Top Ten Mindfulness Exercises

Mindfulness is a powerful skill that has been taught for thousands of years by many world religions: Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Christianity, to name a few. In the 1980s, Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn introduced nonreligious mindfulness skills to patients dealing with chronic pain. Since this time, mindfulness meditation and exercises have been integrated into many forms of psychotherapy, including Dialectical Behavior Therapy. A recent study has even shown that daily meditation and being mindful of daily events may be just as effective as taking medication to prevent relapses of depression.

Yet another study indicated that meditation exercises are shown to boost mood and mental toughness. While this all sounds wonderful, it can be quite difficult to be fully present to the reality unfolding around us. To be mindful of the present moment involves being aware of emotions, thoughts, physical sensations, and actions in the present moment, without judging, criticizing, or assigning meaning to these events (McKay, Wood, & Brantley, 2007). Simple enough, right? Maybe not. We live in an incredibly fast-paced society, full of distractions and diversions. At any given moment, there may be so much sensory input coming in from the external world and from our internal chatter that it can be quite challenging to bring ourselves back to the present moment.

Basic Mindfulness Exercises

Below are some basic mindfulness exercises to begin the process of awakening to the constantly unfolding present moment, adapted from The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook (McKay, Wood, & Brantley, 2007):

1. A “Mindless” Exercise

People often get distracted from the present moment and “zone out.” When this happens, you are no longer present to your life. It is going on around you, but you are not participating. Common consequences of not being present are feeling lost, anxious, or frustrated. Other people in your life may

be frustrated with you for not being present. What follows are some common situations in which many of us experience being unmindful. Notice which situations resonate with you. Identifying common themes is a great place to start re-engaging with the present moment.

  • In the middle of a conversation, you suddenly realize that you haven’t heard what the other person just said and you feel lost or confused.
  • While walking into a room, you suddenly forget why you entered the room in the first place.
  • While talking with another person, you are so distracted by what you want to say next that you aren’t really listening to what is being said.
  • After putting something down, you find that you cannot remember where you just placed it.
  • While taking a shower, you are so busy thinking about something that just happened or is going to happen later that you forget what you’ve already washed or not washed.
  • While driving, you are so distracted about your day’s events or tomorrow’s events that you forget which roads you took or where you are going.

2. Focus on a Single Minute

This is a simple concept that can have a powerful impact. The purpose of this exercise is to help you become more aware of your internal sense of time. Many of us have the sensation that time passes very quickly, resulting in the desire to rush to “get things done.” When you are always focused on the next thing to do, you lose sight of the present moment. Others have the sense of time passing very slowly, which may result in the sense that you have more time than you actually do. Find a comfortable place to sit where you will be undisturbed. Begin timing yourself with a watch or timer. Now, without looking at the timer, simply sit. When you believe one minute has passed, stop the timer. Notice how much time has actually passed. What insight did you gain from this simple exercise?

3. Focus on a Single Object

One of the biggest hurdles to mindfulness is the experience of your attention wandering from one thought to the next. The result is feeling lost, anxious, or overwhelmed. You are unfocused in these moments. The purpose of this exercise is to train yourself to focus your attention on a single object that you are observing. Begin by sitting comfortably in a place where you will be undisturbed. Choose an object to focus on and, without touching it, begin looking at the object with mindful awareness. Take your time to notice all aspects of this object: shape, texture, color, etc. Now, hold it in your hand and notice the different ways that it feels. If your attention wanders during this exercise, gently bring your focus back to the object. Was this surprisingly difficult for you, or not?

4. Band of Light

Many of us may feel a sense of disconnection between our thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations. We may even feel that our physical body is foreign or detached. This exercise is intended to help you become more mindful of the physical sensations in your body. Find a comfortable place to sit where you won’t be distracted for about ten minutes. Use your imagination to envision a narrow band of white light encircling the top of your head like a halo. Now imagine this band of light slowly moving down your body, becoming mindfully aware of the physical sensations of each part of your body as the band of light progresses down. If your attention wanders, just gently direct it back to the physical sensations you experience as the light moves from the top of your head all the way down to your toes. What did you notice while engaging in this exercise?

5. Inner-Outer Experience

The previous exercises helped you focus on being mindful of both internal and external events. This exercise is designed to combine these two experiences. Try shifting your attention back and forth between your internal experience (i.e., bodily sensations, thoughts, and feelings) and your external experience (i.e., what you notice with your eyes, ears, nose, and sense of touch). What was it like for you to practice mindfully guiding your attention between these two realms of experiencing?

Consider how you can integrate one or more of these basic mindfulness exercises into your daily routine. Something as simple as taking a few minutes each morning to practice mindfulness can result in wonderful changes in your everyday experience of the present moment.

6. Record Three Minutes of Thoughts

Similar to the “Inner-Outer Experience” exercise, this mindfulness practice is intended to encourage you to recognize and focus on your thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations. Try setting a timer for three minutes and simply begin to write down every thought that goes through your mind on a piece of paper. Don’t try to edit your thoughts or write them out word for word, just record each idea or concept that occurs to you. An example of a thought might be about an important upcoming presentation.

Rather than writing out specific details about the presentation, simply write “presentation.” See how many thoughts you can record in three minutes, no matter how small or seemingly unimportant. When you are finished, count the number of thoughts that you had in those three minutes and multiply that number by twenty to get a sense of how many thoughts you tend to have in a whole hour. Are you surprised by the results? What meaning can you take away from this exercise?

7. Thought Defusion

This technique is borrowed from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and is shown to be quite effective in the treatment of emotional distress. When we have distressing thoughts, there is a tendency to get “stuck” on them. Thought defusion can help you mindfully observe these distressing thoughts without getting bogged down by them. Ultimately, it can allow you the freedom to consciously select which thoughts you wish to focus on and which thoughts you would like to let go.

The idea of this exercise is to visualize your thoughts (e.g., as pictures, words, or symbols) harmlessly floating away from you. Try imagining your thoughts as leaves floating past you on a slowly moving river. If any particular thoughts keep coming up, just allow them to pass by again – notice them, observe them, and let them go.

8. Describe Your Emotion

The previous exercises have focused on becoming mindful of both thoughts and physical sensations. This exercise, aptly named “Describe Your Emotion” is designed to do just that. Simple enough, right? Try picking an emotion – it can be pleasant or unpleasant, but not so overwhelming that you worry about feeling out of control. Ideally, choose an emotion that you are experiencing right now. Once you have an emotion in mind, write it down on a piece of paper. Begin by naming the emotion and then continue with the exercise by drawing a picture that you believe represents this emotion for you.

Next, try writing down a related action and sound for the emotion. Notice what you are experiencing throughout the exercise. If you feel overwhelmed at any point, pause momentarily and bring your focus gently back to the exercise. Continue by describing the intensity and quality of the emotion. What thoughts are related to this emotion? Becoming more mindful of the full experience of a given emotion helps us to be more present in our emotional experiences.

9. Focus Shifting

This exercise is about learning to identify what you are focusing on in your ongoing moment-to-moment stream of conscious awareness. This is somewhat similar to the “Focus Shifting” exercise, where you practice shifting your attention between your inner and outer experiences. The difference is that this exercise centers around learning to shift your attention between emotions and senses and to understand the difference between the two.

Begin by checking in with yourself to identify how you are feeling. If you think you’re feeling “nothing,” try giving that emotional experience a label … it could even be “bored” or “content.” Close your eyes and bring your attention towards your current emotional experience – what would this emotion look like if it were an object? Imagine this object. Now, open your eyes and redirect your focus toward a physical object in the room. Mindfully observe this object. If your attention begins to wander, just gently bring it back to the exercise.

Return your focus towards your internal emotional experience. Next, shift your mindful awareness towards another sensory experience in the room – perhaps noticing a particular sound or smell. What was it like for you to mindfully shift your attention between your internal emotional experience and your outer senses?

10. Mindful Breathing

This tenth basic mindfulness exercise will help you learn to separate your thoughts from your emotions and physical sensations. A wonderful strategy to use when feeling overwhelmed or overstimulated by something in your internal or external experience (e.g., intense negative emotions or an unpleasant external situation) is to return to your breath. Your breathing is something that you always carry with you that you can return to in moments of distress or even crisis.

To breathe mindfully, focus on three parts of the experience: count your breaths, focus on the physical act of breathing, and be aware of any thoughts that arise while breathing. Remember what you learned in the thought defusion exercise to let go of distracting thoughts without getting “stuck” on them. Many people report a sense of becoming “one” with their breath.

Remember not to be too hard on yourself if you find it difficult to keep your attention focused. The more you are frustrated with yourself and react, the more difficult it will become to be mindful. When your attention wanders, simply gently redirect it back to your breath.

While the concept of mindfulness may be very simple in theory, it is far more difficult in practice. It may be especially difficult if you find that you have been living a large portion of your life essentially on “autopilot.” This results in going through the motions of the days, the weeks, and even the years, without being fully present to your ongoing moment-by-moment experience. For some, the realization of living on autopilot is like suddenly recognizing that life is not really being lived – it is being wasted. There is no time like the present moment to wake up to this realization and begin to actively reengage with your life’s purpose.

What benefits did you notice from beginning to practice these basic mindfulness exercises? For many people, basic mindfulness is surprisingly difficult. Rather than letting this difficulty frustrate you, recognize that any difficulties you have with focusing mindful attention on the present moment are simply telling you what you need to work on. Was it difficult to sit still for even five minutes without external distractions? This is a good indicator that this ability to sit still is something you need to cultivate.

Or perhaps, was it difficult to notice your thoughts in a nonjudgmental manner, watching them pass by as leaves on a stream? If so, then this may be an area for you to focus on in the future. Instead of seeing difficulties as insurmountable hurdles or telling yourself that you “can’t” do something, use these difficulties as opportunities and signs of important areas for growth. Start learning how to reframe your personal difficulties as challenges toward becoming the best version of yourself.



McKay, M., Wood, J.C., & Brantley, J. (2007). The dialectical behavior therapy skills workbook. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

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  • Theresa

    February 18th, 2024 at 5:59 PM

    This stuff written here is good for the brain. Being proactive about things helps me to stay afloat. I’d like to thank who ever wrote this and shared their wisdom. I’m trying to get back on track. Thanks for the kickstart!

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