Confession: I’m not really a fan of trends. One thing I do remember distinctly though was I was excited for the time that white trousers were ‘in’ so I could wear out my favourite pair of white shorts.. also my sigh of relief when leggings became a thing (I can’t be the only one who finds jeans soo uncomfortable)… In general though I tend run away from bandwagons instead of jumping on them. So when books about mindfulness filled the shelves in the last decade I shrugged and walked on.
Having only heard a few brief mentions of mindfulness, my idea of it was that it involved somehow becoming more aware of oneself – specifically one’s emotions. “I don’t need that” I said to myself. I think about humanity and emotional experience a lot – being emotionally attuned is a skill that the universe balanced out by my ability to misplace things, walk into lamp posts.. But understanding the sphere of human mind was something I was comfortable with – so why would I need mindfulness?
Developing your intrapersonal and interpersonal understanding is a great skill but mindfulness goes beyond that. It takes you away from the thinking mind that is often buzzing with opinions and ideas about the past and future and brings you back into the present: What am I experiencing with sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch? How does my body feel? I accept this moment without judgement. I feel my stress, my anger, my sadness and know it’s ok to feel these things. I know it will pass, I don’t need to change how I feel in this moment. Breathe in, breathe out, let it be.
Acceptance of the moment is really the centre of mindfulness. Some therapies look to discover why we feel a certain way and that can be useful for some people. However sometimes the best thing to do instead of ruminating on a situation that exists only in the past is to bring our awareness back into the present – that’s mindfulness. It is a state natural to animals and babies but that we tend to lose the older, busier and ‘cleverer’ we get. Mindfulness is just about being aware of the now and observing without judgement. A baby is mindful when it gazes transfixed at a mobile, taking in all the shapes and colours and sounds. A sheep is mindful chewing its cud, its thoughts not ruminating on bills or last week’s argument with the in-laws or those perfect shoes you just have to buy… Mindfulness is focusing on what’s here and now and letting and thoughts of the past or future float by like the clouds.
So much of our life is based on the untrue stories we tell ourselves – depression about the past, anxiety about the future. Thoughts like ‘I’m never going to achieve my dream’ ‘My girlfriend can do better than me’ ‘I was terrible at that work presentation yesterday…’ aren’t realities, they are stories we become attached to in order to form an identity. We have so many unhelpful ‘garbage thoughts’ that hold us back from enjoying the here and now and mindfulness can help us recognise the stories we tell ourselves are not the truth we have been telling ourself they are.
Mindfulness isn’t about suppressing these garbage thoughts but simply being aware of them, being kind to yourself. Imagine you are thinking this cascade of thoughts:
I felt so nervous speaking to him today, I kept stuttering –>
He must think I’m an idiot –>
He’s probably going to laugh at me with all his friends –>
I’m an embarrassment –>
I shouldn’t even try to make friends, it’s pointless…
To be mindful would be to stop adding to the story by just being aware and saying to ourself ‘I recognise this is the story I’ve been telling myself.’ Mindfulness opens up the doors for us to explore other ways of experiencing our alternative reality rather than clutching on to an impression we believe is the truth and hurting ourself in the process. When we are truly in the present, focusing on the sensations of here and now, there is no room for our minds to ruminate or worry because those are grounded in thoughts that live in the past and future.
Mindfulness has been shown to help with a range of difficulties from managing chronic pain to depression and anxiety. But whether we have a medical concern or not we can all benefit!
Mindfulness meditation has been shown to affect how the brain works and even its structure. People undertaking mindfulness training have shown increased activity in the area of the brain associated with positive emotion – the pre-frontal cortex – which is generally less active in people who are depressed.
Many studies have shown changes in brain wave activity during meditation and researchers have found that areas of the brain linked to emotional regulation are larger in people who have meditated regularly for five years or more.
Although more well known forms like transcendental meditation are commonly associated with mindfulness, one does not have to meditate to practice mindfulness in everyday life. Indeed, more regular mindfulness practices rather than one killer meditation marathon may be more beneficial to catching yourself in the middle of a ‘garbage’ thought and freeing yourself from its power to impact your life negatively.
Do you practice mindfulness? Maybe you want to start incorporating some mindful techniques but meditation doesn’t sound like your thing? In my next post I will share the ways that I personally cultivate a more mindful life