WTF is mindfulness, and do I really need it?
It’s a word you probably have had enough of by now; especially if you feel like you don’t have the time or the ‘energy’ to dedicate to this seemingly new ‘pop-culture’ practice. However, before you switch off because you think you’ve heard it all before…indulge me for just a moment while I explain what mindfulness is to me, how it really can have a positive effect on all areas of your life, and how you can incorporate it into your day-to-day routine with very little change.
So WTF is mindfulness anyway? You might have already heard the much-accepted definition of mindfulness; the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something. Right…ermm…so what does that actually mean in real life?
Awareness. You know you’re alive right now, of course, but are you aware of the sensation of being alive? Are you conscious of the feeling of the air on your skin, or how it feels to breathe in and out?
You’re aware that you’re reading this, but are you tuned in to the way your eyes are moving across the screen, the seat that you’re sat on or the sounds around you? Instead are you skimming quickly, thumb or finger scrolling automatically?
For me, mindfulness is the difference between knowing I am eating, and actually noticing the taste and texture of the food, acknowledging how it feels to be full and satisfied. It’s the difference between knowing I’m in the shower, and actually feeling the water on my skin, the smell of my shampoo, the sound the water makes as it hits the bottom of the tub. It’s about not just knowing that I’m on the bus, but feeling how it feels to be standing or seated on the bus, the weight of my feet on the floor, the heat of the sun on my face through the window, the sound of the engine, the vibration or rocking side-to-side as it turns a corner.
Most importantly it’s about being aware of all these things, but not feeling annoyed, or upset, or stressed by these sensations, just acknowledging them, passively. OK so you get the picture; it’s about being tuned in to what is happening right now, acknowledging sensations, feelings and thoughts which arise from whatever activity you are in engaged in.
But I don’t have time to switch off and just focus on my sandwich! I need to be checking my emails/writing a report/responding to a whatsapp/checking Facebook/preparing for a meeting/[insert your activity here]. I get it, I really do, and what leads perfectly into my first benefit of mindfulness.
How distracted do you feel now? Are you reading this post really quickly because you have something else you need to be doing? Or are you reading this post because you got distracted doing something else? Are you procrastinating right now?
The human mind is very good at distraction. It always has been, even before the invention of smartphones, Trump memes and cat videos. The mind doesn’t get distracted because there are so many other things for it to think about, it gets distracted because it is uncomfortable with the task in hand.
It is often said that yoga can teach you to become comfortable with discomfort; so much so that eventually the discomfort disappears. Just as yoga can do this with the body, mindfulness can do the same for the mind. By training the brain to zone-in on the task in hand (from simply eating a sandwich, to writing an essay or completing a spreadsheet) and noticing how it feels to do that thing, you are training it to be less distracted. Productivity = an undistracted mind, therefore mindfulness practice = productivity and efficiency, freeing you up more time to watch cat videos, or do something else which makes you happy.
Stress manifests itself in different ways. In my personal experience, one of the key manifestations of stress is the feeling of being overwhelmed; of having too many things to think about and not being able to focus on any of them. For this feeling see above.
An arguably more alarming feeling of stress comes in a moment of heightened anxiety; when you just can’t cope with whatever is happening at that time, perhaps you have a panic attack, or start to cry, or feel that you need to just run to the toilets at work and hide.
A regular mindfulness practice can prepare us for situations like this, so that when they do arise we know how to deal with them properly. Practising mindfulness helps you to recognise how many crazy thoughts you have in your brain on any given day, acknowledge their existence, and not get caught up in their story, or their ‘meaning’.
For example, let’s imagine you have a really bizarre, obscure dream. You wake up remembering it clearly, what do you do? Do you start reading into this dream; what it means and if you should make decisions and changes in your life based on this dream? Do you berate yourself for having such weird thoughts and make yourself feel guilty for having this dream? Maybe, for some of you, you do. But most likely you’ll just think to yourself ‘well, that was a weird dream’ and get out of bed and carry on your day.
Mindfulness helps us to treat our waking thoughts the same way as we treat our dreaming thoughts; as weird, usually unexplainable reactions to a weird, and unexplainable experience of the world. Then we move on, and don’t get caught up in the why, the how, or the ‘I’m such an idiot’ dialogue which can often begin when we think this way. The more we acknowledge our thoughts non-judgementally and with detachment, the more we are preparing ourselves for those ‘panic’ moments, so when they come, we can practice that same detachment and easily calm ourselves down when the mind starts to spin out.
Sounds good, right? It is. But how do you actually find the time to practice mindfulness? Once you start to train your brain to be mindful, the practice will start to be automatic, but at the beginning practicing mindfulness can sometimes seem like just one extra thing on a very long to-do list. However, if you ask me, it doesn’t have to be.
I have started practicing mindfulness while going about my normal day. At the beginning I found this most easy when I was waiting for something. Waiting for the bus or train, waiting in line at the bank/post office/supermarket…wherever I was stood or sat with nothing else to do, I started to tune into my breathing. Breathing in and out through the nose, smoothly and evenly as possible, I just started to focus on just that. I did this for as long as I could before I got distracted/noticed I got distracted and then I started to focus on my surroundings; noticing the people around me, observing them non-judgementally, noticing the feeling in my body of standing/sitting, the point of contact between my feet and the floor, any sounds or smells. I tried to tune into them, truly experience them with all the senses.
This is mindfulness. Training your body and mind to experience just what is happening at this current point in time. Not to think about the past or plan for the future, but to just be, right now. It’s really very simple.
Often people think of mindfulness as being the practice of ‘switching off’, of ‘detoxing’ from technology and the world we live in and tuning into the spiritual mind. To me, this isn’t mindfulness. We live in a tech-focussed world, and that’s a fact of life. Modern mindfulness is not about removing ourselves from that world, it’s about acknowledging that world and tuning in to the experience of living in it, rather than allowing that world to sweep us away.
You can apply this technique to other parts of your life; as I mentioned before, while eating, having a shower, sitting on the bus or train…the list goes on. The point is to not think too hard about it, don’t give up if you find it hard to focus at the beginning, just notice when you get distracted and try again. The more you practice the easier it will be. Observe how you feel after a few minutes of focus on one thing (your breath, your feet walking, the sounds of the bus engine) and be OK with whatever that feeling is. Before long you’ll notice how much easier it gets, how automatic it becomes in situations when you would usually be frantically running through your to-do list and getting stressed out about it.
Ultimately, mindfulness allows us to live our lives rather than let them pass by while we’re making plans for other things. It helps us to take pleasure in the smaller, simpler things in life, like the smell of the air on a sunny morning, or the way we feel lighter and brighter after spending time with our loved ones, and surely that can never be a bad thing?
For those of you who want to learn more about how to be mindful in our modern world, I recommend this book. Download it as an audio book and you can listen on your commute!