your thing, don't fret. "There are a lot of musicians and artists -- and gardeners, for that matter -- who are practicing mindfulness already, without formal training, because they go into the zone when they do their work," Craft explains.
But remember that there is a difference between being in the zone and zoning out in front of the computer or TV. There is a physical and mental element of concentration inherent to painting or planting bulbs that is simply not there when you're clicking around online.
3. Wash the dishes.
Chores, like washing the dishes, might sound wholly unappealing, but Craft sees them as an opportunity to tap into your senses. Feel the water run over your hands and the bubbles pop between your fingers, and smell the soap as it fills your nostrils.
"Mindfulness is a sensual practice," he says. "The word 'mindful' implies that it's in your head, but it's really about awareness."
4. Make the most of your morning routine.
Likewise, many of us tend to be fairly out of it as we move through our morning routines. But Janice Marturano, executive director of the Institute for Mindful Leadership (and a frequent HuffPost blogger), argues there's a way to get so much more out of the morning: The Institute's training programs focus both on longer meditations and what she calls "purposeful pauses," or moments when you bring your attention to whatever seemingly mundane task or sensation you're experiencing. And the morning is the perfect time to take them.
Focus on brushing your teeth, the taste and smell of that first, steaming cup of coffee or tea, or even how your body feels while you're waiting for the computer screen to turn on.
5. Put your feet on the ground.
One of the simplest ways to be mindful at work, particularly when you notice your mind drifting away while you're sitting at your desk or beginning to doze off in a long meeting, is to bring your attention to the feeling of your feet on the floor, according to Marturano.
"Sit up straight, put both feet on the floor and notice the touch of the soles of the feet, the weight of [your] legs pushing down on the floor [and] whatever other sensations are there to be noticed," she recommends. "Just a few moments of this will bring your mind and body together in the moment."
Another easy way to cultivate mindfulness at work is to take a quick break and climb a flight of stairs, Marturano advises. Not only will it wake you up (and get your blood moving), it will bring you back to yourself, mentally. "Walk a flight of stairs, feeling your feet on each step, the temperature of the air, the touch of the air on your skin, sounds, colors," she urges. "And redirect your mind to the experience of climbing stairs when it starts churning with thoughts of the future and past."
"Take a slow walk, focusing on each step," Craft adds. "If walking works, you can then try, say, raking the leaves. Anything that is what we would call a 'zen' activity."
7. Extra credit: Develop a regular, 15-minute routine.
The best thing you can do for yourself if you're serious about mindfulness, Craft argues, is to set aside the same time, preferably every day, where you turn off the phone, TV and music and sit in relative quiet, focusing on your breath. If your mind wanders, come back to the breath -- and don't try to resist the mind-wandering, because it inevitably will. Just gently redirect your thoughts to the physical sensation of breathing in and out.
If focusing on breathing doesn't work for you, try sweeping your body, starting at the top of your head. Move through your body, asking yourself, What does my head feel like right now? My neck? Move all the way down to your toes, then move back up again. Or develop a more formal physical program (though Craft said he hates that word), taking long, regular walks or practicing tai chi.
"The practice is really just to become more aware. It's not about becoming someone different, changing yourself, or even adopting a healthy new habit," Craft said. "It's just increasing calmness and awareness in your own mind."