Mindfulness meditation has been demonstrated to help reduce depression and rumination (Chambers et al., 2008), alleviate stress (Hofman et al., 2010), reduce emotional reactivity (Ortner at al., 2007) increase working memory (Jha et al., 2010) and improve cognitive flexibility (Siegal, 2007a). In spite of it demonstrated usefulness, it can be difficult to find the time and patience to establish a practice. One of the easiest and most helpful ways to begin a mindfulness practice is to incorporate sensory mindfulness. Not only do many report that they find this type of mindfulness more approachable, it helps us to develop the very useful skill of learning to “listen” with our whole bodies. The ability to attune to one’s own feelings on a very basic level allows us deep insight and awareness to our own reactions.
Sensory mindfulness came and visited me this weekend as I was completing a mundane task. It was one of those rare instances that I found myself being mindful without doing so on purpose. I was cleaning the leaves out of my son’s sandbox in my backyard. Mentally I was grousing about how long it was taking and bemoaning the fact that I had so much more to go. Then, something incredible happened…I noticed the smell of the honeysuckle overhead. The fragrance was heady and strong and literally pulled me into the present moment. As I became aware that I was aware, I watched the sensations of the sand gently sifting through my fingers. My awareness also expanding to sights around me – including the spiderweb in the shrub to my right. I was able to maintain a stance of curiosity as I watched myself cling and push away the various things that I was sensing. I mentally recoiled from the spider web and clung to the scent of the honeysuckle. I watched myself swing back and forth between enjoy all of my senses and being impatient for the task to be done. This whole episode lasted for about 15 minutes and, as I wrapped up my task, I felt refreshed, relaxed and alive.
Below are some ways to come home to your senses and tap into greater self-awareness:
Essential Oils: Try using an essential oil as your object of awareness. Frankincense, myrrh, rose, lavender, sage, rosemary and ylang ylang have all been used for centuries in meditation. Click here for a link to a guide for meditating with essential oils.
Lotion: Choose a lotion with a scent that you enjoy and mindfully apply it, noticing the sensation of smell and touch as well as the changing sensations as rub the lotion into various parts of your body.
Doing dishes: Take the common task of doing dishes and turn it into a meditation as you note the scent of the soap and the sensations of the warm water on your hands.
Showering: Here is another daily activity that can turn into a mindfulness practice. Move through your shower slowly and mindfully, bringing your attention to all of the sensations that you experience.
Massage: Slowly and mindfully massage your face with small circles. Make your touch very light and notice the various sensations that arise. Notice how different the sensations are on each part of your face.
Sand play: Set aside some time and submerge your hands and feet in sand. Feel the sensation of sand moving through your fingers and toes. If you can completely bury your feet and feel the weight of the sand.
Playdough: Buy a small container of molding clay or playdough and experiment with holding it in your hands. Observe the scent of the clay as well as any thoughts that arise. Briefly note thoughts and bring your awareness back to the sensory experience of the clay.
Mindful Movement: Engage in a slow and deliberate stretching routine, bringing your awareness to the sensations of stretching each limb. Click here for a link to instructions.
Music: Pick an instrumental track and observe your body and mind as you listen mindfully to the track. Notice your own bodily response as the music builds and then diminishes. Notice the quality and intensity of the sound. Maintain an awareness of your breath as the music changes.
Mindfulness of sound: Find a place where you won’t be disturbed and sit quietly for a few minutes and maintain focus on the sounds around you. Try not to label sounds but rather listen to their quality and intensity. Notice when you begin to judge sounds as good or bad and bring your attention to just noticing.
Instruments: Experiment with different musical instruments. If you have access to a singing bowl, incorporate this into your mindfulness practice, listening and feeling the vibrations and resonances.
Outside: Take some time for a walk in a garden and notice all the colors and textures that are apparent. Get up close to a leaf or a plant and notice all that you can see. Get down on the ground and notice what might be happening in the grass.
Art: Go to a museum or bookstore and spend a designated period of time noticing painting or sculptures. Change your focus from far away to very close and notice what you see. Again, try to suspend labels and judgments and notice just the qualities of what you are observing.
The Raisin Exercise: This classic meditation shows us just how much richness can be obtained from mindfully eating a raisin. In this meditation, we are instructed to observe and eat a raisin mindfully, noticing all the sensations and intentions as they arise in the process. Click here for a link to audio of this meditation. http://www.mbsr.co.uk/mp31.php
Mindful Meal: Set the intention to mindfully eat a meal or snack one time per day. Notice all the thoughts and sensations that occur during your meal. Eat the meal slowly, taking note of all aspects eating the meal including the physical sensations of scent, touch, sounds, sight of your meal. http://www.mbsr.co.uk/mp31.php
These are just a few ideas of how you might incorporate your senses into your mindfulness practice. The options are limitless….feel free to use your imagination to develop practices that work best for you. For more information about mindfulness for mental wellness, click here.
Dr. Angela Williams is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of the Rowan Center for Behavioral Medicine. She specializes in cognitive-behavioral and humanistic/existential approaches to therapy. She has extensive training in Brief Crisis Intervention as well as mindfulness based therapeutic approaches. Her therapeutic style blends strength-based acceptance with practical skill development. Incorporating mindfulness-based interventions, she helps her clients move through difficult experiences and be more present in their lives.
Please feel free to call the Rowan Center for Behavioral Medicine for further information 818-446-2522 or email
Chambers, R., Lo, B., & Allen, N. B. (2008). The impact of intensive mindfulness training on attentional control, cognitive style, and affect. Cognitive Therapy Research, 32, 303-322.
Hofman, S. G., Sawyer, A. T., Witt, A. A., & Oh, D. (2010). The effect of mindfulness-based therapy on anxiety and depression: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 78(2), 169-183.
Jha, A. P., Stanley, E. A., Kiyonaga, A., Wong, L., & Gelfrand, L. (2010). Examining the protective effects of mindfulness training on working memory capacity and affective experience. Emotion, 10(1), 54-64.
Ortner, C. N. M., Kilner, S. J., & Zelazo, P. D. (2007). Mindfulness meditation and reduced emotional interference on a cognitive task. Motivation and Emotion, 31 (4), 271-283.
Siegel, D. J. (2007a). Mindfulness training and neural integration: Differentiation of distinct streams of awareness and the cultivation of well-being. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience , 2, 259-263.
Williams, A. (2015). Sensory Mindfulness. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 24, 2018, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/live-thrive/2015/09/sensory-mindfulness/