You don’t need to carve out a big chunk of time each day to “practice” mindfulness. I have a quick, simple exercise that you can do (right now!) that will help you cultivate mindfulness and also activate your character strengths!
I call it The Mindful Pause. It is two simple steps:
1.) Pause and feel your in-breath and out-breath for 10-15 seconds.
2.) Conclude with a question: Which of my character strengths will I bring forward right now?
Why it is Effective?
It’s brief. People love short mindfulness exercises. And, most people don’t want to take much time out of their schedule to practice mindfulness. Everyone has 10-15 seconds.
It integrates into whatever you are doing. Are you waking up about to start your day? Eating lunch? Talking with your boss on the phone? Sending an e-mail? Driving home from work? Doing house-cleaning? Playing with your children? The Mindful Pause brings you into the moment and it puts the onus on you to bring forth your best strength(s)…regardless of what you’re doing.
It prepares you to be your best self, to be ready for challenging moments, to handle stressors, and to give your strengths away more freely. It readies you for each new moment in your day – all of your transitions – from eating to working to driving to talking to typing to listening.
It works. Brief meditations and abridged mindfulness-based programs are gaining traction in peer-reviewed research studies. The belief that one has to meditate for 1 hour a day in order to find benefit has been disproven. While reports from the field are overwhelmingly positive about this practice (see examples below), research is needed on the specifics of this technique.
It calls forth your best. There are 24 character strengths you can turn to in any moment. When you pause, you short-circuit your autopilot mind, mindlessness, and the barrage of spinning thoughts. You refocus and get clarity on what matters most in that moment. This helps you remember you have powerful strengths that can be immediately used.
Examples of “The Mindful Pause” in Action
As Thich Nhat Hanh often says, may the fruits of our practice bring benefit to others. Here are some real-world examples of how this invaluable practice has been used by people around the world. Their examples follow a couple of my own immediately below.
Ryan Niemiec: I use The Mindful Pause at transitional moments between the end of my work-day and the beginning of family-time. On one occasion, my lower character strength of Teamwork spontaneously emerged so I decided to help my wife cook dinner (something she typically loves to do independently). This led to the discovery of a new interest area for me and added a fun relationship connection point for the two of us.
And, for me, Love is the character strength that emerges most frequently at the end of my pauses. I then immediately and consciously bring my full presence in a warm and interactive way with my young kids as they play. And, of course, I hug and kiss them repeatedly!
Julia Nunes, Coach, author, speaker: I use the mindful pause many times throughout my day, especially when I have several commitments. One example came at the end of my work-day. Upon pausing, my character strength of Zest emerged and I discovered that this was not the end of my day but only the beginning of fun and joy after work!
Martha Fagan, resilience coach/mentor: I recently found myself getting frustrated with a family member who’s undergoing chemotherapy treatments for breast cancer. She is 74-years-old and due to fatigue has actively resisted taking short walks recommended by her doctors. As I felt my chest tightening in frustration, I did a mindful pause and the strengths of Love and Fairness flowed through me. I then set aside my judging mind and used these strengths to realize our differences and offer my warm support for her.
Laurie Curtis, Coach: I set my phone each day to play a beautiful tone at noon to remind me to practice. The mindful pause brings forth my Leadership and Judgment/critical thinking strengths, helping me to bridge the gap between the vague knowing that something should be acted upon and the action I need to take to use my strengths. I then act with a newfound confidence, and without delay.
Ruby Nadler, research scientist, leadership coach: Oftentimes, Gratitude emerges in my mindful pauses. This catalyzes me to be immediately aware of what I have to be thankful for in that moment and throughout the rest of my day.
Ruby Nadler, research scientist, leadership coach: My signature strength of Kindness often emerges in my pauses. This reminds me to be patient with the people around me, and listen to and support them intentionally. When I’m alone, kindness calls me to take care of myself instead of rushing to the next task or errand.
Marcia Manning: At the end of my mindful pause in the now, pregnant in possibility, I review my strengths and my intuition chooses Curiosity – to see the world fresh and anew as I open my eyes. Then, a second strength swirls forward – Humor – now I see mini moments sparkle as humor and tempered spontaneity flow in each of my daily interactions.
Caren Osten, coach/writer: I use the mindful pause in situations where I might react in a way that will not serve me well. For example, when I am frustrated with some of my teenage son’s behavior, I pause and both Self-Regulation and Perspective come forward. I then try to keep perspective, knowing that he loves me despite his behavior, and it is with self-regulation that I avoid the pull to say something I will regret in response to his words or actions.
Caren Osten, coach/writer: Before I interact with my mother who suffers from dementia, I engage in a mindful pause and it is the strength of Gratitude that emerges. I feel and express gratefulness for being able to take care of my mother and brighten her day, and grateful to her for the many moments in life that I looked to her as a role model.
Mahmoud Khater, coach, trainer, consultant, author: The strength that pops out most for me is Curiosity. I pause at the end of my work day before I reach home and I find myself very curious: How did my family spent their day? What did my children learn at school today? Curiosity helps silence my inner judge and become more accepting, empathetic, and genuinely interested in my social interactions, and I can see others appreciate this and feel cared for and accepted in return.
Mahmoud Khater, Coach, trainer, consultant, author: Gratitude is another strength that emerges at the end of my mindful pauses. This strength empowers me in a unique way to give back, share and contribute my very best to my clients, my team at work and my community and the greater good. When I’m grateful I feel overwhelmingly blessed and become driven by a deep desire to share these blessings with all around me.
References – Mindfulness and Character Strengths
Baer, R. A., & Lykins, E. L. M. (2011). Mindfulness and positive psychological functioning. In K. M. Sheldon, T. B. Kashdan, & M. F. Steger (Eds.), Designing positive psychology: Taking stock and moving forward (pp. 335–348). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Littman-Ovadia, H., & Niemiec, R. M. (2016, in press). Meaning, mindfulness, and character strengths. In P. Russo-Netzer, S. E. Schulenberg, & A. Batthyany (Eds.), To thrive, to cope, to understand: Meaning in positive and existential psychology. New York: Springer.
Lottman, T., Zawaly, S., & Niemiec, R. M. (2016, in press). Well-being and well-doing: Bringing mindfulness and character strengths to the early childhood classroom and home. In C. Proctor (Ed.), Positive psychology interventions in practice. New York: Springer.
Niemiec, R. M. (2014). Mindfulness and character strengths: A practical guide to flourishing. Boston: Hogrefe.
Niemiec, R. M. (2014). Mindfulness-based strengths practice (MBSP) for physicians: Integrating core areas to promote positive health. In M. W. Snyder, Positive health: Flourishing lives, well-being in doctors (pp. 247-263). Bloomington, IN: Balboa Press.
Niemiec, R. M. (2015). Mindfulness and character strengths: Advancing psychology to the next level. New Jersey Psychologist, 65(3), 22-24.
Niemiec, R. M. (2012). Mindful living: Character strengths interventions as pathways for the five mindfulness trainings. International Journal of Wellbeing, 2(1), 22-33. doi:10.5502/ijw.v2i1.2
Niemiec, R. M., & Lissing, J. (2015). Mindfulness-based strengths practice (MBSP) for enhancing well-being, life purpose, and positive relationships. In I. Ivtzan & T. Lomas (Eds.), Mindfulness in positive psychology: The science of meditation and wellbeing. London: Routledge.
Niemiec, R. M., Rashid, T., & Spinella, M. (2012). Strong mindfulness: Integrating mindfulness and character strengths. Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 34(3), 240-253.
Sharp, J., Niemiec, R. M., & Lawrence, C. (2016, in press). Using mindfulness-based strengths practices with gifted populations. Gifted Education International.
VIA Institute: Research Summaries
VIA Institute: Mindfulness and character strengths course