I am currently on my third 8-week Mindfulness course, this time as part participant, part co-facilitator. I am there to observe, experience, learn and teach the yoga practice. The course is amazing; it is truly engaging and very challenging if you let it touch you on a deeper level. Mindfulness as a thing is mentioned everywhere. I’m sure most of you have heard of mindfulness in the news, in your local yoga studio, your meditation tracks, or in books and websites. It is the thing to be practicing. Hell, it is even practiced in Parliament. I normally don’t like trends; I used to follow fashion as a teenager and more often than not made excellent mistakes of judgement, which led me to feel completely out of sync with myself. Anyway, trends are usually based on clever marketing and blind following, but with Mindfulness, I am more than psyched to let myself be led by the wave. And what a wave it is.
Mindfulness is a concept known to meditators and yogis for years before it got its trademark name. It was introduced to the West by Dr John Kabat-Zinn, when he developed and extensively researched the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program as a way of healing stress, anxiety and chronic pain. MBSR has now been adapted and applied to various contexts and it is widely considered effective for people with recurrent depression, anxiety and long-term health conditions. It is being offered in the UK’s National Health Service alongside other forms of psychological therapy and medical treatment.
Mindfulness essentially is about being in the Now. It is about being content with being in the Now, not needing to be somewhere or someone else. It is not necessarily about positive thinking; rather, it promotes acceptance of what is. It has been born out of the recognition that in the West people struggle with extreme daily pressure, constantly worrying about the future and ruminating about past difficulties. You only need to look around you on the bus or the tube to see that 99% of your fellow commuters are looking at their smartphones, reading a book or speaking on the phone. Heck, how many times have you had to make a sudden swerve to avoid someone bumping into you on the street and they don’t even notice because their eyes are peeled on their screen? Or maybe, you are the one bumping into others. Either way, our lives now provide us with endless distractions from the present moment and we gladly take it because we are used to needing to be active and productive. Especially in London, everyone is stuck running on a treadmill. You need to keep jogging or running, or you feel you will fall off.
It is quite amazing to see the transformation that occurs when you start letting yourself notice what is going on around you and within you, right now. While you are reading this, what are you doing? Maybe you are reading this on your phone, while you are meant to be at work. Maybe you are also checking Facebook, eating dinner, having a conversation with your partner. Maybe you are running a list in your mind of what needs to be done tomorrow. What would happen if you let all of that go – and you just got to the end of this post?
There is usually a fear in letting ourselves be still in a world that keeps moving. A fear that we will be left behind, that we will miss out, or even get hurt. There is also a protective mechanism in keeping ourselves distracted from our minds, because we are afraid of coming face to face with our thoughts. I hear you – it’s tough when you first start recognising how you think. Mindfulness however, does not teach you to stop thinking. It doesn’t even tell you to change your thoughts. Refreshingly, it teaches you to notice the act of thinking, rather than the content, and offers you the choice to follow a thought or let it go. In the same way, being mindful allows you to notice emotions and physical sensations, such as pain, without needing to react to them. We spend a lot of our lives re-acting to things that happen to us, when in fact, we are ultimately responsible for creating our lives. Problems, trauma, accidents and disasters do occur, but we have the choice in how we perceive them. We can choose to react with a victim mentality (Why is this happening to me?), and spend our energy and precious resources in trying to resist and fight with our current reality. What if we could take a step back and assess the situation? With practice, we can learn to separate ourselves from our thoughts, from those beliefs that cause us to re-act. Once we do that, we can choose to act from a grounded place that is aligned to who we are, rather than what we think we should be.
I can hear you say, that is all great Ariadne, but how the hell do I do that? Well, as with everything, start small and simple. Transformation does not happen overnight; it is the tiny changes you make that you consistently keep that cause the grand shifts in your life.
Easy ways to make mindfulness part of your daily life
Compartmentalise + create boundaries – do you need to check your phone 7 times in the time it takes you to get to the bus stop? I am a strong believer in creating helpful boundaries to protect your time and energy and develop healthy habits. So choose when and where you check your emails, when you will cook and when you will do the housework. Do one thing at a time. Most of us are crap at multitasking, but we don’t know that. We are usually more efficient when we dedicate our focus and time on one task at a time. Make some rules about things that distract you. Get other people on board.
Have a lunch break, ideally away from your desk – your mind needs breaks. It needs fuel, which is why you eat and drink, but it also needs relaxation time. If you eat over your desk, you are neither engaged in your work, nor your food. As much as possible, focus on tasting your food and not inhaling it. If you need prompts, think about what you are eating, describe the taste, the texture. Chew properly and slowly. You will appreciate food much more and aid your digestion by being relaxed at meal times. At home, sit on the table and make a rule not to use your phone while you eat.
Move your body – mindful movement, whether it is sweaty and fast or slow and strong is the perfect way to be in the present and reconnect with the sensations in your body. If you are a runner, try it without music. It is hard at first, but actually quite enjoyable. Yoga, dancing, whatever rocks your boat is absolutely fine. Notice how your body feels during and after.
Nominate a mindful activity – this is a great exercise suggested in the 8-week courses I’ve been to. Choose something you already do in your daily routine, such as brushing your teeth, walking the dog, washing up or having a shower. Choose an activity that is simple and you normally do by yourself. Every time you do this, encourage yourself to be all there. Notice when your mind is distracted and keep bringing it back to your mindful activity.
Stop + breathe – obviously we do not really need to stop to breathe. But mindfulness of the breath is an excellent way to encourage yourself to experience the Now. Wherever you are, sitting down on your desk, your bed, in transit (not while driving, please), at home, close your eyes and bring your awareness to your breath. Ask yourself: where do I feel my breath? How does it feel? Is it slow or fast? Is it deep or shallow? What feels more free, the inhale or the exhale? As much as possible, try not to change your breath and especially not to judge it. There is no wrong way of doing this. The point of it is to do it. Start with just 3 minutes a day.
Gentle reminders to help you along the way
Your mind will challenge you::
The mind wants you to worry, to ridicule what you are trying to do, to keep stamping its foot until you stop. Know that is what it is meant to do. You don’t have to be angry at it. The more you fight it, the louder it will scream. So be nice, and every time you notice a thought tell yourself: ‘oh look, a thought.’ Smile, be happy that you noticed the act of thinking and bring yourself back to the Now.
This is hard work::
If it wasn’t you would be doing it already. But it is totally worth it. You will have good days and bad days. And that is absolutely fine. All you need to do is make the commitment to keep practicing.
Your body will challenge you::
Just like your mind, your body will not be particularly happy if you start asking for it to be with pain or sit in stillness while you breathe. It will join forces with your mind and give you a really hard time about it. Know that observing your experience is what you are aiming to do. Your body will learn to adjust and you can help it get there with movement and other helpful holistic treatments.
You will uncover nastiness::
Hmm, not looking forward to that, I know. But in reality, even if it is painful once you know something is there, you can start to deal with it, bit by bit.
Everything you experience is ok::
I really can’t stress this enough. Wanting to check whether what we do is correct is absolutely normal. So let me remind you that there is no wrong way, no wrong experience. Do your practice, be curious with what you find and know that you are on the right path.
There is a special power that comes from being present::
Being present and not needing to constantly be doing something allows you to choose to put all your energy into what you wish. If you practice directing your mind’s attention to the present moment, you learn to be fully engaged in your experience. Magic happens when you do that. Actually, let me rephrase that: You create magic when you do that. You are no longer pulled in different directions by your anxious thoughts and fears. You are no longer operating from a limited reality.
Has anyone else practiced Mindfulness? How do you incorporate it in your daily life?
I’d love to hear your thoughts by commenting with your tips + questions below.
Much love xx
image credit: Silvestri Mateo, Unsplash